Sir Frank Kermode’s career is a wonder. More than forty volumes have appeared since he began to publish in the 1950s, together with a wealth of articles and reviews. He has held senior posts in universities up and down the land, including a notable term of office as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature in Cambridge. Retirement has done nothing to slow his publication rate. Now there are two new works, a thoughtful study of E. M. Forster and Bury Place Papers, a selection of some of the best essays he has written for the London Review of Books. Kermode’s learning and insight seem indestructible. His recent ninetieth birthday has been marked with affectionate tributes, and these books show how much there is to celebrate. Despite these claims to distinction, it is not easy to pin down Kermode’s contribution to literary culture. His turn of mind is brilliantly agile rather than polemical, and no identifiable Kermode school has emerged. This is not because his criticism is bland. The writing frequently crackles with hostility, or glows with admiration. Nor is he afraid of a row. He played a vigorous part in the convulsions of the early 1980s, when the Faculty of English at Cambridge tore itself apart over the merits of literary theory. Kermode was a defender of Colin McCabe, at that time a beleaguered young theorist denied promotion by traditionalists. Nevertheless, he refused to be identified with a theoretical approach to literature, either in general or in particular. He is an interpreter, not an evangelist. One of his most perceptive books, The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), speaks of Hermes as the patron of hermeneutics: “He is the god of going-between: between the dead and the living, but also between the latent and the manifest . . . and between the text and the dying generations of its readers”. The spirit of Hermes, subtle and stealthy, is never far from Kermode’s work.
more from Dinah Birch at the TLS here.