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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Critic's Memoir Is More Like a Critique of His Memoir : NOT ENTITLED: A Memoir by Frank Kermode ; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23, 250 pages

November 09, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Frank Kermode's memoir addresses his life the way that Winnie the Pooh addressed Rabbit, whom he had come to visit. Are you there? Pooh called down into the burrow. No, Rabbit replied. It is lucky I did not come, then, said Pooh.

"How unpleasant to know Mr. Lear," wrote the odd but exuberant Edward Lear. "How unpleasant to know Mr. Eliot," echoed the odd and less exuberant T.S. Eliot. Kermode, a vigorous Englishman of letters, who treats authors and characters with the fearless intimacy of the best critics, treats himself with glum reserve. No one, it seems, has introduced them properly.

Near the start of "Not Entitled," Kermode puts a brave face on old age and at once takes it off. There are more bad days than good, he writes, and dying is a disagreeable prospect, particularly: "the humiliation of lying around being a slightly sinister nuisance to whoever has the job of tidying up after me.

"But meditations of this sort--banal, otiose, self-pitying--are among the causes why I think that I am not the sort of person I should choose to know if I had any choice in the matter."

Caveat lector. It is not surprising that what Kermode has written, at least in its most interesting passages, is not a memoir so much as a critique of a memoir. It is a reflection on his life more than a remembering of it. More exactly it is a reflection on the text of remembrance. In autobiography, he suggests, the principal enemy of truth is "not mendacity but good writing."

Accordingly, the autobiographical portions of "Not Entitled" come out as if they'd been lectured and sent to bed without supper. Even the prose, direct and limpid when Kermode writes about ideas and books, tends to clot. The account of his childhood on the Isle of Man is that of a man who doesn't know what to say to a child even when the child is himself. His father, a ship's chandler, was kindly but Kermode feels little in common with him. His mother remains a blank: He alludes to a rift that lasted many years but gives no indication of what it was about.

He portrays himself as a fat, bespectacled child who did well in his studies except when depressed by regular bullying. Awkwardness with things and people is his theme throughout. William Golding, he writes, could go to Salisbury Cathedral when working on "The Spire" and, just by looking up, figure how its steeple was built. That sense of how things and people work, he writes, marks the creative writer. Lacking it--he attempted plays and poems--"there was nothing left for me except to become a critic, preferably with a paying job at a university."

There is a long account of his navy years during World War II; much of the time spent in Iceland on a ship whose futile task was to try to lay a boom across the neck of a fiord to protect the anchorage. The futility and an odd dreamy detachment in the writing suggest a ghost ship; we could be aboard the Flying Dutchman.

After the war, he worked at a succession of provincial universities culminating in a prestigious and powerful position as chairman of English at University College, London. Even more prestigious was a professorship at Cambridge, but there was no power to the job and he was miserable. The place was too set in its ways; what is one man against the centuries? Eventually he retired.

Kermode's special place in letters has been as a bridge between academics and literary journalism. He has been a steady and distinguished contributor to the New York Review of Books and a lecturer at universities throughout the United States. His co-editorship of Encounter magazine in the 1960s, on the other hand, became an acute embarrassment when its CIA connections were revealed. Kermode, who felt duped, quit in humiliation and self-blame. The account is detailed though curiously cloudy; it's not secrets that remain hidden, but the writer.

His portraits of friends and colleagues have some of the same impalpability. To portray another person, you need to portray something of yourself. Of his two marriages he writes with a sparseness that verges on the comical, but here there is a kind of revelation.

"I will say here only that I was twice married. I cannot say much more on this point about the 40 years in which I shared my bed with one woman or the other, because I am in absolutely no sense doing so as I write. They were in their entirely different ways close friends, and the first of them, the correct beauty, the censor, the terrified, gave me the great gift of children. I believe that the second, the wild one, and I were, in our good times, copains [buddies], but for reasons that no longer exist we later weren't."

We learn that today he sleeps on his large bed, diagonally. It is the geometry of a life, at any rate, if not the life itself.

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