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WHOSE AFRAYED OF CHRISTINE BROOKE-ROSE? (1)

OR, TRIBUTE TO THE GREAT BRITISH ENIGMA (Part ONE)

Adapted from VLAK 3 (May 2012): 81-94. Photo: Christine Brooke-Rose, 1964

 

“The Great British Experimentalist You’ve Never Heard Of” was the title of Natalie Ferris’ obituary published in The Guardian two days after Christine Brooke-Rose’s death on March 21, 2012. Apart from other issues, Ferris’ graceful review of her life and work raised the (unanswered) question of whether “Brooke-Rose ever was really with us.”[1] Tracing Brooke-Rose’s lifelong engagement with verbal lipogrammatic experimentation, Stuart Jeffries – also of The Guardian – wrote in a similar vein of Brooke-Rose’s estrangement from Britain: “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 her to call it Invisible Author.”[2] The aim of this two-part overview and review of Brooke-Rose’s life and work is to attempt an answer to the simple question: Why is it that in the case of Brooke-Rose’s recently terminated career, “brilliance” is coupled with “obscurity” and “radical experimentation” goes hand in hand with “erasure”?

Brooke-Rose’s erasure is to a certain extent attributable to her tortuous, secluded life spent largely in a more or less self-imposed exile outside of Britain: born in 1923 in Geneva to a Swiss-American mother and a British father, Brooke-Rose (whose combined surnames attest to the doubled parentage) grew up speaking French, English and German. It wasn’t until after her parents separated (in 1929) and her father died (in 1934) that she moved with her mother to Brussels, and two years later, in 1936, to Britain. Her polyglotism stood her in good stead during World War II and her work for BletchleyPark, assessing intercepted German communications. After the War, she pursued an academic career, gaining a PhD in Middle English from University College London in 1954. Having written a few early novels in the more or less “traditional” vein (e.g. her first novel, Languages of Love, 1956), in 1962 she suffered a serious kidney disease during which she was convinced she would die. After recovery she achieved a new level of consciousness which she described as “a sense of being in touch with something else – death perhaps.”[3] Having published her first two radical novels, Out (1964) Such (1966) and written her third, Between, in 1968, Brooke-Rose left her second husband and crossed the Channel for the now almost permanent exile in France. She accepted a post at the newly created Université de Paris VIII at Vincennes, where in 1975 she became professor of English and American literature and literary theory. There she taught for twenty years before retiring in 1988 to the south of France to concentrate on her novel-writing. Brooke-Rose’s life, however peripatetic it may have been, cannot be the only reason behind her marginalisation within the canon: there have been numerous exiles among the twentieth-century experimentalists who did manage to make an impact and let their voices be heard both in the language and culture of their home as well as their host countries – Beckett and Pound are amongst those most frequently addressed by Brooke-Rose the critic.

Of course, any claims of any author’s fame or obscurity, relative as they are, call for contextualisation and explication – and even though both Ferris and Jeffries concur that Brooke-Rose has been doomed to critical and academic negligence, neither provides any deeper rationale for this beyond the obvious biographical one. Nor do they pay any attention to how – with the possible exception of B.S. Johnson – none of Brooke-Rose’s fellow 1960s British experimentalists have been served any better by their home academic or critical institutions. The academic and critical oblivion surrounding the likes of Brigid Brophy, Eva Figes or Ann Quin is still orders of magnitude deeper and more absolute than that of Brooke-Rose, who has by now become the subject of no fewer than three book-length monographs and a collection of critical essays.

Two qualifications are immediately necessary, though. First, given that Brooke-Rose remains the only British writer to have produced significant innovative works of fiction, criticism and theory from the mid-1950s practically to mid-2000s (unlike her 1960s companions, effectively silenced by the 1973 deaths of Johnson and Quin), her career’s reputation is still very much under par when compared to that of the female writers of either the preceding (Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf) or the following (Angela Carter or Jeanette Winterson) generation. Second, it is worth pointing out that Brooke-Rose began garnering critical attention only in mid-1990s, when she was already over seventy years of age and her career to a large extent over. More often than not, she is labelled as exemplary of Britain’s 1960s new wave in fiction under the heading of B.S. Johnson’s experimental circle. Although the recent resurgence in critical interest in his work never fails to bemoan the readerly oblivion to which his novels have fallen prey over the past thirty years, Johnson’s typographical experiments and his clearly defined Anglo-Irish literary heritage have proven far easily classifiable and ready for British canonisation than Brooke-Rose’s dealings in discourse and her hybrid, idiosyncratic blend poetic and prosaic traditions.

Nevertheless, when Brooke-Rose does appear, it is still as part of the Johnson circle of “experimentalists” – a label neither of them would self-apply – this despite Brooke-Rose’s repeated insistence on the difference of her work and frustration at the misconceived link with Johnson in many critical-historical accounts, whether written by adherents or detractors. To take but two examples: even though Malcolm Bradbury bewails, in Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel, the sorry state of British letters in 1973 where “writers like B. S. Johnson and Christine Brooke-Rose,” while attempting “to distil a debate and an aesthetic speculativeness,” get “little close hearing,”[4] there follows no close reading of either Johnson or Brooke-Rose. In fact, this is her only mention in Bradbury’s book. When six years later, in The Contemporary English Novel, Bradbury presents another state-of-the-novel anthology composed of eight essays, no fewer than three of them take a critical plunge into Johnson’s work. In contrast, however, Brooke-Rose never appears to be read.

To be sure, in both her early Thru (1975) and late Next (1998), Brooke-Rose avails herself of breaking down the traditional typographical layout of these texts, thereby making emphatic use of the visual possibilities of the page through typographic and other means, à la Johnson. But a closer inspection reveals the purpose of Brooke-Rose’s experimentation as distinctly different, and her repeatedly expressed discomfort with off-hand analogies with Johnson as highly justified. For Johnson, typographical deviance from the norm serves to a large extent the role of a supplementary, material level of essentially realist mimesis. Two canonical examples are his Travelling People (1963) – with an imitation of the black pages in Tristam Shandy to indicate death, random-pattern grey dots to signify unconsciousness, and regular-pattern dots to signify sleep – and The Unfortunates (1969), presented and produced in twenty-seven sections, unbound, in a small box, to be shuffled and read at random, with the exception of the first and last, where the mimesis of randomness serves a twofold purpose: it enacts the rambling workings of the mind, where present perceptions (coverage of a football match from the time Johnson was employed as a soccer reporter for the Observer) evoke, are coloured by, and interact with, memories of the past (in this case, of Tony Tillinghast, a close friend who died in 1964 at the young age of twenty-nine); and secondly, it refers to the random process of carcinogenic cell growth that caused Tony’s death. For Brooke-Rose, on the other hand, the text’s materiality is only one, and far more independent, contributory factor in the complexity of what her books aim to be as objects. There is much less conceptual mimeticism behind the typographical excesses of Thru other than its material enactment of the mélange of various critical discourses as the resulting text is collectively constructed by the students on a university creative writing course and includes essays with handwritten changes to typed text, musical notations, mathematical formulas, various diagrams, anagrams and acrostic structures. In Next, the textual layout of the prose divided into separate lines rather than paragraphs (reminiscent, in its free-verse rhythmical organisation, of the later novels of Ann Quin), has less to do with the realist mimesis of “consciousness” than with imaginative employment of the fundamental organisational grid of the written language. The alphabet, termed “alphabête” early on, serves as the acrostic grid for the twentieth century’s worst atrocities:

 

A for Auschwitz. B for Belsen. C for Cambodia.

D for Dresden. For Deportation. E for Ethiopia, for     Ethnic Cleansing… F for, what’s F?

Famine… Mao’s Great Lep into, 1959. Stalin’s ditto,   Ukraine 1933.

Fundamentalism. There’s usually more than one horror for each letter.[5]

 

These and similar never-ending and repetitive alphabetical rounds from A to Z and back are interspersed within the text’s ostensibly realist, quasi-documentary mapping of street-level London of the contemporary, millennial moment.

The other critical labelling, one of “alienation,” seems to make a much better sense, both in terms of Brooke-Rose’s life and her work, and its most renowned propagator is none other than the authority of Frank Kermode. His view can be encapsulated by his evaluation of Brooke-Rose’s 1975 Thru which adorns the back cover of the 1986 Carcanet Brooke-Rose Omnibus: “If we are to experience in English the serious practice of narrative as the French have developed it over the last few years, we shall have to attend to Christine Brooke-Rose.”[6] Indeed, Brooke-Rose’s early engagement (chiefly in her second tetralogy, i.e. from Out to Thru) with the narrator-less present tense narrative sentence, and her involvement, first on paper and later on in person, with Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work, whose Dans le labyrinthe she translated into English in 1968, would appear almost by necessity to connect her to the French nouveaux romanciers. Moreover, her continuous experimentation with the constraints of the verbal lipogrammatic structures (consistent and intended omission of a particular word or word form, or self-imposed limitation in terms of word class or verbal tense, e.g.) have seemed to many to obviously link her even later texts with the poetics of the Oulipo group, particularly with the novelistic output of Georges Perec. This linkage, finally, seems biographically corroborated – almost beyond any doubt – by Brooke-Rose’s 1968 departure from Britain for France and by her repeated refusal of alliance with the Johnson circle.

It may come as a surprise, then, that in one of her last interviews, which now forms the conclusion to Karen Lawrence’s study, Brooke-Rose denied any easy analogy with either Perec or Robbe-Grillet. “One has to keep in control with the constraints. And some constraints, one doesn’t really see the point,” she opined, dismissing Perec’s La disparition by asserting that “I’ve never understood the point of writing a novel without the letter e.” For her, “a constraint must be a grammatical or a syntactical constraint, part of the syntax, not a letter. But that may be a prejudice, about form. Because that becomes going through dictionaries and looking for words. I mean, like him. But I don’t see the point.”[7] Her own first verbal lipogram, Between, dealing with states of flux both physical and linguistic, actually preceded Perec’s e-less novel by a whole year, and unlike La disparition, kept its constitutive restraint largely to itself: “He announced it loud and long, so it was known. I didn’t say anything about no verb “to be” until much later. And then it did get repeated, but without further comment.”[8] Regarding the affinity with, or influence of, Robbe-Grillet, Brooke-Rose is even more sceptical: “I wanted to get away from those obsessive detectives and such. His topics didn’t interest me. So I tried to go beyond him, using his startling syntax to do something more original, or interesting for me.” Even though admitting that “the method I’m talking about is fully used (I think) only in one novel, Jealousy,” she nevertheless believes that very early on, she “got out of this direct influence [while] still going on with the method.”[9]

Again, one need not simply take Brooke-Rose’s word for it to see how unlike both the nouveau roman and the Oulipo many of her fictions turn out to be at an even cursory glance. For one thing, almost all of her eight post-Amalgamemnon (1984) novels have an identifiable – and sometimes explicitly Anglophone – location and setting: her 1986 computer-novel Xorandor is set in Cornwall, her 1991 Textermination, at the Hilton hotel in San Francisco, her Next (1998), within the London homeless community. Moreover, Amalgamemnon is written entirely in the outspokenly confessional first-person form, and all her novels onwards feature clearly named and defined characters as well personalised narrators – Mira Entekei, her most consistent alter ego, even reappears throughout the third tetralogy. Two of the novels of her fourth tetralogy, Remake (1996) and Life, End Of (2006), while painstakingly avoiding the use of the first person, are explicit autobiographies, featuring the “The Author” as their protagonist. In Brooke-Rose’s earliest experimental novels (in Out and Such, especially), there is certainly a palpable affinity with the New Novelistic camera-eye technique. But it is equally evident that any critical account of her as a nouveau romancier is only a half – if not an even smaller fraction – of the story. Critical attempts to claim Brooke-Rose for the Oulipian cause rest on even wobblier and shallower foundations. Her lipograms share little with the playful seriousness or formalistic bravura of those conducted within the Oulipo group: rather, they grow out of a perceived expressive unity of the text’s argument, where content gives rise to form gives rise to content. Apart from the notorious instance of Between, this can also be illustrated by the more recent examples of Next and Subscript (1999). The already mentioned Next is Brooke-Rose’s at once most Oulipian as well as English (or, more precisely, London-based) novel. The book’s cover-blurb covers most of the Oulipian devices: set amid the London homeless community, a well-nigh sociological reportage of this underworld of dispossession painstakingly omits the verb “to have” and reserves the first-person pronouns only for direct speech, for the content is poverty and isolation. The voices representative of the community are legion – twenty-six, to be precise, as there are letters on the English keyboard; the initials of the characters living out on the street – thus forming an avant-garde of sorts – spell QWERTYUIOP. Subscript addresses the themes of encryption and legibility on the macro, biological scale of life’s evolution from the prokaryote cell 4500 million years ago to modern man at the end of the Magdalenian period, 11 000 years ago. The theme, then, is evolution through and in language – as she herself demonstrated in an Invisible Author essay (lest it be lost on the future translators), her linguistic evolution is marked by the (non-)use of pronouns. The pronouns are deliberately omitted from the first three chapters, before the appearance of reptiles 300 million years ago, and then gradually appear in sequences tied to cultural developments. Here, for example, is the opening:

 

Zing! zinging out through the glowsalties the pungent ammonia earthfarts in slithery clay and all the rest to make simple sweeties and sharpies and other stuffs. Dust out of vast crashes and currents now calmer as the crust thickens and all cools a bit.

Over many many forevers.

Waiting. Absorbing. Growing. Churning. Splitting.

Over and Over.

In the thrivering slimy heat. Absorbing and churning acid gas in the hot mud bubbling all around and above and out of the hole in the jutting rock. The acid gas hides inside the cracks around the spouting rock. Delicious.[10]

 

The singular impersonal (“it”) appears only in chapter four to denote a sentient entity. In the same chapter, the plural impersonal pronoun (“they”) surfaces to covey an inchoate sense of group differentiation, etc.[11] All in all, serving specific thematic purposes and being of the conceptual rather than formally linguistic character, Brooke-Rose’s motivated lipograms are as far a cry from the Oulipian Exercises de style or Perec’s “novel without the letter e” as one could wish to get.

It is precisely this in-between position Brooke-Rose assumes vis-à-vis national traditions and her syncretic appropriation of different experimental programmes and aesthetic techniques that has lent her oeuvre its unclassifiability, its “unreadability” within the usual categories of literary criticism and history – and made it particularly susceptible to becoming an exemplum for the group of critics involved in defining literary postmodernity. Brooke-Rose’s fiction does feature in most major works of e.g. Brian McHale or Patricia Waugh, becoming, for the former, a case in point of the “ontological uncertainty” regarded as a defining feature of postmodern literature, and, for the latter, a supreme example of the intermingling of various narrative levels and discourses typical of “meta-fiction.” Here, recourse to her criticism will reveal that, ever the sceptic, Brooke-Rose not only objects to any easy application of the notion of postmodernism to her own work, but also questions the very usefulness of the term as such. In her monumental critical summa, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brooke-Rose presents her critical diagnosis of her contemporaneity, out of which springs the ethical and moral imperatives underlying her subsequent fiction. The diagnosis is one of “a reality crisis” in which “what used to be called empirical reality, or the world, seems to have become more and more unreal, and what has long been regarded as unreal is more and more turned to or studied as the only ‘true’ or ‘another and equally valid’ reality.”[12] Artists, and writers especially, have a privileged point of access to this ontological shift, for it has occurred chiefly as consequence of “the discourse upon discourse that man has always needed since writing began” which “has now expanded to a vast industry of unprecedented proportions.”[13] The two books also introduce a loosely formed canon of fictional investigations into the unreality of the real, and thus point to more and less acknowledged sources of inspiration for Brooke-Rose’s own explorations. A whole section of the book is devoted to addressing the question, “Postmodernism – what is it?” and presenting Brooke-Rose’s largely dissident view on the subject. Both terms, i.e. “modern” and “postmodern,” are found “peculiarly unimaginative for a criticism that purports to deal with phenomena of which the most striking feature is imagination,” this for three reasons: “They are purely historical, period words, and in that sense traditional,” second, “they are self-cancelling terms, and this may be particularly apt for an art continually described as self-cancelling,” and finally, “by way of corollary, the terms are simply lazy, inadequate.” A consequent problem arises, then, with any attempt at defining the notions in terms of canon: “[If] we are going to put D.H. Lawrence […] and Hemingway and Proust and Kafka and Pound and Yeats and Eliot and Faulkner and Mann and Gide and Musil and Stevens and Virginia Woolf and Joyce etc. into the same modernist ragbag, the term becomes meaningless except as a purely period term, itself obsolescent since modern by definition means now.” Conversely, when Ihab Hassan includes within the group of “antecedents of postmodernism” writers as divergent and variegated as “Sterne, Sade, Blake, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Hoffmannstahl, Gertrude Stein, the later Joyce, the later Pound, Duchamp, Artaud, Roussel, Broch, Queneau and Kafka,” he has, to Brooke-Rose’s mind merely “reinvented our ancestors,” as one “always shall,”[14] yet it is precisely this “always” that makes Hassan’s label too general for any practical application.

Thus, while drawing upon both, Brooke-Rose cannot be reduced to either the typographical experimentation associated, in Britain, with B.S. Johnson, or the exploration of depersonalised narration as practiced by the French nouveaux romanciers, for she transcends both. Nor can she be easily labelled a postmodernist, for she has been personally involved in unmasking its generality and little practical usefulness. As Brooke-Rose herself described the plight of her own work:

 

I have a knack of somehow escaping most would-be canonic networks and labels: I have been called Postmodern, I have been called Experimental, I have been included in the SF Encyclopaedia, I automatically come under Women Writers (British, Contemporary), I sometimes interest the Feminists, but I am fairly regularly omitted from the “canonic” surveys (chapters, articles, books) that come under those or indeed other labels. On the whole I regards this as a good sign.[15]

 

Although “a good sign,” the price to be paid for writing fiction that resists critical pigeonholes and eludes classification is obscurity and invisibility vis-à-vis the various critical constructions of the canon. The second half of this essay will argue that it is in its resistance to the already extant “canonic networks and labels” that lies the strength of Brooke-Rose’s oeuvre. That, in fact, it is thanks to its combination of virtually all the chief thematic and stylistic concerns of post-war fiction (technology, gender, history, the future, discursivity, subversion, hybridity, linguistic innovation and playfulness) that Brooke-Rose’s work can (and should) be accorded an exemplary, paradigmatic status.

 

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/23/christine-brooke-rose

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/23/christine-brooke-rose1

[3] Sarah Birch, Christine Brooke-Rose and Contemporary Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) 1.

[4] Malcolm Bradbury, Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1973) 259.

[5] Christine Brooke-Rose, Next (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998) 3.

[6] Christine Brooke-Rose, Omnibus: Out, Such, Between, Thru (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986).

[7] Karen R. Lawrence, “A Discussion with Christine Brooke-Rose, June 2004, Cabrière d’Avignon,” Techniques for Living: Fiction and Theory in the Work of Christine Brooke-Rose (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010) 206.

[8]Lawrence, “A Discussion with Christine Brooke-Rose,” 207.

[9]Lawrence, “A Discussion with Christine Brooke-Rose,” 213.

[10] Christine Brooke-Rose, Subscript (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999) 1.

[11] For more, see Christine Brooke-Rose, Invisible Author (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002) 172-3.

[12] Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) 3-4.

[13] Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, 11.

[14] Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, 344-5.

[15] Christine Brooke-Rose, Stories, Theories and Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 4.

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