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Pieces of My Mind
Frank Kermode
Allen Lane: London, 2003.
£25.00, 467 pages, ISBN 0-713-99673-0.

Ann Skea

Giving someone a piece of your mind used to be a sort of threat: "If he tells me once more how to run my life / bring up my children etc. I'll give him a piece of my mind!". Getting a piece of Frank Kermode's mind, however, is often most enjoyable.

This may not be true if your name is James Lees-Milne and Frank Kermode has just read the latest in your long list of published diaries. For Kermode is unimpressed by cohorts of friends with double-barrelled (or even triple- or quadruple-barrelled) names: "One can of course manage with two," he remarks acidly, "but might this not leave one less sure of one's status" [p. 385]. Nor does Kermode take kindly to aristocratic assumptions of superiority, being, as he remarks himself, one of the "pathetic bedints" [p. 391] who are the usual butt of Lees-Milne's snobbery. Nevertheless, Kermode is remarkably gentle with his scorn and even, in the end, finds something admirable about the sheer arrogance with which Lees-Milne fills "volume after volume: all in the dialect of a still powerful tribe" [p. 391].

Tom Paulin, on the other hand, must have been delighted to receive a piece of Kermode's mind. Few critics can have engaged so thoroughly with Paulin's long sequence, The Invasion Handbook, or have been as close to a "polymath historian with some knowledge of literature" as Kermode suggests you need to be "to figure out what Paulin is doing" [p. 420]. Kermode's analysis is thorough, intelligent, appreciative and critical, and he obviously enjoyed the challenges presented by Paulin's "packed and rather monstrous book" [p. 426].

Judging by the selection of critical essays, talks and reviews in Pieces of My Mind, things “monstrous” (in the sense of large, unusual and of difficult character) clearly have an attraction for Kermode. His subject matter ranges from an historical account of Loïe Fuller and the early twentieth-century cult of dance and dancers (which influenced poets like Yeats and Eliot, amongst others), to a serious philosophical examination of memory and forgetting. There is a discussion of time and eternity; a consideration of narrative structure in Wuthering Heights; a fascinating examination of Boito's Otello; comment on the game of modern literary criticism; and serious examination of works by Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Joyce, Auden, and of the writings and ideas of several Biblical and Classical scholars, too.

Most of the pieces Kermode chose for this book have been published before. All were written before 1958. They may well, as Kermode himself notes, represent an ephemeral, fashionable critical style of the time, but Kermode chose them because he believed that they express valuable, lasting insights. On the whole, it would be hard to say he is wrong about this.

His overview of the ways in which literary criticism has changed in the last fifty years (“Literary Criticism: Old and New Styles”) is concise, informative and certainly not uncritical of the move away from close textual analysis, which Kermode regards as essential to the estimation of a work's lasting value. Indeed, much of his argument throughout this book seeks, through careful and powerful debate, to support his certainty of the central importance of attending to "the work itself, rather than to something more congenial, and to some more interesting, that can be put in its place" [p. 356]. He is scathing about the "cult of the anecdote," seeing it as the resort of "the apparently marginal" literary historian [p. 351]. He is scathing, too, about "the onslaught of undisciplined interdisciplinarity" [p. 356] which, in his view, may destroy not just literary criticism but literature itself.

Kermode is well-read and well-versed in the philosophical debates which have changed literary criticism in recent times. He understands the arguments, is fluent in the jargon, and tackles the underlying premises as objectively as is possible for someone who has practiced and perfected the traditional skills and methods of literary criticism throughout his long, academic life. And he is genuinely convinced of the importance and value of the role of literary critic, seeing the role as "in certain ways, indispensable" to the "elucidation, and comparison" and furtherance of art [p. x].

Reading Kermode's essays requires concentration and a willingness to examine his (often esoteric) arguments. It is apparent that he is deeply interested in the philosophical basis of quality and truth in literature, and that this interest has led him, as it did Eliot and others, to examine the work of mystics such as St. Augustine, philosophers such as Heidegger, and more especially the work of Hölderlin; it has even led him to explore the literary style of St Mark's gospel.

Yet there is plenty of lighter, more humorous debate, too. As, for example, in his examination of Botticelli's sudden resurrection as a “great painter” after centuries of being neglected or regarded as a lesser artist because he "limited his appeal by preferring ugly women" [p. 183]. There is humour, too, in Kermode's examination of arguments about the status of Wuthering Heights as a “classic,” which includes his appraisal of a “reading” of the text by a critic who claims that Heathcliff is "a mere literary convenience" in the narrative structure. Kermode arguments in this piece include an attack on some Formalist and Structuralist views of the whole topic of “classics” in literature.

Similarly, Kermode chose a light beginning for his lecture “Secrets and Narrative Sequence”—a lecture which he describes as "probably the most arduous in the book" [p. 160] and for which, on presentation, he was "immediately under moderately friendly attack by Paul de Man" [p. 160]. It starts with a quotation from a little-known poem by a little-known poet, whose work it is not advisable to follow up unless you are a disenchanted academic with a taste for scatological verse. The first two lines of the quotation are "Lucinda can't read poetry. She's good / Sort of, at novels though," and the whole quotation, whilst amusing his audience, also perfectly suits the argument which Kermode went on to develop, based on Conrad's "high view of art and low view of his public" [p. 167].

In the end, the reader of Kermode's book is not so much subjected to pieces of his mind as challenged to enter some of its many, diverse pathways. Those who accept that challenge will find that this man's mind is acute, philosophical, generous, humorous and, above all, humane.


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