Francophilia justified

NOT ENTITLED: A Memoir by Frank Kermode, HarperCollins pounds 18
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In fine huffy form, Gore Vidal once complained: "I do wish Kermode would not feel obliged always to drag in the foreign word whose meaning is no different from the English equivalent." Our most distinguished literary critic, Sir Frank Kermode, seasons this memoir with enough French - sans alcool, crise de foi - to make a phrase book.

There's a touch of the dandified outsider to Sir Frank. In the 50 years of his academic career, he has dabbled in the velveteen poetry of Verlaine, as well as the structuralism of Roland Barthes. In the late 1960s Kermode championed the nouveaux (it sounds better in French) romanciers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. For those supervised at Cambridge by fossilised medievalists, Kermode's continental cut made a change.

Not that Kermode was a very inspiring lecturer. There was something drab, even clerical, in the way he stood immobile behind the lectern, speaking in a monotone. His flirtation with French letters and literary theory did not endear him to the Cambridge rearguard. Forbidden to give tutorials, he was effectively run out of town, suddenly resigning in 1982 from the grandly named King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature.

Looking back on that Cambridge period, Kermode comments: "I suppose I have rarely been so miserable." Approaching 80, Kermode takes stock of his childhood on the Isle of Man, the six boozy years he spent in the Navy, and concludes that old age is not such a bad time to live in. Not Entitled opens with an unfortunate sentence: "Between these origins and that ending is where the weather is, fair or foul: the climate of a life." This is followed by some French. But the Barthesian flimflam soon gives way to an elegant, often very moving, piece of writing.

Regarded by his father as "a clumsy fairy", young Frank was a dead loss at most things. Mrs Kermode had been a farm girl and, in later life, mistook Frank for her own dead husband. Her deepening eccentricity was connected in some way to her parents; nobody seems to have known who they were. Like her adoring son, Mrs Kermode was captivated by the sound of words (after her death Frank and his younger sister discovered she had won prizes as a reciter of Manx dialect verse).

The book glows beautifully with characters from the author's solid, low Anglican childhood. There were the death insurance men who visited every street, like Larkin's ambulance, collecting their weekly premium. Or blind Jack Fat, who cadged pints in pubs. This is not rosy nostalgia; as a schoolboy Frank Kermode was stricken by near-blindness ("CAN'T BE OPTIMISTIC WITH A MISTY OPTIC", advertised his optician). Unlike most Manxmen, he decided early on that he would leave the island for good.

In 1937 Kermode sailed to Liverpool, where he had won a scholarship to read English at the university. It was a time of the Left Book Club and the Spanish Civil War. Kermode engaged cautiously with these politics; but was he a promising academic? His self-deprecation makes it difficult to tell. There was an attempt to learn Italian (taught to him by the future father of Marianne Faithfull), and clearly he did well enough at other papers. But his secret ambition at that time was to write poetry (although this soon faded because "after all there was plenty of it to be had elsewhere").

Drafted into the navy at 20, Kermode recalls the day his convoy accidentally opened fire on allied aircraft over Gibraltar. "There was the idiotic boatload who had gone back into the flames to save their money, their photographs, who knows what trivia; and there were the airmen who, for reasons never to be discovered, cruised slowly into point-blank range of friendly guns."

The rest of this memoir gallops through half a century's teaching in England, Japan, America, Switzerland, China and Italy. Kermode tells how he resigned as editor of Encounter after it had been exposed as a CIA publication and, in 1979, helped to launch The London Review of Books, conceiving it as a sort of "Counter-Encounter". Kermode scarcely mentions his two marriages. Apparently he is happy to live alone now, and evokes Tristram Shandy's conviction that it is "a luxury to sleep diagonally in one's bed".

Save for some French, Not Entitled is a wonderful book. Frank Kermode's baffled modesty - the genuine astonishment at his own achievements - makes an unusual memoir and, with his recent knighthood, at least he can claim to have a title.