Coping with change - the art of the good literary critic; The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction, by Frank Kermode. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 229 pp. $15.
For those who may follow the ongoing history of literary criticism, Frank Kermode's latest book exemplifies a critic coping with change. Kermode, an Englishman now teaching at Columbia University, retains the common-sense empiricism of the traditional British critic while remaining receptive to theoretical trends too often rejected by some of his compatriots in fits of transatlantic xenophobia.
Aware that the prospect of interpretive freedom (particularly the ''liberties'' taken by critics like Roland Barthes and Jacques Der-rida) alarms his more orthodox colleagues, Kermode suggests that innovative techniques will eventually find a place in the mainstream. One of those techniques is structuralism, a predominantly French interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes the underlying structures - anthropological, cultural, social, and semiotic - of a literary work. Another is deconstructionism, a radical questioning of structuralist assumptions, emphasizing elements of freedom and play in a literary work.
Kermode observes that half a century ago the ''new critics'' shocked the academic establishment by proposing to read texts outside their biographical and historical contexts. This innovation has since been taken up by the establishment (though it has not taken over the establishment). Thus are radical theories absorbed by critical tradition.
Kermode's reasonable view of continuity and change, of innovation being absorbed into the mainstream of critical tradition, might strike the average reader as unobjectionable, perhaps even unassailable. Not so. Recalling the excitement of a seminar some years ago on the new French theories on change, Kermode laments the subsequent demise of such discussions, which were marked by ''a willingness to express lively disagreement without rancor.'' In the past decade, he feels, the tone of academic discourse has soured. Many now regard change as a threat rather than a challenge. ''We lack a great man who might, like Eliot, hold together the new and the traditional. . . . Unfortunately we do not lack doctrinaire and unconsidering people on both sides of the argument.''
Modestly declining to nominate himself for Eliot's role, Kermode proceeds to explore what he sees as the middle ground, expounding some of the new critical theories and reexamining some of the classic novels of our tradition (''Adam Bede,'' ''The Good Soldier,'' ''Under Western Eyes'') as well as the works of writers like Pynchon and Burgess.
Kermode sees fiction, or the art of narrative, as a special form of interpretation. ''The author of a story,'' he says, ''is its first interpreter.'' Turning to the Gospels, he examines how Matthew and Luke chose different ways of telling/interpreting the story of the temptation of Jesus. While Matthew's version shows the temptation as a fulfillment of earlier Hebraic pattern, Luke's represents it as a prelude to Jesus' future trials.
The rise of Protestantism, Kermode notes, made every reader his own potential interpreter of Scripture. Kermode cites Hans Frei's remark that in Germany this led to hermeneutics (the science of interpretation), while in England it led to the novels of Fielding and Richardson - new stories to reinterpret old ones (as ''Joseph Andrews'' retells the biblical story of Joseph). Critics who interpret novels are thus interpreters of interpreters, entitled not only to try to reconstruct a novelist's intentions but also to offer their own retellings and reinterpretations of the text.
Incorporating some of the nouvelle ideas from France, Kermode suggests that narrative is like partially opaque glass: The reader should try both to see through it and to look at it. The texture (opacity) of the writing, he reminds us, may be as important (in some cases more so) as the story it conveys, though the naive reader is anxious to forget the words and get down to the story.
With clarity and cogency, Kermode explains the ideas of theorists like Barthes and theoretically inspired practitioners like Alain Robbe-Grillet. The latter would dispense with story altogether in favor of texts which resist easy reading (lisibilite) and call forth inventive efforts from the reader. But unlike Barthes, Kermode sees no clear line of demarcation between transparently readable (lisible) classics and opaquely problematic (scriptible) modern texts. Not just modern narratives, but all narratives, he argues, are ''plural, self-examining, incapable of full closure.'' No narrative is as simple as it seems. Certainly, those we've come to regard as classics are classics because they continue to reveal fresh significance as time goes by.
For all his admiration for Barthes and la nouvelle critique, Kermode shrewdly speculates that such anticlassical fervor may be ''part of the continuing French reaction against an atavistic academic criticism.'' Indeed, taking Kermode's insight one step further, one might ask if such anticlassicism is not a kind of classicism in drag, for in Barthes, as in the prototypical 17th-century French classicist Boileau, we find the same emphasis on form over content, the same predilection for prescription over description. If French academicism is a stately masque, perhaps Barthes's reaction to it is a bizarre anti-masque.
Despite - or perhaps because of - his belief in pluralism, Kermode's attitude toward academe as an institution is surprisingly reverential. Ideally, he thinks the institution, like the good critic, should have confidence in its own competence while remaining open to change. At the same time, Kermode sees an insuperable gap between holders of PhDs and those without. Certainly, a PhD means something, but the texture and patterns of Kermode's prose as he tackles this subject seem uncomfortably reminiscent of Barthes's either/or approach to the classic vs. modern question. Over and over, Kermode sets ''we'' who know against ''they'' who don't. But this is a very minor cavil about a book filled with important insights into literature and some very timely analysis of its critical crosscurrents.