Those Dying Generations
By Michael Dirda
Nov. 26, 1995
Some 15 years ago I asked the distinguished Harvard English professor Douglas Bush to review a memoir, The View from 80, by the equally distinguished literary critic Malcolm Cowley. Then in his eighties and full of honors, Bush seemed ideal to comment on a book about the rewards and consolations of old age. I suppose I expected an epode evoking the autumnal pleasure of rereading some favorite poet, lap rug across the knees, warmed by a blazing log fire, a glass of claret within easy reach.
So much for another fond illusion.
Though Bush was judicious and positive in his actual review, one could sense that he himself held a less rosy opinion of advanced age than Cowley, one that his brief telephone conversation with me confirmed: He was then enduring various ailments and complaints, including difficulty in walking, memory lapses, failing vision and a growing indifference to life, people, books and even his own past achievements. Maybe I caught the eminent professor on a bad day, but I hung up the phone convinced that the view from 80 was not necessarily something to look forward to.
A touch of this same dolefulness suffuses Frank Kermode's beautifully composed memoir, Not Entitled. In its pages Kermode, the former King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge and perhaps the most admired living British critic, scarcely mentions his dozen important books, never alludes to his knighthood, repeatedly points out his failures (as son, husband, father, friend and academic), and generally portrays himself as feeling perennially out of place and never very happy. His only undoubted talent, he seems to suggest, is for misjudgment, with consequences that range from outbursts of temper and poor career choices to a libel suit while he was an editor of Encounter. Kermode admits that he doesn't yet suffer the more depressing indignities of many people entering their late seventies, but neither does he have any illusions about what lies in store.
Life, in Kermode's view, is a matter of absurdity and luck. During the Second World War, for instance, the future scholar spends much of his five-year hitch acting as clerk-secretary for various "mad captains." Near Gibraltar he finally sees naval action for the first time. A merchantman, loaded with explosives, is torpedoed and bursts into flame. Its crew pulls away in lifeboats:
"After half an hour or so we were astonished to see the lifeboats return to the . . . ship, their occupants perhaps encouraged by the consideration that it hadn't blown up so far. They could hardly have hoped to put out the vast fires, so we supposed they'd gone back for their belongings. Through my glasses I watched a little chain of men climb a rope ladder and disappear inboard. When they had all done so, the ship exploded. Thousands of tons of such a cargo make a big bang, and after the bang, bits and pieces fell, it seemed quite slowly, back into the sea. Then there was not much to be seen."
Born on the Isle of Man in 1919, Kermode grew up poor, the son of a shopkeeper, and spent his adolescence hawking newspapers, working as an assistant purser on a steamship, and clerking for a warehouse. Five o'clock he remembers as "just the time to go and buy damaged apples or broken biscuits." Having won a scholarship to the University of Liverpool, he there inaugurated "the long labour of learning how to pretend to know something a little better than I did." He was timid, frequently envying this man's art and that man's scope. An early teacher with "a right, sad way of dealing with existence" remains in his memory "as one of the various kinds of person I'd rather be." He is surprised that the brilliant and meticulous scholar Peter Ure could "find something in me to like, even to envy." As late as age 40 Kermode continues to be haunted by "the sense that I had no business to be in this business." And even now he admits to an "inveterate conviction that I was far from being a good teacher."
WHERE MANY autobiographies these days are triumphalist accounts of making it or whining tales of personal crisis and resurrection, Kermode makes his life into a threnody of loss -- of his childhood self and homeland, of his hopes of becoming a poet or dramatist, of his teachers and colleagues. "All concerned are now dead" and similar phrases ring through these pages like a tocsin. Even his occupation, the traditional study of English, has virtually disappeared, and Kermode mourns the current domination of literary theory, "drugged with self-regard." He adds, with a sigh of resignation, that things "will almost certainly get worse." In a paragraph about living alone as an old man -- after two marriages -- Kermode concludes: "I salute my wives, but now only as occasional visitants to my dreams, they who by some accident of fortune entered, and remained for four decades, in what is and, as I now clearly see, always should have been, a solitary or at any rate non-conjugal existence."
The civilized, self-depreciating prose of Not Entitled yields constant pleasure, not least through its author's flair for the feather-touch of literary allusion. "Some natural tears I dropped . . . To Cambridge then I came, where a cauldron of unholy hates hissed all around me . . . Learned authors who shuffle, cough ink, and read Calvin . . . . I muse upon my father's wreck." For fans of academic gossip Kermode also proffers an abundance of good stories. Once his flamboyant mentor D.J. Gordon invited E.M. Forster to dinner: " A great deal has been written about my book A Passage to India, and I don't think I understand it all, so I'll take this opportunity to tell you what I think about it . . .' " At just this point, writes Kermode, Gordon "rose, edged the great man aside, and announced that we should have to stop there, since the vice-chancellor was expecting the speaker to tea." On another occasion, the English department at the University of Leeds posted a pair of openings; the young Kermode lost out to two scholars named Kettle and Fisch. "I tried but failed to persuade myself that I'd been turned down for the sake of an ephemeral joke."
In every respect, this is what a memoir ought to be: human (even all-too-human), artfully composed (yet aware that the principal enemy in autobiography is "not mendacity but good writing"), and replete with good stories and anecdotes, many about amusing or eccentric people. Even with such celebrated books as Romantic Image, The Sense of an Ending, and, my favorite, The Genesis of Secrecy to his credit, this may be Frank Kermode's most quietly brilliant, as it is his most endearing, achievement. Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.
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