Having proved himself as adept a reader of modern literature as of the Renaissance, Kermode was now in a position to reach beyond the specialised world of the academy. He became a sought-after reviewer and publisher's adviser. "This is the age of the guru," he told Fontana Press. "We should do a series of gurus." They did: the Modern Masters, for which he served as editor, was phenomenally successful in providing comprehensible introductions to many of the demanding thinkers who shaped the intellectual life of the 20th century. When I was 17, everything I knew about Wittgenstein, Freud, Nietzsche, Lévi-Strauss and a dozen other daunting names came from these dazzling little volumes with their cool geometric cover designs.
The poet who proves most congenial to Kermode's sense of the literary work as an autonomous second world, sufficient unto itself, is the American actuary, Wallace Stevens. Kermode's elegant and deeply intelligent study of his work was the first book on him to have been published in England. "Notes towards a Supreme Fiction," the title of Stevens' manifesto poem, could serve as the epigraph for Kermode's entire literary-critical career.
Over the years, he became increasingly interested in the most supreme fiction of all: the Bible. The narrative line from Genesis to Revelation might be considered the archetype for all literary works. Kermode's 1967 study The Sense of an Ending (OUP) developed a theory of narrative out of such a thought, focusing on closure rather than opening: to imagine apocalypse is to impose order on the chaos of experience by suggesting that everything is leading to a particular ending. This, Kermode suggested, is what fiction means. We might call the proposition a postmodern twist on the Whig interpretation of history.
The Genesis of Secrecy (Harvard, 1979) also uses the Bible as its archetypal text. But here something has changed. The figure of the Interpreter has come into the foreground. The confident sense of structure that shaped the earlier books has disappeared and Kermode is now fascinated by gaps and absences, loose ends and contradictions. There is a strange little vignette in Mark's Gospel when Jesus is arrested: "And they all forsook him, and fled. And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked." This marginal figure of the naked young man — about whom we hear nothing more — becomes Kermode's symbolic interpreter. In seeking to strip the veil of obscurity from the text, he exposes not its meaning but his own nakedness.
What happened between 1967 and 1979 was that Kermode fell for the seductive charm of French Theory. As Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, he hosted a famous seminar that brought all the new gurus from Paris and Yale. This was the age of "the death of the author" and of Jacques Derrida's claim "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("there is nothing outside the text"). Kermode welcomed the new. Deconstructive Theory seemed but the logical extension of the idea of textual autonomy that he had developed in his work on pastoral, on Stevens and on the temporal structure of narrative. And there was quiet satisfaction to be derived from shaking up the tweedy Oxbridge-dominated world of EngLitCrit.