Tuesday, alas, Frank Kermode died. A great many biblical scholars recognise his name for The Genesis of Secrecy, his Norton Lectures at Harvard University; some of them know his critical classic, The Sense of an Ending, or his writing and editing for the Literary Guide to the Bible. I admire his books (Secrecy more, I think, than Ending, and I’m lukewarm about the Literary Guide), but few things I have read delighted, instructed, wooed, and impressed me more than his collection of essays published in the US as The Art of Telling, and over here also by the truth-in-packaging title of Essays on Fiction 1971-1982.
In these essays, he walks his readers through the rationale for his approach to criticism (summed up in the Prologue as “finding out what texts seem to be saying as it were voluntarily, and. . . conveying this information to others”), and displaying that approach and its implications. When I return to “Can We Say Absolutely Anything We Like?” or “Institutional Control of Interpretation,” I see a beam of critical light that helped me orient my own sense of what’s what while I was navigating the wilds of postmodern theory (on one hand) and the doldrums of conventional biblical hermeneutics (on the other). Not unsophisticated when it came to theory — and vigorous in support even of theoreticians with whom he disagreed — he was above all an incomparably gentle and subtle reader.
I am tempted to quote him at length on any number of topics; he writes lucidly, radiantly, critically, and beautifully about the texts on which he comments. I don’t by any means always agree with him, but I always wish I had his insight, his erudition, his patience, and his capacity to make himself and his topics clearly understood. By all means enjoy The Genesis of Secrecy — I will always cherish my autographed copy, signed when Kermode came to give a lecture at Yale in 1984 or ’85 — but soak up The Art of Telling, too. (If nothing else, you may understand my hermeneutics better, not that that suffices as a motivation).

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