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This report is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

A Good Word For Criticism Neil Powell

What to do with books is always a problem. I know a distinguished and prolific literary couple whose beautiful riverside home has been taken over by the things. Guest bedrooms, instead of being identified by colour or compass-points or humbler terms such as ‘front’ and ‘back’, are more likely to be called ‘Biography’ or ‘Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, because that’s what permanently lives there. There are two staircases: the lesser one has become colonised by books, though quite how you get to those in the middle – a squirrel, hanging by its tail from a suspended pole, might manage it – is a mystery. Actually finding a book in this house can involve a quite complex expedition, although I suspect that its owners, who are organised people, do at least know where to look.

It’s a problem I’ve yet to solve in my own little house. Once I thought that a book-lined study would do the trick, but of course this is nonsense: when you’re old enough to have a study, you’re probably old enough to possess far too many books to fit into it. So, at present, the sitting room has literature up to 1900 (chronological) as well as post-1900 poetry (alphabetical); in the study are biography and post-1900 fiction, both alphabetical, and every sort of reference book; music, art, architecture and topography are in the hall; the bedrooms have everything inherited, including stuff from my own childhood, and an unfathomable mass of duplicates, as well as journals which include complete runs of Penguin New Writing, Alan Ross’s London Magazine, the Cox/Dyson Critical Quarterly, the Review, The New Review and – of course – Poetry Nation and PN Review. So far, so not too bad. Then there’s the bookcase tucked away by the stairs, full of criticism: single-author critical works might end up with their subjects, but where else to put The Common Pursuit, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Articulate Energy, Continuities, Image and Experience, Forms of Discovery?

There are people who were glad to see the death of criticism, as we once knew it, yet I’m not among them. I value the old assumption that informed literary debate isn’t something which only happens in academia: in England, the major critical works of the last century weren’t published by the university presses but by commercial firms such as Chatto & Windus, Faber or Routledge & Kegan Paul. A typical Chatto dust-jacket from the early 1960s lists on its back cover and flap books by no fewer than fifty-eight contemporary critics, and these include M.C. Bradbrook, Donald Davie, William Empson, Richard Hoggart, L.C. Knights, F.R. Leavis, E.M.W. Tillyard and Basil Willey. At about the same time, many of these books began to appear in handsome new Peregrine paperbacks: I liked having these on my shelves at school, partly because I thought they’d impress less bookish friends (they didn’t), but mainly because I enjoyed the sense of being surrounded by interesting literary minds. Critics such as Davie and, especially, Frank Kermode also taught the reassuring lesson that it was perfectly all right to sound like a normal human being when writing about literature, just as Forster and Isherwood had with fiction.

Kermode seemed to write about almost everything, and his books are consequently scattered all over this house, but I was trying to remember when I first came across him. I thought the answer must be while studying Yeats for A Level and therefore reading his Romantic Image, and a quick search proved this correct: here it is, a bit coffee-stained, in one of those oddly half-finished-looking Routledge paperbacks of the day. Yet that’s not the whole story, for another of our set texts was The Tempest: a forage in the Shakespeare shelves produces both Kermode’s Arden edition and his yellow British Council pamphlet on Shakespeare: The Final Plays. I open the latter at random, wince at the heavy-handed sixth-form underlining, and read the first such passage that catches my eye. This is what it says: ‘Prospero is clearly in charge of the whole action, so that there is no genuine uncertainty, little sense that Providence is wearing the mask of Chance. All the interest is in bringing together rather than in tearing apart.’ The style, at once unfussy and urbane, is characteristic; so is the fact that what Kermode says immediately strikes the reader as something worth thinking about. He was almost always at his best on Shakespeare, because he was such a subtly inquisitive textual critic; and the relaxed construction of his late book Shakespeare’s Language (roughly: here are some plays about which I’ll say a bit, followed by some others about which I’ll say a bit more) allowed him the freedom to pursue whatever took his fancy, with delightfully instructive results.

If one of Kermode’s hallmarks was his approachable, sociable style, this doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be difficult. There are passages in his major work on fiction, The Sense of an Ending, which, when it was presented as a lecture series at Bryn Mawr College in 1965, must have caused many listening heads either to spin or to nod, according to temperament. Nor did his approachability make him quite the old softy he sometimes liked to appear. Among the most striking aspects of Bury Place Papers – the recent collection of pieces he wrote for the London Review of Books, his habitual and congenial literary home for the past thirty years – is the lethal skill with which he skewers a victim when, on relatively rare occasions, he decides to attack. A notable instance comes in his essay on an ‘enormous heap of books’ about Eliot, called (with a sort of ominous glee) ‘Feast of St Thomas’. On top of the pile is Eliot’s New Life by Lyndall Gordon and, despite having described her method as ‘biographical rooting’ in his opening sentence, Kermode goes fairly gently for quite a way before understatedly remarking: ‘But I’m bound to say that there is something disturbing about Gordon’s handling of all this.’ He explains what has disturbed him: ‘Her religiose attitude to the facts, a sort of muckraking sublimity, affects her prose as well as her argument, and the whole pseudo-allegorical and hagiographical enterprise is vaguely disgusting, though I ought to add that it might seem just right to readers of different disposition.’ It’s the innocent-looking final clause, with its suggestion that this sort of book might be ‘just right’ for some readers who aren’t in the least like you and I, which does most damage. Incidentally, he has borrowed ‘disgusting’ from another critic, as we shall see.

Fifteen years ago, Kermode reviewed my biography of Roy Fuller in the LRB: typically, he used it as the springboard for an essay on Fuller overflowing with insights which I wish I could have read before finishing the book. He only scolded me once. In an aside about Wallace Stevens, wanting to convey the rather over-stuffed feeling one can get even from so great a poem as ‘Sunday Morning’, I’d referred to Stevens’s plum pudding mode. ‘Powell really shouldn’t compare his poetry to plum pudding,’ Kermode grumbled mildly in a parenthesis: partly because he revered the poet (his monograph on Stevens in the ‘Writers & Critics’ series is yet another of his influential early books) but also, I suspect, because I’d trespassed on a style of critical naughtiness which he felt to be his own territory. A good example is this passage, also culinary, from a piece of his about Don DeLillo:

On the whole the heavyweights have prevailed in recent years; one no longer hears much talk of, say, Glenway Westcott, a lean writer of whom Gertrude Stein remarked that ‘he has a certain syrup but it does not pour.’ This memory came to me as I read The Body Artist. But here the syrup does, slowly, pour.

Although Glenway Westcott’s presence is almost completely irrelevant here, Kermode just can’t resist the syrup joke. Plum pudding apart, he seemed to like my book, not least because he so much liked and admired Fuller. One trait he shrewdly noted in Fuller was his relish for uncommon and even awkward words: ‘propulsive’, he pointed out, ‘is the kind of unexpectedly posh word he rather enjoyed, either for its own sake or for the sake of a cosy joke, the humour of the Blackpool breakfast table he always fondly remembered’. Kermode, whose boyhood breakfast table wasn’t so very far from Fuller’s, shared this enjoyment: there’s a passage in Bury Place Papers which seems to have been entirely constructed so that he can have the fun of using, twice, the word ‘ossuary’. Both writers were equally tickled – for these two pleasures are closely related – by the oddnesses of everyday life: in an essay on I.A. Richards and C.K. Ogden, Kermode is clearly delighted by the thought of the two great men having ‘a long conversation on the stairs under the flare of an aged bat-wing gas-jet’ before working together on ‘the book they called The Beadig of Beadig because of the heavy colds they suffered during its composition’.

One twentieth-century critic and poet keeps popping up as the subject of Kermode’s LRB pieces, and that is William Empson: there are three essays on him in Bury Place Papers as well as two in an earlier collection, Pleasing Myself; one of them is in both books, which somehow makes the point more rather than less emphatic. If Kermode thought so well of it, it had better be good. Here he recounts what happened when Christopher Norris sent Empson ‘some essays from the new French school, including Derrida’s famous lecture “Structure, Sign and Play”’:

Empson wrote back to say he found all these papers, including the one by Derrida, or ‘Nerrida’ as he preferred to name him, ‘very disgusting’. Norris, or Dorris, as Empson might have called him in his later career as a theorist, laments, not without reason, that his correspondent showed no signs of having understood what he had found disgusting.

I can’t read that without laughing aloud, which in my experience is an unusual response to professorial writing about literary theorists. Kermode was deeply fond of Empson; he remained benignly unfazed by the latter’s messy eccentricities, peculiar marital arrangements and cantankerous habit of describing him as a ‘neo-Christian’. This insult had a special force. Empson spent the immediately prewar years in China (on returning to England and the wartime BBC, he was described by a colleague as ‘an outpost of China’) and so he ‘knew a lot about Buddhism, which he saw as representing a stage of religious development from which Christianity, with its equation of love with torture, was a regression’; some of his odder readings, especially of Donne, are rooted in this conviction. And yet, as Kermode puts it in the last of his Empson essays, written in 2006: ‘He was generous-minded, affectionate, a very likeable man; he just thought that people who took what he regarded as “dirty” or “disgusting” views (favourite terms of debate with him) should be corrected.’

If those qualities, not excluding the desire to correct wrong-headedness, sound familiar, it’s because they were Kermode’s own. Twenty years earlier, in another LRB essay on Empson, he had described Some Versions of Pastoral as ‘one of the texts that taught a generation to read well and feel good about it’. It’s a phrase which precisely sums up his own work.

This report is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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