Frank Kermode

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Frank Kermode, who died Aug. 17 at 90, was England's best-known and most admired literary critic. It does not, I suppose, speak altogether well of my profession that he seemed almost startling in his unpretentiousness, lucidity and common sense. Impressively learned, he was determined to write not only for academic specialists but also for that most elusive audience, the broad reading public.

He did so not by making himself into an omnipresent television personality or by contriving to talk down to his readers but rather by finding ways to convey in clear, cool prose the significance of literary pleasure. Among his many works, his most familiar is probably the brilliant book The Sense of an Ending (1967), with its subtle reflections on the ways in which the chaos of everyday existence is fashioned into coherent narratives. But my personal favorite is Shakespeare's Language (2000), a luminous account of how Shakespeare achieves his mysterious effects.

One of Kermode's books is called Forms of Attention, a title that highlights the peculiar, quiet intensity of his observations, both on the page and--for those of us who knew him--in person. He always seemed to me to hold himself at a slight distance even from his own life, as if to get whatever he was observing more sharply into focus.

But perhaps this distance was only a sign of his sense of himself as an outsider. Though in the course of his long career he received a plethora of honors, including knighthood, he always retained the perspective of a person born on the Isle of Man, the son of a warehouse worker and a former waitress. His wry, quizzical autobiography is called Not Entitled.

Greenblatt is the author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and the forthcoming Shakespeare's Freedom