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.