Pleasing Myself: from Beowulf to Philip Roth
Scholars seem to know each other. I
must admit I'm not a scholar yet, and hadn't known about the late
Frank Kermode (Prof. Sir Frank Kermode FBA was his full title)
until I pulled this book from my monthly LibreandoClub subscription
package. Thinking me a highbrow reader after a few critical reviews
of earlier books, the Libreando choosers have lately been sending me exclusively
highbrow literature: prize winners, learned essays, and recently
They seem to have understood exactly why I read, why anybody reads: to imagine ourselves as what we'd like to be. For the space of 260 delightful pages I got to imagine myself as a renowned and respected book reviewer.
A scholar of eminent learning, Sir
Frank Kermode reviewed the learned, scholarly literature for his peers who wanted to know about the latest new releases. First in
this collection comes a Beowulf translation. Kermode took the time to
explain the plot and history of Beowulf, talk about how it was read
and received over the years. Then he compares Seamus Heaney's poetic translation with R. M. Luizza's older, strictly literal version and
recommends us to buy both.
Pleasing myself contains two reviews of novels: William Golding's The Double Tongue, posthumously published, and Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth. Kermode enjoyed both. He gives the reader an overview over the authors' other works, an idea of their style and personality, and a synopsis of the plot. The famous reviewer's one flaw, if I have to find one, is in this, the synopsis. He retells the main plot points and the ending. Spoilers, forbidden to the reviewers of commercial fiction, are apparently accepted in the parallel world of academia.
Fortunately, most of the essays in this book concern works of non-fiction. All biographies lead up to the same, inevitable ending, so we can hardly speak of spoilers. The biographees include poets, artists and philosophers. Frank Kermode seems to have been an omnivorous reader, for he also reviews books about smells, surprising depictions of Jesus in Renaissance art, Bible exegesis, the meaning of money and a poetic travelogue, among others. He is usually pleased with what he reads, not because he were easy to please but because, it seems, he wanted to offer us a pleasant collection. Only one of his essays condemns: Certain historians insist on finding politics in every work of literature, drawing far-fetched and absurd conclusions. About one such conclusion Kermode writes: "This is new, certainly; whether it is sensible is a question."
Praising or condemning, Frank Kermode talks to us calmly. Or is he talking to himself? He puts it this way in the short introduction: "[The review-essay] is in my view a satisfactory genre, for the writer can be moderately expansive and please himself, as well as modestly explanatory and willing to please, with due amenity, the sort of reader who reads these journals." To please himself and to please the reader - I daresay he achieved both.
Christina Widmann de Fran