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Confessions of a Literary Man

Not Entitled: A Memoir

by Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 263 pp., $23.00

In my opinion, and that of many others, Frank Kermode is the finest English critic of his generation. There is a semantic flaw in that statement, since Kermode was born and brought up on the Isle of Man, a small, mountainous island moored in the choppy Irish Sea halfway between Liverpool and Belfast; and Man is not a part of England, or indeed of the United Kingdom, but a British dependency, with its own parliament, laws, and language (now almost extinct). However, to call Kermode the finest Manx critic of his generation would be a paltry compliment, since not many of its population of approximately 70,000 are professionally engaged in literary criticism; and in any case he has made his distinguished career as a teacher and scholar in the English departments of English universities.

Encountered in person, either socially or on the lecture podium, there is nothing in his speech, appearance, or manners to suggest that he is anything other than a middle-class Englishman, while his prose style has an elegant, urbane fluency, peppered with foreign words and learned allusions, that suggests an almost patrician upbringing in which Oxbridge and one of England’s élite public schools must have played their part. Nothing could be further from the truth. Frank Kermode’s childhood and youth were not only provincial but, in a now archaic usage, “humble.” His father was a storeman in a company that supplied the steamers plying between Liverpool and Douglas; his mother had been at different times a farm girl and a waitress. The family, in which Kermode was for many years the only child, was poor and lived first in a tenement, then in a rented council house “designed by somebody who had a very low opinion of the needs and deserts of the lower classes.”

The opportunities and expectations of those brought up in such circumstances in the 1920s (Kermode was born in 1919) were extremely limited. Frank Kermode spectacularly transcended them by virtue of his intelligence and a literary and linguistic aptitude perhaps inherited from his mother, which earned him scholarships to the local high school and, in due course, to Liverpool University, where he graduated in 1940. After six years’ war service in the Royal Navy, he returned to Liverpool to do graduate work, mainly because he had a small unclaimed grant waiting for him there and couldn’t find or think of anything better to do. After a few abortive attempts to set up as a playwright and poet, he took a teaching post at the University of Newcastle, which proved to be the first step in a brilliant career.

Its general trajectory was not exceptional. In class-conscious Britain, academia, especially in the period of expansion after World War II, was more meritocratic, more hospitable to bright cadets from lower-class backgrounds, than other professions, such as law, diplomacy, or the administrative grade of the civil service. But to become a university teacher is inevitably to become middle-class (if one is not already)—to grow out of, or away from, the subculture in which one grew up, to learn a different style of living, speaking, behaving. In some of Frank Kermode’s peers the traces of their provincial and lower-class origins—Raymond Williams, for instance, was the son of a railwayman in the Welsh border country, Richard Hoggart an orphan from the back-to-back terraced streets of Leeds—were never entirely effaced in their speech and writing. But in Frank Kermode’s case the required adaptation was particularly challenging and his self-transformation particularly complete. He gives a vivid account of his introduction to the middle-class home of his fellow student (and later colleague) Peter Ure:

At dinner I sat listening to a continuous stream of well-formed sentences about important topics. I had never before eaten asparagus, and wouldn’t have guessed that in England it is finger food; and when strawberries appeared I refused sugar, not because (at that time) I liked them without, but because after the strain of the asparagus I had simply run out of courage and did not trust myself with the shaker.

The reference to “England,” as if to a foreign country, is telling. The Isle of Man, at least as it was in Kermode’s childhood and youth, was not merely provincial; it was in many respects culturally and socially separate from and indifferent to the mainland. When Kermode returned there occasionally in adult life, acquaintances he met on the street expressed surprise that he was “still a student,” since that was the only reason they could imagine for his long absences.

As Kermode himself comments, “It is not surprising that some of us Manx who have made our lives in England have had to settle for a permanent condition of mild alienation.” To this he partly attributes his professional restlessness (he held posts in six English universities, quite apart from numerous visiting appointments in America), his “failures or half-failures” as husband and parent, and his tendency to place a rather naive trust in other people, and then to overreact when disillusioned, with some reckless and impulsive action quite out of his normally mild character. This is a very honest, sometimes painfully honest, autobiography, without a trace of vanity or pomposity in it. “I am not the sort of person I should choose to know if I had any choice in the matter,” he bleakly remarks at one point. It is also elegiac in mood. Kermode, now in his mid-seventies, is increasingly conscious of mortality, likening himself to Prospero, who promised that in retirement his every third thought should be of death. But this is a far from gloomy book—on the contrary, it is full of dry humor and occasional high comedy, especially in the section dealing with Kermode’s war service.

Although it is divided into six chapters, the narrative falls into three distinct movements: childhood and adolescence; university education and naval service; the academic career. The young Kermode had his Wordsworthian moments—notably an epiphany experienced while on an errand one autumn evening, between the ironmonger’s shop and the Congregational chapel. “The faint smudged pink of the sky above the church complied with the noises of the street and the tread of unilluminated persons, who had no notion of the plenitude of which they were part.” Elated by his sudden apprehension of creation and his own place in it, the young boy put a question to God: “Did other persons, when they ate oranges, experience the taste I had of orange?” No answer was forthcoming, but merely to pose the question was evidence of an unusually enquiring mind.

Precocity can, however, be a liability. Kermode won his scholarship to high school a year earlier than usual and was therefore always by far the youngest boy in his class. Fat, bespectacled, and without physical grace or dexterity (his father called him a phynodderee, the charming Manx word for a clumsy fairy), he was unmercifully bullied at school and soon lost the will or ability to learn. Ashamed to let his parents see how badly he had performed, he falsified a school report—a traumatic episode which he still finds painful to recall and record. The boy, in short, was deeply unhappy, and suffered something like a nervous breakdown. He recovered, fortunately, in time to win his scholarship to Liverpool, but the misery of those pubescent years perhaps sowed the seeds of anxiety and self-doubt in later life. Even at the height of his professional fame Kermode always felt himself to be an outsider, a métèque, almost an imposter. “Looking the part while not being quite equal to it seems to be something I do rather well.”

The immediate effect of leaving home and going to university in England was, however, a sense of liberation and expanding horizons in the experience of literature, music, sex. He counts his final undergraduate year, 1939–1940, as “probably the most exhilarating year of my life,” even though it was overshadowed by the approach and outbreak of war. Kermode, like many progressive young people of that period, had been a pacifist, but cancelled his registration as a conscientious objector after the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. “Somehow the Germans didn’t sound as if they would be deterred by the methods advocated by Bertrand Russell or even Gandhi.” But he writes with genuine admiration and affection of his friend and mentor, Peter Ure, who served two prison sentences for his pacifist principles before accepting non-combatant work “of national importance.”

Kermode, who had worked on the Liverpool-Isle of Man steamers in his vacations, volunteered for the Navy, and became, in due course, a lieutenant. His account of his service is appropriately entitled “My Mad Captains” and reads, for the most part, like the result of a fruitful collaboration between Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh. His first ship was the Sierra, a slow, unlovely merchantman hastily converted for naval duties, and his first captain was Stonegate, a decorated but traumatized survivor of Dunkirk, whom Kermode first encountered threatening indolent dockside workers with a pistol. Kermode reported to a Lieutenant Taylor, a gloomy, pale-faced man who lived on an exclusive diet of pink gin and canned lambs’ tongues and who died two days later, probably as a consequence of this diet. Kermode stepped into his shoes as Stonegate’s secretary. “My main job was to insert a filling of intelligible prose asking for something, or offering humble compliance with some peremptory demand, into the sandwich of grandiose salutation and valedictory obeisance insisted on by their Lordships [of the Admiralty].” Before long, the deranged Stonegate blew his brains out with his pistol.

His successor, Henty, fell down a staircase and broke both his legs before Kermode could ascertain whether he was mad. The next captain, Archer, certainly was: a monster of the kind it is amusing to read about, but hell to live with. Gross of physique and appetite, cunning, venal, and utterly dedicated to the furtherance of his own interests, he enjoyed humiliating his subordinates, and never bothered even to learn the name of his lieutenant, addressing him indifferently as Cosmo, Cosmos, and Comody. Under his command the crew of the Sierra labored vainly to lay antisubmarine booms outside the Icelandic harbor of Reykjavik for nearly two years of excruciating boredom, vile weather, physical discomfort, and sexual deprivation. Once, in his cups, Archer set off on a suicidal voyage into the teeth of a force 10 gale in sub-zero temperature. “He poured himself Scotch. ‘Well, Comody,’ he said, ‘it seems we’ve fucking’ad it.’ ” Frank Kermode certainly thought so, but somehow the old tub survived. Archer obsessively hoarded food and other supplies in his cabin, to the point where it was difficult for anyone else to gain admittance, and managed to offload this contraband on the ship’s return to England without being detected, by a method Kermode still scruples to reveal.

Under a new captain, not mad for once, but a rather unpleasant martinet, the Sierra sailed to the Mediterranean as part of a convoy supplying the Allied forces in North Africa, and on this voyage Kermode first experienced enemy action. He was in a lavatory at the time, and arrived on deck a little late to see two British ships on fire, presumably torpedoed, and destroyers scattering depth charges as a solitary British Catalina plane circled the convoy. After an interval the survivors in a lifeboat rowing away from one of the burning ships inexplicably returned to board it, and almost immediately the ship exploded, blowing them to smithereens. The Catalina now proceeded, in breach of strict regulations, to fly along the line of the convoy, and since it was known that the Germans were using captured Catalinas, it was promptly shot down with the loss of all its crew, who proved in due course to be Canadian. Kermode laconically comments: “It may be interesting to note that none of the people who died in this little action need have done so.”

The Sierra docked in Algiers, where Kermode enjoyed a lively social life until, on a characteristic impulse, he chose to make an issue of some petty injustice on the part of his commander, lodged an official complaint, and was rewarded by being posted to join the crew of an aircraft carrier in the last stages of construction in Portland, Oregon. After being damaged by a mine off the east coast of England, this vessel saw some minor action in the Pacific war, and Kermode and his comrades anticipated, with some trepidation, that they would take part in the final assault on Japan. They were spared this ordeal by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “The general opinion was that it saved our lives, and we were unethically pleased about this”—a reaction which this reviewer finds entirely forgivable.

I was born in 1935, just old enough to remember what it was like to live through the Second World War as a civilian, and to acquire from comic books and movies a rather simplified and heroic idea of what it was like for combatants; later I was a reluctant conscript, doing boring and banal National Service in the peacetime army. As a young university teacher I was often struck by the thought that many of my senior colleagues in the field of English literature had seen active service in the War, yet very seldom spoke about it, and almost never referred to it in their published work. Would one have guessed, without being told, that, for example, Raymond Williams had commanded a tank in Normandy, Richard Hoggart slogged through North Africa and Italy with the artillery, Philip Brockbank piloted bombers over Germany, Graham Hough and Ian Watt were prisoners of war in the notorious camps of Siam? I thought not; yet surely to have been in such life-threatening situations would leave its mark on a man, and make him take a somewhat different, more detached, view of, say, cruces in Shakespeare’s texts, or symbolism in D.H. Lawrence, or the Intentional Fallacy, from those who had not had such experience?

Not so, according to Kermode. The experience of modern warfare is so absurd, so chaotic and random, that there is really nothing to be learned from it except that it is better to be lucky than to be unlucky—and even that is not an unmixed blessing. Kermode counted himself lucky, but nourished a vague sense of guilt, common among survivors of war, who “have somewhere in their heads the notion that they have remained alive by some slightly underhand trick or evasion.” As he observes, one might expect that those who for one reason or another had had a safe, cushy war, or had avoided it altogether, would be the ones troubled by guilt and low self-esteem:

But it doesn’t work like that, it never did; for example, those who gave up most of their twenties though contriving to hang on to their lives were afterwards given no quarter and asked to compete on equal terms with those who hadn’t. It is therefore possible for survivors to be at odds with, to feel unqualified to associate freely with, the living as well as the dead.

The last third of the book, which covers Kermode’s life from his demobilization to the present, is the most reticent and therefore perhaps the least satisfying part, though for entirely creditable reasons. He declines to say anything about his two marriages, both of which ended in divorce, while hinting that the first of them, at least, suffered from his professional restlessness and insatiable appetite for work, journalistic and editorial as well as academic. In a vivid phrase he describes himself in the early Seventies as feeling in charge of his life, “in the way drunken drivers feel in charge of their vehicles.” There were bound to be crashes, both private and professional; but he only tells us about the latter: for example, his unhappy experience as co-editor of Encounter, when he was bamboozled about the true connection of the journal with the CIA, and found himself on the sharp end of a libel suit brought by Conor Cruise O’Brien.

There are some memorable portraits of colleagues in this part of the book, notably a brief life of the brilliant, bizarre, and ultimately tragic figure of D.J. Gordon, the high camp connoisseur of Renaissance iconography who recruited Kermode to the English Department at the University of Reading in 1950 and taught him a lot about true scholarship before alcoholism took its toll. Kermode says little about his own intellectual development, the extraordinary leaps of attention and speculation that enabled him to write seminal works on topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Romanticism, Symbolism, modern poetry and fiction, narratology, and Biblical hermeneutics. Modestly, he allows the books to speak for themselves. But he does record his exposure to the new waves of literary theory, structuralist and poststructuralist, that rolled in from across the Channel and across the Atlantic in the late Sixties and Seventies and broke upon the shores of English criticism, to the dismay of most of the older inhabitants. Kermode uses another metaphor: “The new literary theory was another country in which I went to live without feeling truly at home, even when it still seemed exciting, even before it became drugged with self-regard.”

Many of us have shared the excitement, and the subsequent disillusionment. I would not dissent from Kermode’s description of the impact of theory and literary studies as “interestingly catastrophic.” Nevertheless, theory had to be confronted and worked through, not ignored; and the graduate/faculty seminars which Kermode chaired at University College for several years, to which some of the most distinguished exponents of the new ideas were invited, made a useful contribution to English intellectual life in this respect.

Kermode was probably as happy as he would ever be at UCL, but in 1973 he was offered the King Edward VII Chair of English Literature at Cambridge. He was unable to resist this prestigious title—“some miniature version of the log-cabin-to-White House myth was working in me,” he candidly admits—but the reality behind it proved deeply disappointing. Kermode found that a full professor at Cambridge has few duties but no power, and not even a secretary. The English Faculty was a rotten borough stubbornly resistant to change and reform. Kermode was frustrated and unhappy. Things came to a head in 1981 with the so-called MacCabe affair—a row about the denial of tenure to a young lecturer of radical views, which became a symbolic struggle for the soul of English studies, and entailed the washing of much dirty Cambridge linen in public, to the great diversion of the rest of the world. The forces of conservatism seemed to win, though the expelled MacCabe promptly became the youngest full professor of English in the country at another institution. Many other key players on both sides have also departed, or gone back into the paneled woodwork. The Cambridge English Faculty is these days a less factious if duller place.

Kermode was so depressed in the immediate aftermath of the affair, however, that he resigned his chair a year later, a decision he has not regretted. He retains his fellowship at King’s College, and still lives in Cambridge, sleeping diagonally in his bed (Mr. Shandy’s memorable metonymy for the single state), seemingly no more troubled by loneliness and melancholia than is normal, consoled by the statue of Diana that generous friends installed in the grotto at the end of his garden. “She leans a little to the left and has a look that is both seductive and demanding”—a pair of epithets that might be applied to Kermode’s criticism. His memoir has all the virtues of the criticism—lucidity, wit, intelligence, economy, with an additional dimension of personal introspection. He speaks, with characteristic shrewdness, of “the good writing that cannot help eliminating truth from autobiography,” citing Nabokov as an example. But he seems to me to have come as near as possible to squaring that circle. Not Entitled is both convincingly honest and an unqualified pleasure to read. I only wish it were longer.

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