Frank Kermode, 1919-2010

The literary critic dies at the age of 90.

A brief note from the editors on the LRB blog reports that the great literary critic Sir Frank Kermode has died.

Kermode wasn't just the finest literary scholar of his generation, he was also one of this country's most luminous practitioners of the higher journalism (in the London Review, among other places). One of his last books, Bury Place Papers, a collection of pieces originally published in the LRB (for which he had written since its creation in 1979), shows Kermode in full spate in a mode -- the "review-like essay" or "essay-like review" (to adopt a distinction-without-a-difference proposed in the 19th century by Walter Bagehot) -- that he found highly congenial.

Bury Place Papers came out around the same time as Kermode's book about E M Forster, which Leo Robson reviewed for the NS. The last paragraph of Robson's review reads like an encomium:

In a book of such refinement and such erudition, Kermode's modest manner seems all the more affected, though perhaps, with Kermodian magnanimity, we may excuse it as the paradoxical product of serene self-assurance - how Virginia Woolf interpreted Forster's modesty. I suspect that, for all his self-effacement and self-reproof, Kermode realises the value that his work has had for readers without his facility and energy who nevertheless desire a rich understanding of literature. And if he doesn't, he should.

The "modesty" Robson identifies was not the least attractive of Kermode's many virtues as a writer. And his characteristic, gently self-undermining manner can be seen in an interview I did with him at the beginning of this year:

Has literary criticism lost the prestige that it once had?
There was a period, when I was a young lecturer, when there were literary critics with immense reputations. I'm thinking of people like Northrop Frye, for example, who ruled the world with Anatomy of Criticism. It's never cited or quoted anywhere now. I remember once talking to the critic Cleanth Brooks about this. Brooks was explaining to me why he was so rich, enormously so - because of the book he wrote with Robert Penn Warren about understanding poetry, which sold thousands and thousands of copies.

I later had lunch with him about three or four weeks before he died, and he was saying in an amused way: "Nobody knows me any more!" He had completely disappeared from the scene. There's still a kind of lingering trace of F R Leavis here in Cambridge, though it's very, very slight.

You are often credited with assisting the introduction of theory into this country. How do you see your role now, looking back?
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 happened as these things ought to happen - which is the only case in my entire career when things happened in university classrooms that ought to happen there! It didn't last very long, but it was a notable airing for a different way of thinking about literature.

The founding of the London Review of Books has often been attributed, at least in part, to a piece that you wrote for the Observer in 1979 about the need for such a journal.
That is true. It took a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people to get it up and running, but that piece of mine was the initial shove. And the LRB certainly seems to have a public that suits me exactly. Though that may be a self-deceiving notion of mine. But I always feel very comfortable writing there. I also have a fairly sentimental feeling about it, partly because it sustained my long friendship with Karl Miller.

Your essay collection Bury Place Papers includes pieces on novelists of the postwar period. Which of those writers are most important to you?
I'm certainly a devoted admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald. As I was of a slightly more sleazy personality, Muriel Spark. Spark was a friend, whereas Fitzgerald was someone I admired from a respectful distance. And I admire Philip Roth intensely. But I think he's writing some pretty bad books at the moment. Sabbath's Theatre is his finest book - certainly the maddest and most extravagant. He needs to be like that.

You're giving a lecture entitled "Shakespeare and the Shudder" at the British Museum. Shakespeare has always been important to you, hasn't he?
He looms over one's own history of reading. It is a boring fact that there are certain writers who improve as you get older - and I think Shakespeare is one of them.

And you've just collaborated with Alexander Goehr on an opera set to words taken from King Lear.
Yes, although mine was a very minor role. I did another piece with Goehr about ten or 12 years ago, a song cycle, and we rather enjoyed working together. So we worked on a possible text of a King Lear opera, without being totally committed to it.

Then it became serious, and Sandy actually wrote quite a lot of the music. In the course of doing that, he developed a feeling for the text of the play, a sort of view of how it looked in the modern world.

Do you miss the academy now that you are retired?
I suppose I don't really. I live very near to Cambridge University, but I have no role in it, of course. I value friendships with three or four people in the English faculty there. But it's not something I weep about at night.

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

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times