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A Review of: Pieces of My Mind: Writings 1958 - 2002
by Michael Kinsella

Pieces of My Mind is a mischievous title. To a general reader it might suggest a book made up of a casual selection of stray prose. Kermode's Preface' refers to the choice of a variety of topics as unsystematic'. Careful scrutiny, however, reveals that what we have in this book are purposefully given glimpses of what a particular critic has been up to' for over forty years. Pieces of My Mind includes work from those books that have secured Kermode's position as one of the most distinguished literary critics of his generation, The Sense of an Ending (1967), The Classic (1975), The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), Forms of Attention (1985). As well, there are reminders of his bestselller Shakespeare's Language (2000) along with some previously unpublished essays. Significantly, the essays, lectures and reviews in Pieces of My Mind, not only reflect the breadth of his engagements with various artists-dancers, novelists, poets, painters, composers and critics-the insights these pieces yield, as Kermode's title reminds us, also serve to reveal a great deal about Kermode himself. In other words, they give us a piece of him and perhaps nowhere more so than when exploring the craft' of literary criticism.
Kermode's Preface' describes the function of the critic as offering explanation', elucidation' and comparison'. He states that the purpose of the review is to entertain', amuse' and inform', and when he prefaces each piece' with some introductory and often autobiographical remarks, he is not only demonstrating preferences when it comes to his own practice of literary criticism and reviewing, he is also prescribing and trying to direct other critics and reviewers. And if these essays and reviews explore, among other things, the nature of modernity-what constitutes nowadays as a masterwork or performance-they are provide answers to the far more simple question: why do we turn to critical writing?
Concerning the purpose of criticism, Kermode appears to be in a bit of a muddle, especially in deciding whether criticism is or is not an art. He is rightly embarrassed by the writing produced on academic assembly lines. As the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English at University College London, the King Edward VII Professor at Cambridge and the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, he has had an insider's knowledge of the pressures institutions apply on academics to publish. Nevertheless, he will not concede that "critics are cuckoos in the nest of art." Instead, his more assured assertion, which seems to echo Wordsworth's 1802 Preface, claiming that criticism "must, give pleasure" appears finally to align the reviewer-critic with the artist.
If we imagine the critic or reviewer as pitting themselves against a poem, play or novel, we should remember that they do so by practicing a "craft" most closely affiliated with literature. Like literature, literary criticism and reviewing are exercises in the use of language-whether in spoken or written form. At their rudimentary, level they play with words and ideas. It is then hardly surprising that there have been those who have insisted that "criticism is or may be an art", an "old claim" that Kermode thinks should be "toned down."
It could be added that when it was not being advertised as an art, critical theory has often aped scientific language. How should we look upon these divergent claims regarding the function of criticism? Do not the conflicting "criticism is or may be an art" and its repackaging as a science suggest that the position of the discipline is at best uncertain? Yet this uncertainty is perhaps its finest asset. For when criticism aspires stringently to have the flair of art or the rigours of a science, it endangers its place as a discipline which should remain titillatingly ambivalent.
As with criticism, the status of the review also seems unclear. As a genre that falls "comfortably between the newspaper notice and the seven-thousand-word lecture or essay" it seems, according to Kermode's description, to be not quite journalism nor an academic study. "The product," he reminds us, "is barely remembered after publication," but he rightly defends its "virtues", arguing that it is "a rather unselfish occupation" which accepts "the fate of ephemerality as a condition of the employment." Still, if the fate of the review is short-lived, Kermode's insightful shorter notices'-what he calls reviews-do remind us that the review/essay is still a useful site for contesting the relative merits of the arts.
Ultimately, literary criticism has a responsibility-whether "paying tribute, or even when cavilling," as Kermode sees it-not to any literary theory or agenda but to entertain and engage the reader, with what we might want to liken to a well spun story. And among the best' stories in Pieces of My Mind are: "The Man in the Macintosh", a study on narrative interruptions in St. Mark's Gospel via Ulysses; "Secrets and Narrative Sequence" on the necessity of crumpling well ironed readings; "Mixed Feelings", on how our reading of art can be coloured by our disillusions with an artist's politics; and staying with the poets of the thirties generation, is "Eros, Builder of Cities", a defence of the early Auden. With regard to the latter piece, it was unnecessary for Kermode to be so reductive in its description of Louis MacNeice as a minor poet. It seems remiss of Kermode to refer to how "modern Irish poets know something about struggle, and the entanglements of private and public life"-think of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley-and forget the indebtedness of this group to MacNeice's example when dealing with such entanglements. Indeed, when Kermode asserts "the rightness of the plurality of interpretations," in an essay on that fallen-paradise-of-a-novel Wuthering Heights, he is promoting an ideal in a language as suddenly rich as MacNeice's poetry.
Other well told essays are those on "Memory" and "Forgetting"-"memory", as Kermode reminds us, "always entails forgetting"-and "The Cambridge Connection", a wonderful potted history of English literature as a "proper form of academic study." Among the more memorable reviews are his prickly remarks on the diaries of James Lees-Milne, and generous if teasing praise for Martin Amis's book The War Against Clich: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000. Here is a witty example from the latter: "Amis always feels able to acknowledge greatness without denying that it can be boring and make insolent demands on one's time. This combination of unaffected admiration and critical honesty is very attractive."
If Kermode is right to suggest that "the clearer and more lucid the commentary the better for art," he does say elsewhere that "the contradiction of the critic" may replicate a conflict in the art work. Might this then imply that a devotion to "clarity" is not necessarily everything? For what seems to be preferable, to him, is "the pursuit of interpretations," even if all interpretations, as he reminds us, proceed from "prejudice".
Unlike the English essayist, Sydney Smith, who remarked that one should "never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so," Kermode is interested in a scholarly approach "of abnormally close attention." In this respect, literary essays and reviews-and we would include those in Pieces of My Mind-have the potential to relate the adventures of a reader's soul; in other words, as Kermode says of the art historian Aby Warburg, they "can use other men's [and women's] thoughts and systems of ideas as stimulants rather than as schemes he [or she] might or might not adopt." And it might even be possible, if not desirable, to imagine that a review or essay is all the more pleasurable to read because it has its own enigmas and muddles. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson's delightfully eccentric definition, thankfully, no single essay, critical study or review, by its very nature, can possibly consume a work of art; but by leaving us still hungry they allow appetites for them to grow. So, although we have been-as Kermode argues about narrative-"programmed to prefer fulfillment", the most brilliant reviews and studies in Pieces of My Mind might be said to disappoint in a way that makes us promise to ourselves to try and learn more about the art that enters our lives, and never allow it to leave.

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