The Subtleties of Frank Kermode

Michael Wood

Frank Kermode is too multifarious a writer to have anything as dogged as a theme for his critical work; too sane and stealthy to boast of anything as limiting as an obsession. But there are persistences, continuities, as he calls them in the title of one of his books. There is an interest in difficulty, for example, and especially the difficulty of understanding – either oneself or others. This interest is not discouraging, or downhearted. On the contrary. But it never turns difficulty into ease – a mildly surprising conclusion, given the grace and fluency of Kermode’s style.

He is interested, of course, in the difficulty of understanding what is manifestly difficult: some texts, propositions, events, people. It often seems as if there is nothing to which he can’t usefully bring his considerable learning and perhaps even more considerable curiosity. But his deeper and more continuous project involves a more direct (although double) question. Why do we find it so hard to understand apparently simple things, and why are our acts of understanding themselves often so hard to understand?

The notion of understanding occurs in key places in the first and the last but one of the essays in Bury Place Papers, and could be said to run through all of them.[*] In the first, ‘Apocalypse Now and Then’, Kermode comments on the fact that those who believe literally in signs of the end of the world often ‘find it hard to understand why others reject them’, while ‘those who reject them find it hard to do so without expressions of disgust or accusations of fraud.’ ‘There seems to have been no intent to deceive,’ he says. But of course there was (there almost always is) a failure to imagine the possibility of deception, and an even stronger failure to believe in the lack of a deceiving intent. Kermode’s question is in part historical: how could these failures happen and keep happening? But it is more largely interpretative: how are we to understand them when they do happen? It isn’t a matter of building bridges (especially when the rivers and the people are gone) or of finding some absent middle ground; it is a matter of getting what people don’t seem to get, and why they don’t get it.

Similarly, in the later essay, looking at A.E. Housman’s apparently odd commitment to the enduring study of ‘a long, dull and difficult first-century astronomical-astrological poem by Manilius’ rather than any of the livelier classical treasures, Kermode asks ‘how we should understand this life-absorbing passion’. And immediately provides, as if by chance, a brilliant answer in the prolongation of the question itself: ‘this life-absorbing passion for a craft that required not only a virtually unparalleled grasp of ancient languages and cultures but the possession of the exquisite divinatory intelligence required to make proper use of that knowledge’. Nice work if you can do it, as Cole Porter didn’t quite say.

Kermode is not Housman and not a diviner. But he does devote much exquisite intelligence to matters of divination – even and especially of secular affairs. He would like to believe we could do without such obliquities. He is touched and amused by the fact that Housman appears to have thought that both laughing and crying were legitimate critical responses to poetry. He is drawn to the thought of a shared, unpuzzling world even if he sees that world as a now fragmented and perhaps never really tenable historical fantasy. Writing of Tony Tanner’s intricate study of adultery in the novel (‘there is hardly a page that lacks some original and enriching perception’), he worries about whether critical works like this ‘will ever make much contribution to the common wisdom’. ‘We may have here an avant-garde that will never be joined by the main army – happy enough behind the lines and content with its familiar rations.’ Kermode is writing these words in 1980, and reflecting not only on Tanner but more generally on the ‘new transgressive criticism’ produced by Geoffrey Hartmann, J. Hillis Miller, Edward Said and others, not to mention any of their French influences and inspirations. These were relatively early days in the Theory Wars, and Kermode was splitting his vote in a way that was both subtle and rare. He liked transgressions but rather wished that the avant-garde would wait and see if the main army showed any sign of catching up, or at least that the avant-garde would talk the main army’s language now and then. But he knew what to expect from familiar intellectual rations, and we can hear the sceptical, more or less kindly quotation marks slipping into place around the words ‘common wisdom’, or at least around the word ‘wisdom’. Kermode never wrote anything the main army couldn’t understand; but nor did he write anything the main army could have managed on its own.

The discreet ambiguity in the title of Kermode’s book The Sense of an Ending offers a neat emblem of this practice. We could have a sense of an ending when everything is just continuing; and we could make sense or fail to make sense of a given ending at any time. What we can’t have is the unsensed thing, the ending an sich, the final occasion that permits and requires no understanding. This is part of what Wittgenstein meant when he said death is not an event in life. He didn’t mean we don’t die or that we can’t experience the death of others as a grievous event. He meant that our own death is beyond our life, just off the edge of it. Our last moment is not death but dying.

All of the essays first appeared in the LRB, their arrangement is chronological and their dates run from 1979 to 2007. It’s a sobering thought that these pieces represent only a portion of what Kermode has written for this journal alone, and we haven’t even started to think about the articles he published elsewhere, or his scholarly books, lectures and essays. Defending Paul de Man’s rather slim academic publishing record – his first book, Blindness and Insight, appeared when he was 51 – Kermode says that in view of the density and strangeness of the work, and of its author’s fame: ‘It would take a very tough dean to say de Man had under-produced.’ There are such deans, however, and I like to think of the same tough fellow entertaining a proposal to hire Frank Kermode under several different pseudonyms. He would be able to sack half a department and still look good.

So it is a sort of accident, assisted by taste and well-judged authorial irony, that the first essay in this book concerns visions of the apocalypse while the last considers old age. Not too far into its pages we encounter an essay on the consciousness of death in the West, as imagined and reconstructed by Philippe Ariès. Have we come upon a theme after all? Not quite. But we have found a region where our understanding is not only severely tested but put in its place. Death is like painting in this respect. It does ‘the real talking’, as Kermode says of the work of Howard Hodgkin, in its own tongue. We don’t have to translate its language, we don’t have to talk for or about death, and we don’t have to write criticism of visual art or anything else. But we still need, in Kermode’s fine words about paintings, ‘to have our attention directed to them, our possible blindnesses cleaned, our sensitivity to their weathers refined’. And it may be impossible to keep quiet about death, if only because we need to make a show of being prepared for its weather. Expressing scepticism about Ariès’s claim that death didn’t really trouble the medieval imagination because it was so completely part of an ordered worldview, Kermode suggests that anyone who knows how to be happy knows how to worry about dying, or about the death of others. ‘Where there is an imagination of happiness,’ Kermode writes, ‘death is a scandal.’ And ‘a scandal is, literally, a stumbling block or trap; when there is no way round it, the only thing to do is to accommodate and explain it.’ I have no idea whether Kermode is right about the Middle Ages, but we have to admire the sympathetic intuition which can find a scandal when there is not even supposed to be a surprise. Happiness in this view – no, the imagination of happiness – has invented the shock of death and driven us to explanation.

But we are not going to find Kermode offering himself as an expert on death – or indeed on anything else except certain aspects of Renaissance literature. ‘This is not, as they say, my field,’ he writes in the preface to Romantic Image, his wonderful book on Yeats and modernism. We might think that, over time, his field has become everything. This is a man who has written just as convincingly on Don DeLillo as on John Donne, on Kazuo Ishiguro as on Joachim of Flora. But then this is one way of thinking of his special gifts as a critic. Nothing is a ‘field’ for him, there are no fences or trees in the way. The main army can camp anywhere; the avant-garde can camp anywhere else.

Kermode is not even going to pretend to be an expert on age, even though he had just turned 88 when the last piece in this volume – his review of Helen Small’s The Long Life – appeared in the LRB. This is the highpoint of the book, not because it ends anything or even gives us the sense of an ending, but because it is so full of the grace of Kermode’s attention to the process of understanding. Small’s remarkable study concerns ‘old age in Western philosophy and literature’ but of course most of her informants are just guessing. Kermode tells us, as Small does herself, that she is only 42; and more strikingly that Eliot and Larkin were, respectively, 54 and 51 when they wrote their seemingly definitive versions of last scenes:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment …

And:

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning?

‘Few of Small’s witnesses are doing real old-age philosophy,’ Kermode says with a touch of mild malice. ‘Those who have had actual experience of old age are likely to be dead or very tired or just reluctant to discuss the matter with clever young interlocutors.’ ‘Have had’ is quite marvellous, and Kermode acknowledges without irony that ‘much of the best thinking on this subject comes from philosophically sophisticated but honourably ignorant juniors.’ There was Plato, for instance; and Eliot and Larkin, who unlike Helen Small, were not asking but projecting.

Kermode is writing from experience, of course, but not immediately about his experience, and what he now has to say about final prospects is not very different from what he said long ago about endings. ‘The last years may not offer anything that could be called “completion”.’ Just so: that is why we have to invent terminal fictions that look as if they have a sense. These late years ‘may contain “projects” with posthumous implications … or they may be spent in idleness or even wickedness, having few virtuous connections with the rest of the life in question’. ‘Death may be, is likely to be, a little too early or a little too late.’ ‘Even wickedness’ is a genuinely promising idea; and the guess at the likelihood of death’s being only a little too early or too late is wonderfully tantalising. Death is not an event in life, but it has real promise as an author of modernist short stories. If we know the date of these sentences they can’t be timeless, but they are certainly ageless, written by a man whose prose will never drool or settle for mere cold friction. This is the virtue of the project of understanding, as distinct from just living or narrating.

Kermode is also interested in the question of age in another sense: the age we live in. He is a little too young to belong to the generation described in Noël Annan’s Our Age, a ‘large attractive book’, which he views sympathetically but with precise and characteristic reservations. The group in question comprises ‘anyone who came of age and went to the university in the 30 years between 1919 … and 1949’ – a fairly restricted group, even if more than two universities were really in question. Kermode invites us to pause over the elaborate social coding of Annan’s description of David Eccles as ‘a Wykehamist with the manner (so Etonians said) of a Harrovian’ – but also over the blunter evocation of Richard Hoggart as ‘the grammar school extramural lecturer’. Our Age had its traditions, ‘was a gentleman’, as Kermode says, and pretty much ran the whole show, ‘being powerful yet negligent’. Our Age also turned out to be rather keener on Margaret Thatcher than one might have thought. Yet in spite of many searching criticisms, open and implied, of this imperious English group, Kermode is quietly sensitive to what we might call ruling class pathos, the suggestion that these urbane and civilised people who ‘had a pretty good time during the half-century or so when our world was in their charge’ nevertheless ran the place into moral ruin just as surely as their vulgar and vulpine successors kept it there.

A slightly unlikely but highly qualified member of Our (or Their) Age was William Empson, who went up to Cambridge in 1925 and down again in disgrace in 1929. There are three essays on Empson in this book, and he and his teacher I.A. Richards are in one sense its heroes, variable and (in Empson’s case) not always admirable advocates of what matters in literary study. Richards agreed with Eliot that maintaining ‘a high degree of culture’ was hard work but added: ‘I do not see how this greatest of human efforts is to be made wholeheartedly unless the salvation we are seeking is for all.’ Kermode comments, resisting and supporting the idea that Richards, for all his scientific interests, had a magical view of the work of words, that ‘it is hard to conceive of a nobler magic’ than the project of a salvation which is not just for us, ‘and Richards never abjured it.’

Empson of course spent much of his later life attacking the very idea of salvation as long as it had a Christian tinge, but he had his interest in nobler magic too, and his idea of honour, eloquently drawn out by Kermode, is a matter of moral style rather than mere morality. Empson despised Pascal’s famous wager (we might as well bet on the existence of God since we shall win if there is a God and lose nothing if there isn’t) because he thought it made one who accepted it ‘the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie … Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of honour or of the public good.’ This is stirring stuff, and the public good is a surprising note. Kermode says: ‘It does warm the heart to hear [Pascal’s] line of argument dismissed as simply dishonourable.’ The trouble with Empson is that he could dismiss other arguments for quite different, reckless or obsessive reasons. In Kermode’s view, or views, he is ‘a great critic’, a man of ‘passionate and polemical mind’, author of more than one of ‘the texts that taught a generation to read well and feel good about it’, ‘generous-minded, affectionate, a very likeable man’; but also a person who needs enemies not so that he can argue with them but so that he can abuse them. He was large-spirited, never petty, but he did like sweeping whole territories of discussion off the table.

Honour itself is not a patient word, and Empson also liked to talk of self-respect, as in the following brilliant passage from Seven Types of Ambiguity:

people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind.

Whenever I think of this sentence, which is often, I picture what is lingering in our minds as the stories we tell ourselves about what we do – the various stories we tell to meet our various needs – but I tend to drop the idea of self-respect, clearly central to Empson’s sense of the matter. Isn’t there something a little too self-regarding about self-respect, as there is about honour? I could, if I set my mind to it, preserve my self-respect while being completely wrong, even by being completely wrong, as Empson often did. But this is too shallow and easy a thought. Beyond the hint of excessive self-regard is the intimation of a larger fidelity to what might matter to anyone, and if I happen to think kindness or decency or courage or the avoidance of the unforgivable are what are likely to linger in most minds trying to tell themselves an acceptable story, we still could see all of these attributes as just roads to self-respect, paths to the place where neither honour nor the public good is betrayed. This is where Kermode situates both Empson and Richards, and of his own literary relations with the former he says that ‘it seemed necessary to disagree with him and to take the consequences; but also to agree always that he was incomparable.’ I think Kermode would also accept Empson’s claim that ‘it does not even satisfy the understanding to stop living in order to understand,’ although he might like to delete the word ‘even’. But then neither Kermode nor Empson believes that any form of satisfaction requires us to stop understanding in order to live.

When Kermode writes of the imagination of happiness, he is adapting a phrase from Henry James; and when he writes, in relation to the work of Ishiguro, of the imagination of disaster, he is quoting the phrase he previously adapted. Happiness, as we have seen, or the very thought of it, involves disaster, since it is so soon overtaken by the scandal of death. For Ishiguro, Kermode says, ‘it seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life’ – as if the scandal of death had its special delegates or representatives for particular people. Kermode is, I think, a little harsh on the novelist’s Never Let Me Go, but writes with extraordinary subtlety and immediacy about The Unconsoled. ‘I have not,’ he says at the end of six amazing paragraphs, ‘succeeded in explaining that this is a wonderful book.’ Well, no, he hasn’t explained. But he has done something better. He has made us see and feel the wonder of the thing, and characteristically, what we see has to do with making sense.

I see this book as a sort of super-novel in which a failed novelist, urgently aware of his responsibilities yet lost, failing, is betrayed by the trivialities that interfere with his overwhelming need to remake the world, in this case by the treacherous means of writing a novel.

The echo of ‘failed’ and ‘failing’ points to something very important in Kermode’s writing more generally. He can be as brilliant as Empson – think of the bravura passages on Macbeth in The Sense of an Ending – but he is never strident, because the thought of failure, or at least the imagination of what happens to happiness, is never far from his prose. It’s not that everything ends in failure, only that the chance of failure stalks every human venture, and a lively consciousness of this chance discourages triumphalism of all kinds, even negative.

Citing a famous proposition by Yeats (‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work’) Kermode says of Hemingway that ‘he wanted perfection of the life as well as of the work but accepted the Romantic myth that you can’t have both (the truth being that you can’t have either).’ Poor old Ernest: wrong twice. Kermode’s voice here – and elsewhere – is a little like that of Auden’s when he revises a poetic opinion in conversation. Of his lovely line ‘We must love one another or die,’ Auden later gruffly said it wasn’t true, because we die anyway. But Kermode isn’t gruff. I used to think some of his grander pronouncements – ‘one may be sure of one thing, and that is disappointment’ – were not only too grand but too gloomy. This particular remark is about the odds of success in interpretation, but Kermode goes on to generalise, or at least to speculate sadly: ‘It has sometimes been thought, and in my opinion rightly, that the world is also like that; or that we are like that in respect of the world.’ Even so, in context, and backed up by Empson’s delicate sense of ‘the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy’, such a remark now seems to me beautifully shaded, a little mournful but far from hopeless. Disappointment is one thing we can be sure of. Not all the time, and it isn’t the only thing we can be sure of; but it isn’t going to go away. We need to read Kermode, even more so than we do Empson, for what he is not saying as well as for what is on the page.

I think of the character in Henry James who is said to possess ‘an irony without bitterness and that came … from … having so much imagination’. Writing about the reports Winnicott’s biographers make of their subject’s supposed stinginess, Kermode imagines, with a splendid faintness of apology, a subtle variant on what is already a fairly subtle scene:

It would be shallow to assume, as a non-psychoanalyst writing about a non-psychoanalyst might, that it wasn’t simply that he disliked paying bills, a reluctance shared by a great many ordinary people, but that he only wanted it to seem as if he did, which is more complicated and might lead to more gratifying interpretations.

If this is shallow, save us from the deep. James’s character, or indeed James, couldn’t have done better. This sentence allows both for the expertise and peculiarity of professionals, expresses some scepticism about their actual difference from anyone else, and divines a sinuous performance where it might seem as if there was only a symptom or a vice. Psychoanalysts (and ‘ordinary people’) read signs; literary critics read the staging of signs. Plenty of irony, no bitterness, and a great deal of quiet imagination.

This is where we should return to some of the other words I see as haunting Kermode’s work, his critical heraldry, as it were: nobility, magic, honour, happiness, scandal. All of them can be found in some kinds of literature and in some kinds of that other (modest) literature which is writing about literature. But this preoccupation, a preoccupation with this particular set of emblems in this conjunction, can be found in the work of only one writer. The noble magic of that work does him honour; and we find happiness in the way he matches his wits with scandal.

[*] Bury Place Papers: Essays from the ‘London Review of Books’ by Frank Kermode (LRB, 272 pp., £14.99, November, 978 1 873092 04 0). A version of this essay appears as the introduction to the collection.