Back in the 1970s, John Carey, now a Professor at Oxford, wrote an article called ''Down with Dons''. Carey was attacking the kind of don personified by Maurice Bowra: keen on boys, addicted to guzzling lavish meals, swilling expensive port, and delivering their opinions loudly in public with a plummily superior accent. The breed isn't extinct, but it is moribund, and anyway Kermode doesn't belong to it.
The term ''don'', moreover, with its connotations of crotchety, cloistered celibacy, is only regularly applied to Oxbridge academics. Kermode has held appointments at Reading, University College London and Harvard, so it wouldn't be fair to judge him as if he'd always worked in Cambridge, the setting for his last, unhappy job.
Again, Kermode has never been the sort of sniffy pedant who thinks it vulgar to write for a big public. On the contrary, he is a frequent moonlighter in the literary pages of the national press and was responsible for founding The London Review of Books. He has been married twice, served in the navy and - a gesture that repels pretty forcibly the charge of chronic introversion - he has written a memoir of himself.
Yet not all the features of the academic stereotype are gross; and there are a few of the subtler ones discernible in Kermode. Every profession constrains its members to act in ways that can be caricatured. To survive in academe, academics have to do things that endanger their survival outside it. The familiar signs of social maladroitness are not difficult to relate to endless hours in solitude, or with students, teaching, reading and writing.
Kermode has published many books; and in view of the seclusion this entails, it's a wonder he's remained so genial and outgoing. A wonder too, that, having mastered the self-disguise of academic prose, he should be so intent on revealing his weaknesses. His memoir is rife with rituals of self-deprecation. He tells of his fear of rabbits, his gullibility, his hamfistedness when it comes to changing lightbulbs, and of a number of predispositions left over from his childhood which he regards as mildly neurotic.
Kermode's touches of neurosis align him with the psychopathology of academic life. What lifts him above it is his insight into its causes. That he should be compassionately perceptive about his father is not very surprising. Yet something like the same gift for empathy and insight is demonstrated in the portraits of friends and colleagues which crowd the pages of the book. Peter Ure, a fellow student at Liverpool, awed the young Kermode by the elegant perfection of his speech. But then, as now, Kermode could see that the cultured environment of Ure's home entailed not only decorous speech but ''a prohibiton of the more demotic forms of expressiveness''. The emotions not permitted to enter Ure's speech were consequently liable to erupt in fits of rage.
Kermode's memoir gives an account of his part in the row over post-structuralism at Cambridge which will be of interest to fellow-academics, to intellectual historians and to connoisseurs of donnery. But what makes the book so warmly attractive is the system of values underlying its tone. He realises that he hasn't written an autobiography and that there are crucial parts of his story which he has elided or suppressed. He mentions, but does not begin to analyse, the breakdown of his two marriages.
This seems an odd kind of flinching, in someone otherwise outspoken. Yet in flinching from such self-exposure, he exposes the vulnerability that makes him flinch: "The percentage of truth we leave out may after all show through somewhere, even if we fake the record." Such undefendedness is rare among dons.
Kermode - as his dealings with literary theory show - is a responsible chancer, willing to make mistakes, yet unwilling to treat them as trivial just because he makes them. This attitude is in part a strategic antidote to perfectionism. But it also expresses allegiance to a past which has put Kermode creatively at odds with his profession.Reuse content