Last Tuesday, Frank Kermode died. A loss, because he was a critic’s critic. I’ve read several of his books, including his classics The Sense of an Ending and The Genesis of Secrecy, and they really are brilliant.

This part, from the conclusion of the NYT obit, sums up an important part of Kermode’s appeal:

His writing, though, reached beyond academia. His “Shakespeare’s Language” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000) — which traced the development of the playwright through the evolution of his poetry and concluded that “Hamlet” signified a major turning point — was a best seller in England.

At the time he worried about the book’s accessibility, telling an interviewer for The Irish Times: “What I do is despised by some younger critics, who want everything to sound extremely technical. I spent a long time developing an intelligible style. But these critics despise people who don’t use unintelligible jargon.”

Perhaps there was a touch of sarcasm in the comment, a bit of grumbling. But he clearly had little patience for critics who seemed to write only for other critics. As he wrote in “Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), criticism “can be quite humbly and sometimes even quite magnificently useful.” But it must also “give pleasure,” he added, “like the other arts.”

To understand criticism as an art, and not just a science, is important. The best critical books are, like any other book, individual and not reproducible. Kermode has that quality when you’re reading him, that you’re listening to a very fine mind thinking about literature and writing about it with a certain elegance and beauty.

The loss is profound because it’s irreplaceable.

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