Sir Frank Kermode: No taste for confrontation
Mention the words "Kermode" and "critic" to almost any culturally literate British person under the age of 40 and, after a scratch of their head, they will say something along the lines of "ah, that Mark Kermode who hosts The Culture Show on BBC2 and reviews new movies on Five Live with Simon Mayo." The older generation, by contrast, will assume that you are referring to Sir Frank Kermode, aged 90 and still turning out books and reviews. He is regularly described as Britain's most distinguished — indeed "greatest" — literary critic. The two Kermodes are not related.
In the heyday of Kermode the Elder, literary criticism was thought to matter. The opinion — always frank, if sometimes detachedly Olympian — of Professor Kermode, expressed in the Listener or the Observer, was eagerly awaited. His acceptance of, and still more his premature departure from, the King Edward VII Chair of English Literature were considered to be of national interest. O tempora, O mores: does anyone outside Cambridge know, still less care, who now sits in the pre-eminent EngLit chair in the land? All we want to know is whether Kermode the Younger will ascend to the Chair of Woss on BBC One's flagship film review show.
There are many reasons why literary criticism has become a backwater with little more contemporary cultural purchase than that of classical philology or biblical hermeneutics. But no history of the discipline's decline would be complete without pointing out that one of the principal architects of its deconstruction was its own leading practitioner: Frank Kermode.
He has just published a genial book called Concerning E. M. Forster (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £14.99). It consists of three Clark Lectures, delivered in the Cambridge where, like Forster before him, Kermode eventually found a home, together with a "causerie" (ie, some high-class chatter) ranging around the recesses of the novelist's work. Kermode is, as one has come to expect, fascinating and informative on such subjects as musical structure in Forster's novels. His judgment on the strengths and weaknesses of Forster's own Clark Lectures, Aspects of the Novel, are unerring, as his judgment nearly always is. The "causerie" is full of this sort of thing:
The words quoted by Forster come from one of a series of poems written, with great force and exaltation, in archaic Italian...by the 13th-century Spiritual Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi. The poems are addressed to divine Love; the nearest English equivalent, not all that close, might be the baroque religious verse of Richard Crashaw four centuries later. Matthew Arnold knew about Jacopone (see his sonnet "Austerity of Poetry") and Forster knew his Matthew Arnold; but it happens that Evelyn Underhill, author of Mysticism, which became the standard English work on the subject, published a biography of Jacopone that made him more accessible and included translations. Underhill was a disciple of Baron von Hügel, who, as Yeats remarked, accepted the miracles of the saints and honoured sanctity.
Golly is one's first thought. If I could hold all this stuff in my head at the age of 90, I'd be doing all right. The man is a walking encyclopaedia of the high culture of the West. If we were the Japanese we'd have officially designated him a Living National Treasure.