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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era