Allen Lane, £25

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

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living