Monday, March 26, 2012

Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-2012)

Christine Brooke-Rose died last week. Brooke-Rose was known mainly as an "experimental" writer and a critic with a particular expertise in narrative form. Two of her novels were explicitly science fictional, Xorandor (1986) and Verbivore (1990).

Here's Natalie Ferris in Christine Brooke-Rose: the great British experimentalist you've never heard of in The Guardian 23 March, 2012
A formidable voice is no longer with us. Christine Brooke-Rose, one of Britain's foremost experimental writers, has also been one of the most deplorably neglected. Yet, as her close acquaintance Roland Barthes said, it is only once the voice loses its origin that writing may begin. Was Brooke-Rose ever really with us?

Born in January 1923 in Geneva to an English father and a Swiss-American mother, Brooke-Rose was brought up in Brussels speaking English, French and German. The linguistic crosscurrents were to feature heavily in her work, fictional and critical alike, giving her a keen ear for the commonalities of utterance, and also securing her a position translating decryptions of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the second world war. After completing a PhD in medieval French and English philology at Oxford shortly after the war, she began to write fiction in order to combat the stress induced by the near-fatal illness of her husband, the Polish poet Jerzy Peterkiewicz. Her first novel, The Languages of Love, was published alongside her scholarly study A Grammar of Metaphor, in the late 1950s. As a critic in the Empsonian line of the time, she is lively and crystalline, testing out the academic lacerations to language that would comprise her artful, prankster lyricism.

It was her own serious illness in the early 60s, however, that prompted the turn away from her first four comedies-of-manners novels, and from the literary orthodoxy of postwar Britain. Upon recovery, she claimed to have attained a different level of consciousness Р"a sense of being in touch with something else" Рand the solitary hours confined to her bed produced the highly wrought novel Out (1964), inspired by the nouveaux romancier Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Brooke-Rose later translated). Following her move to a volatile Paris in 1968, to teach linguistics and literature at the Université de Paris VIII, she never again wrote a novel that didn't risk some breach of the realist contract. Lauded by Frank Kermode as the "sole practitioner" of narrative on the British side of the channel, hers was also a style denigrated as "resplendently unreadable".

Yet in all the hardball of her lipograms, jargons, and typographical play – often likened, much to her discomfort, to the work of her British compatriots Ann Quin and BS Johnson, as well as French counterparts George Perec and Philippe Sollers – her prose is also intensely funny. Her novels prod at literary pretention: Derrida is 'Cramping / HIS styl us' in Thru (1975); in Xorandor (1986), a pebble Lady Macbeth attempts to blow up the world; famous literary characters gather in Textermination (1991) to pray for their continued existence in readers' minds. Brimming with all the "affrodizzyacts" of misaligned references, deliberate malapropisms and tricksy puns, she makes us realise that the true pleasure of language is not in recognition, but in the delight of discovery. As she claimed in 2002, "I've always tried to avoid the expected word."

I second the characterization of her work as often intensely funny. If you've ever attended the MLA, you'd probably find her novel Textermination  hilarious. (I know I did.) This novel has its fictional characters praying to the Implied Reader for existence-- characters who, for the most part, are derived from a variety of classic narratives (and of course guess who's surrounding them at the convention in San Francisco that they're attending).

Her 2002 book of essays Invisible Author: Last Essays, which discusses Brooke-Rose's formal experiments with narrative, book by book, though sometimes dry, in many places moved me deeply. It begins:
Have you ever tried to do something very difficult as well as you can, over a long period, and found that nobody notices? That's what I've been doing for over thirty years.

In many ways I've been glad, because it has allowed me to do what I wanted, with very little compromise,and I've had just the amount of success needed to continue. More would have bee fatal, for I've always valued peace above all and could never have coped with real hype. But now that I have stopped, I have been wondering, why do both praise and blame often seem so irrelevant to what authors are actually doing?
The book includes, in a "Coda," a fascinating discussion of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and an interview of Brooke-Rose by Lorna Sage.

Although her assumption in Invisible Author is that this is the last book she would ever write, in fact two more books followed that one.

Here are a few more obituaries for Brooke-Rose:

Christine Brooke-Rose obituary The Guardian, 23 March, 2012, by Stuary Jeffries
Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-2012) University of Chicago Press blog
"Christine Brooke-Rose is dead" Poetry News Review, 22 Mar 2012

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