Sam Sacks at Open Letters Monthly:
Sir Frank Kermode once compared novels to angels. At first glance, this seems like an unfortunately saccharine proposition, inconsistent with the dignity and seriousness of a British knight, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, and one of the most distinguished men of letters of the 20th century. But like all of Kermode’s ideas, it is based on a set of extraordinarily complex connections and is central to his lifelong investigation into some of the irreducible questions of literature: What is the purpose of fiction? Why do we read it?
These questions nip at the heels of all of Kermode’s books, but the comparison between angels and literature is made specifically in his evergreen study The Sense of an Ending, drawn from a series of lectures he gave at Bryn Mawr College in 1965. The year is important because the threat of nuclear annihilation lent intense clarity to Kermode’s main point: Humans, personally and collectively, are preoccupied with trying to understand their deaths. For life to have meaning, to amount to more than just a sequence of events, that meaning must be projected backwards from an ending that provides the key to interpreting everything that preceded it.