Frank Kermode

The last great literary critic.

My interview with Sir Frank Kermode, which appears in this week's New Statesman, is now available to read online.

I didn't get the chance to talk to Sir Frank about his recent book on E M Forster, which Leo Robson reviewed for the NS last month. Instead, we spoke about the lost prestige of literary criticism (Kermode talked, with a certain wistfulness, about a time when "there were literary critics with immense reputations"), his role in the importing of literary theory into this country and his admiration for Philip Roth (tempered by his recognition that Roth is "writing some pretty bad books at the moment").

Dinah Birch has reviewed both the book on Forster and Kermode's collected literary journalism, Bury Place Papers, in this week's TLS. Birch makes an acute observation about the tenor, or, rather, the temperature, of Kermode's interventions in the theory wars:

He played a vigorous part in the convulsions of the early 1980s, when the Faculty of English at Cambridge tore itself apart over the merits of literary theory. Kermode was a defender of Colin McCabe, at that time a beleaguered young theorist denied promotion by traditionalists. Nevertheless, he refused to be identified with a theoretical approach to literature, either in general or in particular. He is an interpreter, not an evangelist.

I think this gets things just right, and it's in fact corroborated by something Kermode said to me about how he sees his role in all this:

It wasn't a planned campaign or anything like that. These ideas were abroad, I had this seminar and I thought we should discuss them.

I was very interested in Roland Barthes, in particular -- as was this random group of people who came to my seminar. We weren't addicts; we weren't people who were committed a priori to the new theory, or anything of that sort . . .

It didn't last very long, but it was a notable airing for a different way of thinking about literature.

The slightly deflating humility of that remiscence is echt-Kermode.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue