Obituary: Sir Frank Kermode
Frank Kermode, literary critic. Born: 29 November, 1919, in Douglas, Isle of Man. Died: 17 August, 2010, in Cambridge, aged 90.
Frank Kermode rose from humble origins to become a respected and influential critic.
The author or editor of more than 50 books published over five decades, he was probably best known for his studies of Shakespeare. But his range was wide, reaching from Beowulf to Philip Roth, from Homer to Ian McEwan, from the Bible to Don DeLillo. Along the way he devoted individual volumes to John Donne, Wallace Stevens and DH Lawrence. Unrelentingly productive, he published Concerning EM Forster just last December.
His collections of literary criticism and lectures - among them The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, The Genesis of Secrecy and The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction - became standard university texts.
Kermode also wrote for the general book-reading audience, chiefly in The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, and his judgments were typically measured but pointed, whether reviewing Philip Roth, John Updike or Zadie Smith.
Despite the variety of his work, he almost invariably tied what he wrote to a recurring central concern of his: what the literary critic Lawrence S Rainey described as "the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story".
For instance, in his best-known book, The Sense of an Ending, Kermode analysed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe. Between the tick and the tock of the clock, as he put it, we want a connection as well as the suggestion of an arrow shooting eschatologically toward some final judgment.
Yet, as he pointed out in The Genesis of Secrecy, narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation, like the Man in the Mackintosh who keeps showing up in Joyce's Ulysses or the young man who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane in the Gospel according to Mark.
Kermode's critics sometimes faulted him for a deliberately difficult style and what one called "intellectual dandyism." Although in The Art of Telling Kermode suggested that innovative French approaches to literary criticism like structuralism and deconstructionism might eventually find at least some place in the mainstream, he took to task some of the more radical attempts to subvert traditional texts through gender or racial perspectives.
In An Appetite for Poetry he reaffirmed his belief in the value of reading literary classics as a way of gauging both ideals of permanence and the forces of change.
The view of him as uppermost an establishmentarian was only reinforced in 1974, when he attained what is considered the pre-eminent post in English literary criticism: the King Edward VII chair of English literature at King's College, Cambridge University, an appointment made by the crown at the suggestion of the prime minister. In 1991 he was knighted.
John Frank Kermode was the only son of John Pritchard Kermode, a storeroom keeper, and the former Doris Kennedy, a farm girl who had been a waitress and who had given her son his unwanted "habit of deference" and had inspired his love of words, as he wrote in his memoir Not Entitled.
He transcended his unpromising background beyond all expectations, winning scholarships to the local secondary school and to Liverpool University, from which he graduated in 1940. He learned to read Greek and Latin as well as French, Italian and German, and he went on to become a professor of Renaissance and modern English literature.
Yet as a child he was a disappointment to his father, "being fat, plain, shortsighted, clumsy, idle, dirty", as he wrote in Not Entitled, "and very unlikely to add to the family store of sporting cups and medals".
He devoted a third of that book to the six years he spent in the Royal Navy, much of it in Iceland, rising to the rank of lieutenant. But he chose not to write about his two marriages, the first to Maureen Eccles, from 1947 to 1970, the second to Anita Van Vactor; or his two children, Mark and Deborah, both of whom survive him. Nor did he mention his knighthood.
He wrote modestly, perhaps ruefully, of his career prospects, concluding that his incapacity "at least to be able to surmise how very complicated things are done" - or "even simple ones" - prevented him from becoming a playwright or novelist.
"It was also emerging that my poetry wasn't up to much," he added, "so there was nothing left for me except to become a critic, preferably with a paying job in a university."
That career took him to a series of teaching posts in English and American universities and eventually to his appointment in 1967 as Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London, where he was credited with helping to introduce contemporary French critical theory to Britain.
Before taking that post, he also served as co-editor of the prestigious magazine Encounter but he resigned in 1966 on learning that the magazine, sponsored by the Congress of Cultural Freedom, had received money from the Central Intelligence Agency.
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