A chronologically arranged series of literary essays by the eminent scholar and critic, “offered indifferently to defense and prosecution, of the way in which a now quite long professional life has been spent.”
Cambridge don Kermode (Shakespeare’s Language, 2000, etc.) never met a Shakespearean soliloquy or a biblical passage that he hasn’t cared to pull apart to see how it ticks. In this lively collection, he sticks to favorite themes worked hard over many years, taking in not only Shakespeare and the Bible, but also moderns such as Auden and Wallace Stevens (“perhaps one could say that Stevens was a better poet than Heidegger and a better philosopher than Hölderin, and so found himself, in a manner, betwixt and between”). Humane and learned, Kermode’s essays carry a lot of weight, to say nothing of circuitous asides and deep allusions; one has the sense throughout that someone who has read every book ever published is at work. Yet Kermode wears his learning lightly, and even takes a few good-natured shots at himself, as when he opens a rather dense piece on the theme of secrets and narrative sequence with the self-effacing remark, “My lecture could be called aridly academic, but I include it as a reminder that in the Seventies I spent much time devotedly doing this kind of thing.” Fortunately, arid academicism for its own sake is seldom on view here. Instead, the reader is treated to splendid considerations of such matters as the rise and fall and rise of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s renown, and its implications for the making of canons; the meaning of canons in general, and the promise that a canonical work contains “perpetual modernity”; and the twisted politics of writers of the 1930s, to name but a few topics that have taken Kermode’s interest.
Any critic who interprets a publisher’s claim that a “lean” book means “very short, especially considering the price” is worth reading. Another feather in Kermode’s wide-brimmed cap.