Pieces of my Mind: writings 1958-2002 by Frank Kermode

An impish liking for random details

When Frank Kermode published his autobiography seven years ago, he called it Not Entitled, a title textured with multiple ironies. In his illustrious career, Kermode has been Lord Northcliffe Professor of English at University College London, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, not to mention having become "Sir Frank" in 1991. Hefty titles for someone "not entitled".

It has been routine to characterise Kermode as "a master critic" or "the greatest literary scholar of his generation". But it was only recently, with Shakespeare's Language, that he became a bestselling author. A much wider public has grown curious about the work of a scholar long esteemed within the academy. Pieces of My Mind responds to that interest.

Kermode has selected the best of his work during "40 years in the wilderness of criticism", as he terms it. The wilderness encompasses an astonishing variety of subjects, all of them scrutinised with unflagging intelligence and grace.

Despite this variety, Kermode has often returned to a central problem: the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling, and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story. In reading, as in life, we are riven by a desire for connectedness and closure, and a countervailing fascination with the unruly and disturbing detail that demands interpretation.

What should we make of Theoclymenos, who mysteriously appears and reappears in the Odyssey? Exactly who is that "boy in the shirt" who turns up at the dramatic moment of Jesus's arrest in the Gospel of Mark? And why do we labour to make sense of them, to reduce fortuity and the appearance of randomness?

Kermode believes that "we are programmed to prefer fulfilment to disappointment, the closed to the open." Perhaps. Kermode retains an impish preference for openness. Without that, without responsiveness to the detail which can prompt new insight, our admiration for works from the past will grow inert. Kermode is a pluralist: the more new interpretations, the better.

His broad interests in cultural interpretation are firmly tethered to works and passages. Language comes first, and he relishes dissecting the texture that makes a work unique. His eye for detail is unerring, as is his ability to bring the details to bear on reinterpreting a classic, or probing questions about how and why we read. He moves effortlessly from Homer to Ian McEwan, from the Bible to Don DeLillo.

For readers who have not followed Kermode's career, this volume deftly introduces the work of a masterful critic. Even those familiar with his books will find unpublished essays and a selection of reviews. Throughout, the writing is marked by understated elegance and lucidity. Criticism, Kermode writes, "can be quite humbly and sometimes even quite magnificently useful"; but it must also "give pleasure, like the other arts". In the hands of Frank Kermode, it gives quite a lot.

The reviewer is professor of English at York University