‘The marvellously playful and difficult novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, who has died aged 88, was fond of the device of omission. In her 1968 novel Between, she left out the verb “to be” throughout, to stress the narrator’s disoriented sense of personal identity – the year before George Perec’s novel La Disparition omitted the letter “e”. She left out the word “I” from her autobiographical novels Remake (1996) and Life, End Of (2006), instead describing the narrator as “the old lady”. In her 1998 novel Next, which had 26 narrators, each of whose names began with a different letter of the alphabet, she omitted the verb “to have” to emphasise the deprivation of the homeless Londoners in the book.
‘As if to continue the theme of erasure, Britain has all but airbrushed one of its most radical exponents of experimental fiction. When Brooke-Rose published a volume of criticism in 2002, it was not, perhaps, entirely devotion to Roland Barthes’ death of the author thesis that led to her to call it Invisible Author.
‘Many critics hailed her fiction, for all that it was sometimes scarcely comprehensible or pleasurable to those ignorant of the underpinning theory. Ellen G Friedman put Brooke-Rose among those 20th-century experimental female writers – Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein – whose novels “explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative”. Brooke-Rose wrote 16 novels, five collections of criticism and several collections of short stories and poems. Frank Kermode considered that her originality and skills deserved “a greater measure of admiration and respect than we have so far chosen to accord them”.
‘In 1974, Brooke-Rose began writing her first novel, The Languages of Love, much of which was set in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The Sycamore Tree (1958) similarly involved London intellectuals, but her third novel, The Dear Deceit (1960), saw the first stirrings of narrative experiment. In it, a man traces the life of his deceased father backwards from death to birth. Throughout this period, she worked as a reviewer and freelance journalist for the New Statesman, Observer, Sunday Times and Times Literary Supplement.
‘In 1962 she underwent kidney surgery. One result of this was her first truly experimental novel, Out (1964), which was compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s formally adventurous La Jalousie (1957). Brooke-Rose was becoming a nouveau romancier: later she scorned that description while conceding the influence of Robbe-Grillet, whose novels she translated, on her reinvention as a writer. Out was narrated by a white character facing racial discrimination in the aftermath of a nuclear war, with pale skin now indicating radiation poisoning and dark skin health.
‘Increasingly invisible in Britain, Brooke-Rose crossed the Channel in 1968 and flourished. She had already that year separated from her second husband; a third marriage, to Claude Brooke, was to be brief. She taught linguistics and English literature at the newly founded University of Paris (Vincennes), a bastion of counter-cultural thought where, in 1975, she became professor of English and American literature and literary theory. After retiring from teaching in 1988, she settled in a village near Avignon on the grounds that French public healthcare is superior to Britain’s.
‘Her critical works included A Structural Analysis of Pound’s Usura Canto: Jakobson’s Method Extended and Applied to Free Verse (1976), A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (1981) and the relatively jaunty A ZBC of Ezra Pound (1971), produced alongside wildly inventive fiction.
‘It was the conceit of Thru (1975) that the students on a university creative writing course collectively construct the narrative. The resulting text included student essays with handwritten changes to typed text, musical notations, mathematical formulas, diagrams, and CVs. In an interview she conceded that this self-conscious deconstruction of narrativity was written tongue in cheek “for a few narratologist friends”. Textermination (1991) was set at a conference in San Francisco, attended by characters from Austen, Flaubert, Eliot, Pynchon, Roth and Rushdie, who petition potential readers with the help of literary critics who “interpret” them for the masses.
‘In Life, End Of, her final novel, the 80-something narrator finds that the world has grown dull, even those parts of it that were supposed to be ring-fenced from stupefaction. As the narrator writes: “Montaigne says life’s purpose is to teach us to die. However, the standard of teaching is now so low that the task is getting tougher and tougher …” The pleasures of writing now become mere palliatives: in a mock-technical lecture from a character to an uninterested author, the author comes to accept that her experiments in narrative are like pain-killers, and that, like life, they no longer matter.
‘Decay is ubiquitous: the old lady disintegrates physically as meaning, too, falls apart. Her legs “flinch wince jerk shirk lapse collapse give way stagger like language when it can’t present the exact word needed, the exact spot where to put the foot”. Never mind: she has Samuel Beckett’s gallows humour and can still pun bilingually. She recalls that Descartes thought the pineal gland to be the seat of the soul, “thus putting de cart before dehors”.
‘Questions remain. Was this last book written to fill a spiritual gap, and to teach us to die? Was the old lady’s life story, ultimately, the author’s? Did the author see her fictional experiments as finally unimportant? Brooke-Rose omitted, surely programmatically, to give us answers.’ — collaged
Christine Brooke-Rose @ Wikipedia
‘Christine Brooke-Rose: the great British experimentalist you’ve never heard of’
Christine Brooke-Rose: An Inventory of Her Papers
‘Celebrating Christine Brooke-Rose’ @ TLS
‘R.I.P. Christine Brooke-Rose’ @ HTMLGIANT
‘The life and work of the late, great experimental writer, Christine Brooke-Rose’
Christine Brooke-Rose © Orlando Project
Christine Brooke-Rose’s ‘The Lunatic Fringe’
‘The Criticism of Christine Brooke-Rose’ @ Waggish
‘Hello Christine Brooke-Rose, R.I.P.’
Podcast: Christine Brooke-Rose and A. S. Byatt, in conversation
Excerpts from CB-R’s ‘Amalgamemnon’
Interview with Christine Brooke-Rose
Anna Aslanyan on the Christine Brooke-Rose symposium
from The Review of Contemporary Fiction
In your essay “Ill Iterations,” which you wrote for “Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction,” you mention the difficulties experimental writers face when they are male, but you say also that the differences are compounded when the experimental writer happens to be a female. Will you talk about those difficulties for the woman writer?
CBR: Yes, although it took a long time to become aware of them. Once in Paris, quite a long time ago, Helene Cixous rang me up and asked me to write something about the difficulties I’ve had as a woman writer. Naively, I said, “Well, I haven’t had any difficulties as a I “woman” writer. I’ve had difficulties that “any” writer would have; can I write about that?” And she said, “Oh, no.” She wanted something feminist. I was a bit antifeminist in those days, in the early 1970s. I didn’t consciously feel that I had had any difficulties. My later revision of that feeling came from genuine experience. As I look back over my career I realize that, in fact, I did have difficulties, but I took them for granted, as part of the nature of things. From the moment I went experimental, however, when I wrote “Out,” and my then-publishers couldn’t understand it and turned it down, I did actually start having difficulties. And when I wrote that essay for you, I started looking back and thinking about it, trying to fathom it out, and I became aware that the woman experimental writer has more difficulties than the man experimental writer, in the sense that, however much men have accepted women’s writing, there is still this basic assumption, which is unconscious, that women cannot create new forms. They can imitate others, they can imitate their little lives, tell their love stories and their difficulties and so on, and they do it extremely well. I’m not downgrading that kind of writing. But if by any chance they dare to experiment, then they are imitating a male movement, and usually one that’s already dead. In my case, I always get the label “nouveau roman” in English because “nouveau roman” is, from the English point of view, safely dead and no one talks about it anymore. In other words, all one is capable of as a woman is to do what the men do, and not so well. There is an unconscious refusal, really, to look at what I’m doing in any kind of detail. Whereas men experimenters or innovators of any kind do get that sort of attention.
What does the phrase “utterly other discourse” from your novel Amalgamemnon mean for you? Do you feel that you are writing “utterly other discourses”?
CBR: In Amalgamemnon, it doesn’t actually mean that. It doesn’t refer to the writing, it refers to the woman reading and thinking quite other things until she has to switch back to talking to the man. In fact, though, I do feel that my writing is different. I haven’t actually seen other writing quite like mine, but it is very difficult for me to say how “other” it is, or even whether it’s any good. I can’t really judge it, so I can’t really answer that questions. I do what I want to do.
But you did make a conscious decision at one point in your career to write the indeterminate novel, rather than something realistic?
CBR: What a strange opposition. The realistic novel has its own indeterminacies. But anyway, it didn’t happen that way at all. It was much more negative than that. I was simply dissatisfied with what I was doing. I had written four novels, which are really quite traditional, satirical, comic novels. I did experiment with time in one of them, which was written backwards, for instance, so that in each chapter the hero gets younger and younger. But that was still classical irony. They were basically traditional modern novels, if I can use such a phrase, in that the main concern was, like most novels, epistemological, concerned with reality and illusion. But I felt it was too easy. It was great fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted. Originally, when I was very young, I used to write poetry every day, but I soon discovered that I was not a poet; but that urge to write poetry . . .
But you are a poet.
CBR: Perhaps, but I had to get around to it in a very different way. I then thought I had found myself as a novelist, but after those four early novels I realized it still wasn’t what I wanted. So eventually—yes, I do now write very poetic novels, more deeply poetic at any rate than the poems I was writing every day. At the time of this dissatisfaction, I suppose it was Nathalie Sarraute’s The Age of Suspicion, and her putting the modern novel in question, which was the first turning point for me, much more so than her novels, for although I like them very much, I can’t say there’s a direct influence of Nathalie Sarraute on what I write. Whereas Robbe-Grillet did have a direct influence, at least on Out. But I soon got out of it. So it wasn’t a decision to write indeterminate novels as such. It was simply a decision not to go on writing as I used to write. But the other thing that happened was much more important. I had a very serious illness, lost a kidney and had a very long convalescence. I fell into a semi-trancelike state for a long time. I was very much thinking of death as the meaning of life. And I began to write Out, which is a very “sick” novel. I think one can feel that. I imagine a time when the whites are discriminated against; the whole color bar is reversed. But the reason the whites are discriminated against is because they are sick, dying from this mysterious radiation disease to which the colored people are more immune. My protagonist is a sick old man who cannot get a job and cannot remember his previous status. This exactly reproduced the state of illness that I was in, so in that sense of protection it was still a very mimetic novel. But I wasn’t consciously trying to do anything different. I started writing a sentence and fell back on the pillow exhausted. I didn’t really know where I was going, and it took me a long time to write it. I was groping. So I don’t think it was a conscious decision. But then with Such I really took off on my own. I don’t think there’s any more influence of Robbe-Grillet on Such. I would say that Such is my first really “Me” novel, where I don’t owe anything to anyone else.
Can you characterize that “Me-ness”?
CBR: I think Such is more imaginative, for one thing. It’s still, of course, concerned with death since the man dies and is brought back to life. Again, I don’t explain why. I get much more interested, in fact, in the impact of language on the imagination. I suppose it’s really with Between that I discovered what I could do with language. With Such it’s still a fairly straightforward use of language, but very much in another world with this slow return to reality as the man comes back to life, but he then sees the stars as radiation. And having hit on that idea but not really knowing where I was going, I then had to do a lot of work, learn something about astrophysics, for example, since I was using it as a metaphor for the world. It’s in Such that I discovered that jargon, of whatever kind, has great poetry. For instance if you take a scientific law and use it literally, it becomes a metaphor. Of course, this is a schoolboy joke. If the teacher says, “Weight consists of the attraction between two bodies, ” everybody giggles. But if you take it further and use more complicated astrophysical laws about bouncing signals on the moon, for instance, to express the distance between people, then it becomes a very active metaphor. Yet it’s treated as ontological in the world of the fiction, like a sunset or a tree. So this sort of thing, you see, isn’t a conscious decision, it’s a discovery.
Is that how you would define the experimental novel?
CBR: Yes, in a way. People often use the term “experimental novel” to mean just something peculiar, or as a genre in itself (on the same level as “realistic” or “fantastic” or “romantic” or “science” fiction). But to experiment is really not knowing where you’re going and discovering. Experimenting with language, experimenting with form and discovering things, and sometimes you might get it wrong and it just doesn’t come off. When I discovered that there is great beauty in technical language (and this comes into its own in Thru where I actually use critical jargon as poetry), I also discovered that there’s beauty and humor in confronting different discourses, jostling them together, including, for instance, computer language. In Such it’s astrophysics and in Between it’s all the languages, the lunatic, empty speech-making of different congresses, political, sociological, literary and so on, and of course, actual languages, different languages, all jostled together, since my protagonist, who’s a simultaneous interpreter, is always in different countries. Discourse became my subject matter. So discovery is one meaning of “experimental,” and this would be, to answer your earlier question, my “utterly other discourse,” where the actual language is different from the language you and I are using now, or that I find in other books. The second meaning is to see how far I can go with language, with vocabulary and syntax, and this is much more conscious.
Can we assume that we do not need to worry that you’re moving towards realism?
CBR: Were you worrying? Well, I might be, you know. I have nothing against realism. Why not? I think I say somewhere in “A Rhetoric of the Unreal” that realism may come back, but in a new form, refreshed by all this. We already have magic realism and hyper-realism after all. Fantastic realism. The real made unreal and vice versa. Sometimes there is a period of tremendous experiment, and then somehow the old thing comes back again, renewed by all the experimenting that’s been going on. That may be the only useful purpose of such an experiment, I just don’t know. But that doesn’t concern me too much. I also think that the way “experiment” is set against “realism,” the way I and others are said to be working against the “realistic” novel, is a great oversimplification. Even the most experimental, most postmodern writer is still basically realistic. They may not be “imitating” reality, in the sense of reproducing a familiar situation, but ultimately they’re representing something. There’s always a representative function simply because language is representative. There have been very naive attitudes towards representation, and we’ve all become much more self-conscious about it, but I don’t think we can actually get out of representation.
Christine Brooke-Rose Textermination
‘In Textermination, the eminent British novelist/critic Christine Brooke-Rose pulls a wide array of characters out of the great works of literature and drops them into the middle of the San Francisco Hilton. Emma Bovary, Emma Woodhouse, Captain Ahab, Odysseus, Huck Finn… all are gathered to meet, to discuss, to pray for their continued existence in the mind of the modern reader. But what begins as a grand enterprise erupts into total pandemonium: with characters from different times, places, and genres all battling for respect and asserting their own hard-won fame and reputations. Dealing with such topical literary issues as deconstruction, multiculturalism, and the Salman Rushdie affair, this wild and humorous satire pokes fun at the academy and ultimately brings into question the value of determining a literary canon at all.’ — New Directions
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Well, not picky, actually. ‘Woke’ is awful, to be used tinged with sarcasm only. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Well, our sales agency is strangely positive about an eventual if no doubt tiny US release for ‘PGL’, but I feel pretty skeptical. I think the vast, vast majority of what I consider great films made in the 80s and earlier would be almost implausibly lucky to even get made now. ** Bernard, Hi, B. They were escorts, not slaves, if that makes a difference. See, I thought that lad’s ‘same inside’ thing, especially in its nervous CAPs-mixed form, was very vulnerable and appealing thereby, as if to say that by choosing him, one would get more than just another asshole, which made him more chooseable, but I am rather romantic, and I am obviously interested in the escort ad form and drawn to those who try a novel approach. That’s dire prediction you’re making there. Can I ask what it is of late that makes this particular phase of the endlessly scary hell up top feel more imminently destructive? In any case, I am continually so glad I’m not there. ** Jamie, Hey J-J Binks. Up? You know the drill. Work work. Saw a good music gig last night. Got to take a VIP tour of the Musee d’Orsay yesterday ‘cos an acquaintance is now the museum’s contemporary art director. I think maybe it takes a while to realise that escorts and slaves posts are not what they’re presented as being but rather sex-themed and illustrated collections of experimental poetry and prose? That would be one of my guesses. Mm, cocaine hangovers, yes. I hear you, bro. Gisele is on tour with our piece ‘Jerk’ right now, so we won’t get her feedback until next Wednesday, and we’ll just keep working ahead in the direction we’ve been going with fingers crossed that she won’t have red-penned the whole thing. Best of the best of luck locking into that writing groove. As someone fairly grooved, I am teleporting and astral projecting to you whatever it is that is keeping me concentrated. My Friday will involve script work followed by another music gig this evening. That’s the plan. May your today slide magic gloves over your hands that pound out writing the way Jerry Lee Lewis’s ungloved hands pound out rock ‘n’ roll. Fancy pants but revolutionary love, Dennis. ** Dóra Grőber, Dóra, hi, you’re back! Cool, I had this gut feeling that flying would end up being your friend. Now you can jet off to Amsterdam, Paris, Tokyo, and who knows where. Your trip sounds totally heavenly! Great, great! And it’s awesome to have you back too! Me, I’ve mostly been working, yeah, but I think it’s going okay. Mid-April deadline, but that’s not as lengthy as it seems because I have to go to LA in early April to do a ‘lecture’ at an art school there. So it’s more like we need to get as much finished as possible by the end of this month, which is an eek. I am told with more confidence than usual that we will sign the contracts next week, but we will see. I just got my new ATM card literally not 8 minutes ago. Yeah, a very hearty welcome home! How was your today, is there a trip hangover? ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. that makes sense. I mean, obviously, I’ve been extremely interested in how people use language to re-identify themselves as sex objects since I was young, and my books are frequently presentations/studies of that. I could title the posts to suggest that’s what I think is going on in them, but I’m interested in the challenge of presenting guys who, upon seeing their photos, one might want to use as sex objects and then complicating that by also presenting who they really are to some degree — how they think, feel, how complicated or fucked up they are inside their looks, etc., and letting the post’s viewers absorb the often contradiction. Or, on the other hand, it interests me when viewers are so determined to see them as sex objects this they just ignore what the ‘sex objects’ write and express. Anyway, blah blah. I would love it greatly if you did a Threads post. That would be fantastic! Interesting because I guess that fuss is effecting me since I just found myself putting together a day about bomb shelters. Anyway, yeah, Ben, that would be great, and thank you for offering! ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. my email address is: email@example.com. Of course, write to me, yes! And thanks about the post. ** Misanthrope, Your friend sounds likeable. Oh, man, dare I hope against hope that it won’t go to court? I mean, yeah, it doesn’t sound good. But I will nonetheless utilise some of my brain cells as pixie dust and explode handfuls across the Atlantic to you. ** Right. I’m spotlighting this truly wonderful novel by the truly wonderful Christine-Brooke Rose today, and I naturally ask you to give it your shots. See you tomorrow.