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The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (with a New… (1967)

by Frank Kermode

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325357,267 (3.85)29
Frank Kermode is one of our most distinguished critics of English literature. Here, he contributes a new epilogue to his collection of classic lectures on the relationship of fiction to age-old concepts of apocalyptic chaos and crisis. Prompted by the approach of the millennium, he revisitsthe book which brings his highly concentrated insights to bear on some of the most unyielding philosophical and aesthetic enigmas. Examining the works of writers from Plato to William Burrows, Kermode shows how they have persistently imposed their "fictions" upon the face of eternity and how thesehave reflected the apocalyptic spirit. Kermode then discusses literature at a time when new fictive explanations, as used by Spenser and Shakespeare, were being devised to fit a world of uncertain beginning and end. He goes on to deal perceptively with modern literature with "traditionalists" suchas Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce, as well as contemporary "schismatics," the French "new novelists," and such seminal figures as Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett. Whether weighing the difference between modern and earlier modes of apocalyptic thought, considering the degeneration of fiction into myth,or commenting on the vogue of the Absurd, Kermode is distinctly lucid, persuasive, witty, and prodigal of ideas.… (more)
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t's taken me a long, long time to finish this book of six essays, originally delivered as lectures by the academic literary critic Frank Kermode. I initially came across it when I was researching the Julian Barnes novel of the same name, and there is a strong relationship between them; Barnes clearly set out to write a novel exemplifying the simplest understanding of Kermode's ideas, that awareness of the end informs the preceding events.

There's a lot more. Basically, Kermode identifies the idea of a beginning and and end of the world, or existence, as having a profound effect on both literature and philosophy. Living as we do in a society where most of us have casually assumed the idea, along with our own (usually shuttered) awareness of our own eventual end, the opposite idea may not have occurred to us, the idea of a circular unending time. The early Church philosophers were intensely occupied with this eschatology, and of course influenced the expanding Christian world. The author goes over, in sometimes excruciating detail, the various points at which the end of the world was prophesied and eagerly, or not so eagerly, anticipated, and how he feels that the existentialists, all those years later, were in some ways the logical if rebellious extension of that thinking.

Or at least I think that's what the author was saying. It's a very dense book, which I read with my trusty online dictionary at hand. I will be reading it again, I'm sure, because as dense as it is, it is equally fascinating to see how our modern fiction as well as our modern society embodies these ideas. ( )
  ffortsa | Dec 12, 2018 |
You might, as you read Frank Kermode’s famous book, imagine yourself in the audience at Bryn Mawr College in the autumn of 1965 as he delivered the Mary Flexner Lectures of which the book consists. Perhaps even in that first lecture, titled “The End,” you would have surreptitiously looked about the hall to see how many of those present were taking it in. A fair number would have nodded at mention of Yeats, or murmured at the quotes from Wallace Stevens. I might have felt comforted by an Aristotle name check. But would they all be smiling sanguinely when the talk moved on to the eschatological, on to Apocalypse, Revelation, and the end of things? And would they have been any more comforted when Kermode’s hermeneutical insights were applied to fiction in the form of Robbe-Grillet? My guess is that a lot of those in the hall would have been like me, relieved that Kermode’s lectures would later be issued in the form of a book so that they could go over the content again in their own time. Having read through the text in its entirety, however, like me you may still be in the position of firmly believing that it will all make sense on the next pass.

Kermode’s erudition is breathtaking. The six essays draw on texts from philosophy, religion, theology, fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and sociology. His argument is at once far-reaching and subtle. Recurrent apocalyptic movements, he might argue, are manifestations of our in-built need for the conferral of meaning, the consonance of meaning conveyed through the sense of an ending. This demand is as much an aspect of our religious and theological thought, as it is constitutive of our literary endeavours. ‘Tick’ anticipates ‘Tock’. The gap between those two serves as the model of narrative form and the source of our contestable relationship with time.

That’s a glancing shot at best at one of Kermode’s key points. The book as a whole, slim volume though it is, is filled with both philosophical or narratological insights (not all of which the reader may wish to take up) but the real treat is their application to the business of criticism. Kermode is a marvel when he reads Spencer’s Faerie Queene, or Shakespeare’s Lear, or Sartre’s La Nausée. Or maybe it was just that in those bits I imagined his audience perking up with the thought that here at last was something they could get their heads around.

I haven’t finished with this book. But I feel certain that another couple of reads will solidify its central points for me. I always feel that way, no sense that the ending is yet in sight. Always worth another read. ( )
2 vote RandyMetcalfe | Nov 25, 2012 |
Dense, English major vocabulary and conceptual structure. Well written study of the effects of conceptions of "The End" on writing, reading, thinking, and being. ( )
  Heggaia | Nov 28, 2011 |
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