Pieces of My Mind

In the introduction to Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002 the distinguished academic Frank Kermode presents these personally selected and chronologically arranged essays “as evidence, offered indifferently to defense and prosecution, of the way a now quite long professional life has been spent.” And reading through these wide-ranging, supremely knowledgeable essays, one can only say that it has been a life decidedly well-spent. Beginning with an early article in Partisan Review on the eclipsed career of dancer Loie Fuller, and ending with seven reviews in the London Review of Books on contemporary writers, the volume cuts a broad swathe through late-twentieth century literature and culture.

Though he has devoted his working life to producing it, Kermode argues that most of what passes for literary criticism cannot hope to be anything other than ephemeral. Nevertheless, he values the attempt to provide meaningful, lasting critical commentary, difficult as that may be. Clearly he has a bias against turgid, theory-ridden criticism which cannot really hope to do much beyond advance a professional career. Such joyless and inapproachable stuff may be the currency of the academy, but it has little real use; and utility is not something Kermode disdains. In fact, he is eloquent in his defense of a true critic’s role, which, when properly understood, is simply to offer clear, insightful explanations for a work of art.

Over half of these essays originated as lectures, usually as part of the notable lecture series he delivered at Harvard, Oxford, or Yale universities; and happily, the feel of a civilized speaking voice is still very much present in them. Readers feel in the company of a real person asking intelligent questions and proceeding with reasonable assumptions to push on to satisfying answers. His critical tact and capacious knowledge are quietly, subtly brought to bear. It is only in the reviews where a different, more unrestrained voice comes into play.

Kermode believes there are such things as bad and good writing, better and worse books. And part of what his practice of criticism has been about all these years is the clear explanation of those differences. This collection is a fine record—and reminder—of such attempts to explain, compare, and evaluate by a curious and erudite man of letters.