Back again to Cambridge for the Keywords project meeting. Some weeks earlier Stephen had told me that Frank Kermode has terminal cancer. I told Stephen that if Frank wanted to see me I would be pleased, but that I did not want to impose and that I would not be in any way offended if he did not. I was surprised at how delighted I was when word came back that he did want to see me and how pleased I was to see him when he opened the door to his apartment. He was also visibly pleased to see me and our clumsy half embarrassed American clinch turned into a half embarrassed English kiss. When I first met him 37 years ago, Frank looked rather old for his age; to my eyes he hasn’t aged at all and doesn’t look ill. We talk with Stephen and his daughter Deborah for more than an hour. Happy talk and I say I will come and see him again in the autumn. Little more than a month later Stephen rings me in Italy to tell me he is dead. This is what I wrote about him
In early 1974, as a young research student at Cambridge, I applied for a Research Fellowship at Emmanuel College. I had just returned from a year studying at the Ecole Normale Supérieure where I had worked with the philosophers Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida. I had also sampled Parisian intellectual life to the full: attending the huge operatic lectures of Jacques Lacan and a small intimate class with Roland Barthes. I did not have great hopes of being successful in my application for a highly competitive and privileged position, as the thinkers I was using in my study of Joyce were then barely known in the English speaking world. To my surprise and delight I was elected a Fellow of Emmanuel and my career was given a turbojet start. My surprise was diminished and my delight increased when I learnt that Emmanuel had asked Frank Kermode to evaluate my work. For Kermode then bestrode the world of English literary criticism like a Colossus.
An only child born into a poor family on the Isle of Man located 80 mikes from the mainland, Kermode harboured an eternal feeling of being an outsider but in his time as a lecturer at Reading University he quickly established himself as a leading critic and scholar. Above all he found an intellectual home in the Warburg Institute in London. The Warburg was founded in 1933 when the great library that Aby Warburg had collected was shipped from Germany to escape Hitler. The library had been constituted around the ways in which the canon of classical antiquity, the great texts from Homer to Virgil, from Plato to Cicero, had been interpreted and reinterpreted in the European Renaissance. This focus on the afterlife (nachleben) of texts was Kermode’s abiding intellectual concern.
It was on the resources of the Warburg that Kermode drew for his first great work published in 1954: an Arden edition of The Tempest that made the play a contribution to the European debate about the nature of the “savage men” who had been discovered in the New World. This placing of Shakespeare within these debates is now commonplace but it was then revolutionary and Kermode immediately distinguished himself as the leading scholar of his generation.
The deep influence of Warburg also meant that Kermode had no attachment to the fixed meaning of texts and that he was remarkably open in the late sixties to the thought of Barthes and Derrida with their emphasis on the instability of meaning. By the early seventies Kermode had established himself as the leading literary critic in the country, particularly with his magnificent. The Sense of an Ending and it was inevitable that he would be offered the Regius Professorship at Cambridge when L.C. Knights retired.
Thus Kermode’s arrival at Cambridge as the senior professor coincided with my starting my professional career as a young Research Fellow. It is impossible to convey to anybody outside the rather insular world of Cambridge English what an exciting moment this was. I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis had made Cambridge the preeminent English School through the middle decades of the twentieth century. But by the early seventies it was desperately in need of rejuvenation both in terms of range – to include above all the study of film – and in terms of method – to use the vast new resources being opened up by linguistics and anthropology. Kermode’s arrival meant that a host of the most promising young teachers there ranging from Jeremy Prynne through Gillian Beer and John Barrell to Stephen Heath saw Kermode as the man who might, with Raymond Williams, lead the Faculty into a new settlement between the canon and popular culture, between the ethical judgment of texts and the interests of new theory.
But these efforts foundered and instead Kermode found himself the target of the superannuated Leavisites who had been rendered intellectually irrelevant and professionally redundant by the developments of the sixties and seventies. Kermode became for them the focus of all their hate and ressentiment. A scholar, a London man of letters interested in theory were already sins enough, but Kermode was also a Fellow of King’s, the college which Leavis had identified as marked with the sign of the beast.
By now I had obtained a junior lectureship in the Faculty of English and I had moved from Emmanuel to become a teaching Fellow at King’s, the college that Kermode had chosen when he came to Cambridge. Unlike Kermode who was astonished at the seething caldron of emotions that he discovered in the English Faculty, I had been raised in the purple of that rancourous institution. Even so I was astonished by the level of hatred that Kermode attracted. His comments in Faculty meetings, and this from the most mild mannered and kindly of men, were booed and hissed in ways more appropriate to the most venomous of political meetings. Kermode minded all this intensely but he worked away producing in The Classic a definitive rejection of Barthes’s oversimplistic characterization of classic and modern and in The Genesis of Secrecy a theory of how interpretive traditions are formed and how they are always necessarily exclusive. But then in 1981 Cambridge exploded. I had come up for tenure and in an extraordinary process that stretched over six or seven meetings, lasting as many hours and with many moments of melodrama including an ambulance call to ferry out a faculty member who had collapsed from exhaustion and emotion, I was denied tenure. Within the traditions of the English Faculty I should have withdrawn to my Fellowship in King’s College and waited the 5 or 10 years before I was finally appointed to a tenured appointment in the faculty. That was what Leavis, and others, had done. I had no such intention. The collapse of the hopes of the mid-seventies meant that I had no desire to marinate in the hatreds of Cambridge and besides if in l974 I had had only one ambition which was to become a Cambridge English don, by 1981 I had conceived another burning ambition – to produce films. I was thus happy to let my supporters make the row public by calling for a debate that asked the University, in effect, to suspend the English Faculty. When I agreed to my supporters’ demands, I thought I was ending my career as a university teacher. But the incredible stupidity of my opponents, a slow month in the newspapers and the way in which my fate played into a more general debate between ancient and modern in the study of English meant that I became a media event and the “MacCabe Affair” enabled me to leave Cambridge trailing clouds of glory and an over inflated reputation.
But in fact it had been a “Kermode affair” and it was Kermode who had always been the principal target. The resentful mob which booed and bayed Kermode had found a leader in Christopher Ricks, whom Kermode had counted a friend. Ricks had arrived at Cambridge in the same year as Kermode and might have been expected to revel in being in a Faculty of all the talents. However I have never met a man so ill at ease in his own skin and who oozed jealousy and envy at every pore. In particular he seemed seized by an almost pathological hatred of Kermode’s superiority as a scholar and critic. To say that all this affected Kermode is to understate. An only child from a deprived and isolated background, he was very sensitive to social slight and rudeness. He resigned his chair in a period that was clearly the most unhappy of his life. Indeed our own friendly relations became somewhat strained. He wrote me several letters of great unhappiness in which it was clear that he wished I had not made the affair public and his own life unbearable. But he solved his problem by resigning his chair in the English Faculty and although he remained a Fellow of his much loved King’s, he abandoned the English Faculty to its insular fate.
But the mind kept working. By 1988 in History and Value he produced what is to my mind the single greatest contribution to literary theory in English. One half of this work investigates with astonishing subtlety and grace what it is to try to understand that most complex of intellectual constructions of a period, and the other makes an unanswerable argument for the importance of the canon which, while perpetually open to revision, is an absolutely necessary search engine if we do not want to simply to be overwhelmed by the infinite library of the past.
Kermode’s erudition and astonishing analytic skills were always elaborated in a prose style as graceful as it was powerful and this writing was used to great effect in his memoir Not Entitled which among other things will certainly come to be counted, with Brian Aldiss and George MacDonald Fraser, as one of the great memoirs of the Second World War.
Many obituaries have talked of Kermode as the greatest critic since Leavis. However, no one but the scholars will read Leavis’s rebarbative and angry prose in the future. You have to go back to Arnold or Coleridge to find an English critic with whom you can class Kermode. But Kermode was not simply an English critic. He was as at home in Harvard or Columbia as he was in Cambridge or London. And in America his most immediate and obvious predecessor is Lionel Trilling with behind him the figure of T.S. Eliot.
In the last twenty years of his life Kermode wrote many of his most powerful essays against the developments of the theory that he had championed in the seventies. What had been exciting and new then had become the most disastrous academic orthodoxies which astonishingly persuaded many university teachers of English that their pedagogic task was to teach their students to hate literature. Such beliefs could only flourish by ignoring the world outside the university completely. In this period and particularly following the death of our close friend Tony Tanner, Kermode and I were reconciled and when we met we would always enjoy some bitter laughter at the latest excesses of the theoretical Taliban. We shared a particular loathing for Stephen Greenblatt’s egocentric biography of Shakespeare. I was particularly pleased when Kermode contributed a review of Brian Cox’s poetry to the 50th anniversary issue of CQ. Kermode was a courteous and kindly man but to say that he had a melancholic view of the world is to understate. Tony Tanner’s nickname from him was Eeyore, after the donkey in the Pooh books, and it has to be said, like many of Tanner’s insights, it was as accurate as it was amusing.
When I went to say goodbye to him in June we even managed the sort of clumsy kiss that is as close as Englishmen can get to an expression of emotion. But much of the conversation was taken up with Kermode’s astonishment that his great friend Wynne Godley had received in his ample obituaries, what in Frank’s view was vastly overstated praise for his abilities as an economist. Hoping to get the conversation onto more positive ground I introduced the topic of Tony Tanner’s Collected Prefaces to Shakespeare which Harvard University Press had finally bought out with an encomium by Frank on the back cover. Frank rather reluctantly conceded that there were good things to be found in the book but deplored those “all boys together” bits of the book which he estimated at about a third. Even more surprising, and here he warmed to his theme, the superlative review in the New York Times had particularly praised those elements. Astonishing. One thing you could say about Frank is that he was just as hard on himself as others. I introduced a discussion of The Classic, a book I had just taught and marveled once again at its command of the theme of empire in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Frank looked mildly disgusted “ Not a very good book” he opined. I was desperate to tell Frank how much I had learned from him and how my admiration for his writings had increased in the decades since I left Cambridge. I made a final try with praise for History and Value. Frank relented a little “ A bit better than The Classic”.
But it was a happy meeting. Kermode was being looked after by his daughter Deborah and their evident affection for each other was more than touching. He also took great solace from the presence of Stephen Heath, his only real friend from the days of Cambridge English and the only person who I heard him talk about or treat as his intellectual heir. He had obviously achieved the necessary acceptance of his approaching death
Kermode’s enduring importance as a model is that he was always committed to both the most complex ideas and the necessity to make that complexity available to a wider public. And a man, whose emotional life was extraordinarily complicated, knew one simple and enduring love: literature. He devoted his life to aiding others to share that love. In this he was successful and, if the young students I teach are any guide, he is going to be even more successful in the generations to come. For there is a tide in the affairs of men and Kermode has died at the very moment when the promising research students in English are desperate to find again the virtues which he always championed: to use the most advanced thought and the most rigourous scholarship to render more approachable and enjoyable the greatest works of literature.