Not only is this a collection of essays and criticisms, as the title proclaims; it also includes seven reviews that Frank Kermode wrote for The London Review of Books. Referring to these in his preface, he writes that “Reviewing is actually a rather unselfish occupation; the product is barely remembered a week after publication, after the Sunday papers are thrown out.”
What is a reviewer of this book to make of that? Since Mr. Kermode is a learned man, it’s a pleasure to disagree with him. A review should be responsive to a text, not confined to it; in effect, it’s a short and highly focused essay. To argue otherwise would be like saying that an oil portrait can’t be art because a painter is limited by the subject. As for the rest of Mr. Kermode’s statement: I’ve had a few of my books reviewed by malignant halfwits whose selfish droppings have reeked in my memory, not for just a week, but decades.
Mr. Kermode’s own reviews included in “Pieces of My Mind” are not of the ephemeral sort; they are insightful, conscientious and as unselfish as our selfish species can manage. His review of Raymond Carver’s “Call Me If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Prosel” [sic] is especially revealing; in it, Mr. Kermode calls Carver’s dark and dismal world “a room where the television is always on”; a place where the “ashtrays are overflowing.”
This piece is vivid and compelling, partly because of Kermode’s subject (not narrowly limited to “Call Me”), for Carver was indeed a remarkable writer; bu talso because of Mr. Kermode’s perspicacity in going to his subject’s signal virtues. One might cite this as representing the “It takes one to know one” truism; but the fact is, Mr. Kermode and Carver are so different in so many important ways that such a match wouldn’t make much sense. (Incidentally, this disparity reflects one sort of unselfishness in Mr. Kermode’s reaching out to understand the stories of someone so different in temperament, milieu and nationality.)
The reviews, and the longer essays (two excerpted from his classic, “The Sense of an Ending”), exhibit the great scope of Mr. Kermode’s learning and interests: from Joyce to Botticelli, from Diaghilev to Shakespeare, from Augustine to Emily Bronte, and from Hawthorne to Don DeLillo. This range can present difficulties for some readers, in that Mr. Kermode assumes a familiarity with a text that is not simply desirable, but exigent.
For example, his essay, “Secrets and Narrative Sequence” (a felicitously Kermodian title) soon shifts into a no-doubt sophisticated analysis of Joseph Conrad’s “Under Western Skies.” But since this is a novel I haven’t read, the sense of this essay’s ending (in Mr. Kermode’s lexicon, that phrase includes both intention and substance) was lost.
Even if a writer makes a concession to the ignorance of readers and summarizes a text, it can seldom prove satisfactory, and will more often than not send the reader skipping, not to the text cited, but to the next essay, on a wary lookout for a new reference. Still, the best in this book is very good, indeed. I especially liked “Dwelling Poetically in Connecticut,” which is of course about Wallace Stevens; but the essay turns out to be a small sequence of lenses: Stevens upon Heidigger upon Holderlin.
Thus, the reader enters a richly appointed house of mirrored associations, featuring Mr. Kermode on Stevens on Heidegger on Holderlin.
But there is another elegant flourish in this essay, one that features the poet’s bibliophily. “Stevens was a correct man,” Mr. Kermode notes correctly and with suitable understatement. Then he goes on to describe how this instinct for correctness was expressed in Stevens’s love of books as works of art: “As for the fine bindings and limited editions, Stevens came to like them more and more, and not only for his own poems. He wrote letters to printers and binders about the way books should be produced.”
Two of the previously unpublished essays are “Memory” followed by “Forgetting.” In the former, we are reminded of Augustine’s description of memory as “the stomach of the mind” and as the presence of God in “the very foundation of the person”; then, the essay, “Forgetting,” follows “Memory,” making a nice symmetry, even though Mr. Kermode tells us that he had put this essay aside, unfinished, and then forgot it until writing about memory jogged his.
Genial and scholarly, Mr. Kermode is interestingly different from that earnest tribe who’ve burrowed their way into the hyper-specialized, underground strata of litcrit, negotiating with one another by means of what the essayist Sam Pickering called “the play money of the universities.” Mr. Kermode is an excellent example of the philosophical critic, working with zeal and panache in the intersections of literature and the mainstream culture which literature is so uniquely qualified to enrich.
Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.