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The Sense of an Ending

Remembering Frank Kermode.

Click here to read a collection of Frank Kermode’s best work for The New Republic.

Frank Kermode, who died this week at the age of 90, certainly lived a full and productive intellectual life to the very end, but his passing leaves a palpable void, because there is no one quite like him left in either the British or the American literary world. The astonishing range of topics that he addressed over the years was not a reflex of dilettantism but rather the expression of an endless curiosity about a wide variety of writers and eras and cultural phenomena. His scholarly point of departure was the English Renaissance, and his late writing includes a wonderful book on Shakespeare’s language, in which he shows in illuminating detail how Shakespeare evolved from using language as a rhetorical instrument, which was the common practice of his day, to fashioning a language for his characters that could be the transparent vehicle of thinking in the process of being thought. But he also wrote on Wallace Stevens, on Romantic poetry, on the Edwardian novel, on Italian painting, on the New Testament, and, in one of his most enduring books, The Sense of an Ending, on the apocalyptic imagination from the Church fathers to Jean-Paul Sartre. All this he did with an exquisitely meticulous intelligence, in lucid prose, eschewing technical jargon. Although he kept abreast of the various trends in theory that exercised the literary world in the later decades of the twentieth century, he never belonged to a school of criticism. He had no “method” beyond finely tuned alertness to the object of attention joined with bracing common sense.

I was in my late forties when I first met Frank.  He had invited me to be his collaborator in editing a volume of essays that would appear as The Literary Guide to the Bible. Viewing myself, I suppose with a certain exaggeration, as a raw young man from America, I was at first rather in awe of him. In our collaboration, however, he immediately put me at ease, naturally treating me as an equal and showing himself open to discussion on practical as well as intellectual issues in our joint venture. Even the general introduction to the volume that we wrote together proved to be a comfortable task in which we easily discovered a common language.

Frank was a pleasure both to work with and to have as a friend in the years that followed, during which we would meet from time to time in London or in California. He was in the best sense a gentleman—gracious, considerate, and unassuming despite the eminence he had achieved, knighthood and all. His generosity of spirit is constantly evident in his reviews: even when he had grave reservations about a book, his tone was never mean, and he usually managed to find at least some virtue where others might have seen a total shipwreck.

About ten years ago, Frank said to me, with a small hint of self-deprecation or perhaps just fatigue, that he was done writing books. This purported resolution was one that of course he could not keep. The books continued to appear, down to the study of E.M. Forster that was published this past December. He wrote because that was his way of being in the world. He wrote—including the reviews in journals (including this one) on both sides of the Atlantic that he produced till his final months—because he was a consummate prose conversationalist. He repeatedly had interesting questions to raise and issues to explore. The topic could be a contemporary novelist, modernism, Victorian culture, a theologian, the canonicity of canonical works, the pleasures of poetry. He had an extraordinarily well-stocked mind, and he always had sensible ideas about how to manage the stock for the consumption of readers. A humane love of literature informed everything he did.

We are now quite far from the notion of criticism as a form of civilized discourse about things that matter in culture. Frank Kermode may have been its last great practitioner.

Robert Alter’s translation with commentary of The Wisdom Books will be published by Norton next month.

Click here to read a collection of Frank Kermode’s best work for The New Republic. 

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