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Playing the Seraphine

Frank Kermode: Penelope Fitzgerald, 25 January 2001

The Means of Escape: Stories 
by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Flamingo, 117 pp., £12.99, October 2000, 0 00 710030 2
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... This is a collection of eight stories, the oldest first published in 1975, the most recent in 1999; so they punctuate the entire, brief career of a writer who never yielded to the temptation to go on until there seemed to be nothing more to say. Her novels are exactly long enough. They accommodate her unique ability to imagine and record all the necessary authenticating detail of her settings: Cambridge before the Great War, Germany in the time of Goethe and Novalis, Pre-Revolutionary Moscow ...


Frank Kermode: Jerusalem, 16 September 1982

... Retirement, like other less pleasant conditions, is something one never seriously expects to suffer. After a lifetime of compliance with constraints which, however gentle, were not of one’s own choosing, one experiences for the first time a dreadful liberty to do as one likes. In principle, anyway. For example, in principle I can now live anywhere I want ...

Topping Entertainment

Frank Kermode: Britten, 28 January 2010

Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 
edited by John Evans.
Faber, 576 pp., £25, November 2009, 978 0 571 23883 5
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... of ‘incompetant’ conducting and playing; most of the rest, always excepting his teacher Frank Bridge, have fallible technique. Bernard van Dieren (who fails to achieve a mention of any sort in the notes) is ‘puerile’. Bliss provides ‘unoriginal piffle’. The first complete performance of Walton’s Symphony in November 1935 is ‘a great ...


Frank Kermode, 5 September 1985

Family and Friends 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 187 pp., £8.95, September 1985, 0 224 02337 3
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... than before. Betty has escaped to Paris, where she means to be a dancer and do a double act with Frank. Mimi and Alfred go to fetch her back. Mimi takes over the negotiations; she knows Betty won’t come back, and hopes to have Frank herself. Even before she sets out we know she is hoping that the union of ...

Major and Minor

Frank Kermode, 6 June 1985

The Oxford Companion to English Literature 
edited by Margaret Drabble.
Oxford, 1155 pp., £15, April 1985, 0 19 866130 4
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... The Oxford Companion to – or Bumper Book of – English Literature was first published in 1932 and updated in three subsequent editions and many reprints. It has now been extensively re-edited by Margaret Drabble, aided by an impressive list of experts. The original editor, Sir Paul Harvey, explained that his intention was to be useful to ordinary everyday readers ...


Frank Kermode, 19 June 1980

The Generation of 1914 
by Robert Wohl.
Weidenfeld, 307 pp., £12.95, March 1980, 0 297 77756 4
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... Generationalism’, as Mr Wohl designates the practice of thinking about history and society in terms of the characteristics attributed, usually by themselves, to members of particular age-groups, is a conceptual device nobody seems to have studied very closely till the 19th century. Not, of course, that conflicts between youth and age hadn’t been noticed: ‘they hate us youth,’ as Falstaff remarked, thinking of his behaviour rather than his age ...


Frank Kermode: American Books, 1 April 1983

... All the signs, we are continually told, point to rapid economic recovery in the US, and the Stock Market, perhaps because of this iteration, moves almost daily to new record highs. But unofficial individuals seem cautious or sceptical. Friendly foreigners, especially if they knew this country a generation back, are likely to note the discrepancy between the adman bullishness of government spokesmen and a certain dour disenchantment that has persisted as an ingredient of the American mood during the post-Camelot, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam years ...


Frank Kermode, 17 June 1982

A Moving Target 
by William Golding.
Faber, 202 pp., £8.95, May 1982, 0 571 11822 4
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... William Golding is evidently a bit fed up with being the author of Lord of the Flies. It was greeted with proper applause when it came out in 1954, but soon became the livre de chevet of American youth, and, worse, a favoured text in the classroom in the years of the great boom in Eng Lit, when a sterile popular variety of the New Criticism was encouraging all manner of dreary foolishness; whereupon the cognoscenti turned away, and called the book naive ...

Strait is the gate

Frank Kermode, 2 June 1988

Gorbals Boy at Oxford 
by Ralph Glasser.
Chatto, 184 pp., £11.95, May 1988, 0 7011 3185 3
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... It is said that one can’t hope to tell the truth in an autobiography, that the very desire to write one may be proof of an incapacity to do so veraciously. In any case there is likely to be a conflict between the writer’s wish to make sense of his or her life, and the need to cut, however modestly, a figure of interest to readers. Only people stupid and dishonourable in the way very bad writers are stupid and dishonourable would suppose that they could make sense of their lives by dispensing with the truth, but much better writers still need to practise certain economics; some extenuations or embellishments must be permitted, not necessarily as concessions to shame or vanity, but because any narrative requires them ...

Big John

Frank Kermode, 19 March 1987

Little Wilson and Big God 
by Anthony Burgess.
Heinemann, 448 pp., £12.95, February 1987, 0 434 09819 1
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... The subtitle claims that this is ‘the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess’, who is officially known as John Burgess Wilson; and the book appears on the author’s 70th birthday, as part of his preparation for the coming encounter with Big God. There is, however, to be a Second Part, provisionally entitled You’ve had your time; we are told it will probably be even longer than this one, which takes the younger Wilson from birth to a midlife illness, falsely diagnosed as fatal ...

Taken aback

Frank Kermode, 25 June 1987

Close Quarters 
by William Golding.
Faber, 281 pp., £9.95, June 1987, 0 571 14779 8
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... William Golding’s Rites of Passage, which appeared seven years ago, purported to be an account, by a young toff, good-natured but still wet behind the ears, of a voyage to Australia, around 1814, in a clapped-out English warship reduced to carrying emigrants. Keeping a journal for the amusement of his noble patron, he tells of a comical amorous adventure with an emigrant female, a patronising friendship with an ex-lower-deck first lieutenant (‘allow me to congratulate you on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than you were born to’), and various puppyish acts of indiscipline and breaches of Naval etiquette which set him at odds with the captain ...


Frank Kermode, 22 May 1980

The Reign of Sparrows 
by Roy Fuller.
London Magazine Editions, 69 pp., £3.95, February 1980, 0 904388 29 8
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by Roy Fuller.
London Magazine Editions, 191 pp., £4.95, February 1980, 0 904388 30 1
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... Forty years ago, Roy Fuller was taking a close look at himself and finding the image unsatisfying, already a little disappointed. This one is remembered for a lyric. His place and period – nothing could be duller. In his new book of poems there is one called ‘On Birkett Marshall’s Rare Poems of the 17th Century’: Coppinger, Pordage, Collop, Fayne, Fettiplace, Farley, Chamberlain – They could be the darling poets of my youth: I almost search among the names for mine ...

Sunday Mornings

Frank Kermode, 19 July 1984

Desmond MacCarthy: The Man and his Writings 
by David Cecil.
Constable, 313 pp., £9.95, May 1984, 9780094656109
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... This is not, as the title might at first suggest, a critical biography, but a collection of miscellaneous essays by MacCarthy, all of which have been collected before, and a memoir by Lord David Cecil, of which a portion appeared as preface to an earlier selection. Desmond MacCarthy was probably the best-known London literary journalist of his time, and it is clearly the view of publisher and editor that his influence can be extended into our own ...


Frank Kermode: In Salt Lake City, 21 July 1983

... Even if you enjoy Southern California as much as Reyner Banham you may still, like him, draw the line at those discreetly fenced-in and fortified cities in which the better-off sometimes choose to live, and at whose gates the visitor must check with the guardians before being allowed to enter. I recently spent a few days in one of these suburban paradises ...

Conrad’s Complaint

Frank Kermode, 17 November 1983

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. I: 1861-1897 
edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies.
Cambridge, 446 pp., £19.50, September 1983, 0 521 24216 9
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... A great many Conrad letters have already been published, notably in Jean-Aubry’s Life and Letters, but also in smaller collections containing his correspondence with one or more persons – for example, Edward Garnett, William Blackwood and Cunninghame Graham. Early letters to Polish friends and relations have been translated, and a series of about a hundred to Marguerite Poradowska appeared in the original French ...

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