Sir Frank Kermode was one of those special writers whose work I revered. His name quickened my pulse when I saw one of his articles listed in the table of contents of the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books or other publications for which he wrote. Through the years, he was one of my literary masters.
While his pieces on contemporary writers like Philip Roth or Don DeLillo were excellent, I loved his work on Shakespeare, Donne, Milton and other classic English writers . His writing could be dry, with subtle ironies I struggled to "get." At his best, his writing displayed the grace, wit and erudition of the great English critics, in a line going back to William Empson, T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold and Samuel Johnson.
More and more, I mark the deaths of writers and artists who almost became friends over the years as I encountered their work. Just before reading of Kermode's death at the age of 90, I'd read a posthumous memoir by Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books about Judt's formative years at King's College, Cambridge. Kermode was a key figure of Judt's years at King's College. Like Judt, Kermode eventually left King's, one signal of a long, slow decline that Judt registers with sadness. Kermode came to the United States to teach at Harvard.
Now, I won't have that excitement of discovery at the fresh appearance of one of Kermode's essays. However, he leaves behind an impressive body of work in books on Shakespeare and other writers and his wornderful memoir "Not Entitled" which gives a vivid recounting of his rise from a humble, non-literary background on the Isle of Man.
One of his celebrated books was "The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction," and his death truly marks the final stages of a long era. He represented the culture of the book and printing, the spread of a literate public that emerged from Gutenberg's printing press. With the Internet and e-publishing, that era appears in eclipse, although it stubbornly hangs on. No matter which form it may take, writing like Kermode's will remain necessary to human awareness.