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5 February 2010

Frank Kermode

The last great literary critic.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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.

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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.