The most versatile and the most distinguished of English literary critics since William Empson, Frank Kermode, died on August 17 of last year. Coming not from the English mainland but from the Isle of Man, he always felt somewhat alien in Britain even after he held prestigious positions at the universities of London and Cambridge. He was knighted, but did not display the Sir on his books: his autobiography was entitled Not Entitled. After six years in the navy during World War II, he was trained as a scholar of the English Renaissance, which remained his basic field, but an early book was on modernism and William Butler Yeats, and he also showed an interest in general literary theory, where he was able at times to demonstrate an amiable talent of treating with sympathy and understanding even those critical positions and schools with which he fundamentally disagreed.
Kermode worked as an adviser for several publishing houses, and I can testify to his extraordinary tact and judgment, as he supervised a short book I wrote on Schoenberg for a series that he administered called Modern Masters. He disliked the end of one of my chapters and made me rewrite it, and it became in my opinion the best thing in the book. His activity as a journalist produced many hundreds of reviews on a wide variety of subjects ranging from classical antiquity to the proletarian novels of the twentieth century. Bury Place Papers, a selection of articles for the London Review of Books, for which he wrote more than two hundred reviews, has been issued posthumously. This partially overlaps with a previous selection of essays, The Uses of Error, published in 1991, which remains on the whole more satisfactory and impressive, although the new volume contains some valuable reminiscences and reviews of William Empson—who was much admired by Kermode—this side of idolatry. (He wrote some seventy pieces for these pages.)
Entering the last decade of his life, Kermode made a grand return to the literature of the English Renaissance (in which he had worked only intermittently over the years) with a brilliant major study of the major aspect of the major figure of the period, Shakespeare’s Language, published in 2000, to which we must turn later. Of all his books, however, the one that sheds the fullest light on his critical ideals and philosophy, and was also the most ambitious and controversial, came twenty years before and arose from his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1977–1978: The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Here, Kermode’s initial concern is with the interpretation of the gospels, above all the Gospel according to Saint…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.