Not Entitled

One would hardly know from reading Frank Kermode’s witty but deeply self-effacing memoir that this is the life of a widely esteemed, highly decorated (he has become Sir Frank) literary critic and professor of English at Cambridge University whose many books have guaranteed him a place in the history of the twentieth century criticism. For someone looking back on a brilliant international career, the memoir’s title seems curious. Yet, the words “not entitled” come from Kermode’s years in the Royal Navy, when a sailor fined for disciplinary reasons would be met on payday not by his month’s wages but by the announcement “Not Entitled.” There runs through this book the same insistence that Kermode, though decked with honors, is really not entitled to his pay either. He comes across as baffled by his successes and certainly reluctant to take credit for many of them. His tone throughout is a masterpiece of puzzlement and self-deprecation, and he says more than once of himself that “looking the part while not being quite equal to it seems to be something I do rather well.”

The memoir focuses on three parts of Kermode’s life: his youth on the Isle of Man; his wartime service in the Royal Navy; his years as journalist, teacher, scholar. In all of these he presents himself as an ineffectual outsider: wounded by his lower-class roots and provincial background, plagued by his besotted naval commanders and futile war missions, stung by his academic colleagues and byzantine university intrigues. Subject to entrenched authority he questions but cannot unseat, Kermode depicts himself as retreating in defeat (from the professorship at Cambridge, the editorship at ENCOUNTER). Readers of his account, however, will see such actions less as failures than as principled withdrawals by a man of conscience and rare intelligence.

It is that intelligence which infuses Kermode’s memoir; it is both lively and elegiac, funny and rueful, an elegant performance by someone whose seventy-five years puzzle him as much as they please us.