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THE FEARLESS ICONOCLAST

ON BRIGID BROPHY’s IN TRANSIT, by David Vichnar

Writing just a few weeks after her death in a Review of Contemporary Fiction issue devoted to her literary legacy, Steven Moore reviewed the reputation of Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) in very bleak terms: “[M]ost of her books are out of print on both sides of the Atlantic and few readers under forty recognize her name.”[1] The reasons provided by Moore for this, however, had to do more with the vicissitudes of Brophy’s life and idiosyncrasies of her fiction. Her fifteen-year-long struggle with multiple sclerosis drastically reduced her writing output after 1980, and she also seems to have been writing “too far ahead of her time” of topics and in styles that would only later gain broader social relevance, an example of which is her 1953 first novel Hackenfeller’s Ape, dealing with the issues of animal rights, experiments and vivisection, well before the cause gained public attention. These reasons notwithstanding, Moore insists that

any informed reckoning of twentieth-century literature must take Brophy’s work into account: not only her nine books of fiction, but a career’s worth of sharp, intelligent essays (most gathered into three collections), books on Mozart, Freud, and Beardsley, and a 600-page tour de force “defence of fiction in the form of a critical biography of Ronald Firbank,” Prancing Novelist.[2]

Mozart and musical, particularly operatic, form is often used as a structuring device in Brophy’s earlier output: her second novel, The King of a Rainy Country (1956) relies on Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, just as her fifth novel, The Snow Ball (1964), a satirical comedy of manners, borrows its plotline from Don Giovanni. Interspersed among her music novels were texts dealing with a variety of other topics: her non-fiction, Black Ship to Hell (1962), is a Freudian analysis of the human proclivity to violence, her most elliptical fiction work, The Finishing Touch (1963), an important step in the history of lesbian and, more broadly, anti-homophobic literature, or indeed her purposefully provocative, co-authored Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without (1967), into which she famously included Hamlet, Alice in Wonderland and works by Coleridge or Whitman. For Brophy, the 1960s were to culminate with a work widely regarded as her masterpiece, In Transit (1969). Together with the 1960s culminated also Brophy’s career as novelist, as most of the decade leading up to the breakout of her incapacitating and ultimately terminal illness was spent on her massive and again pioneering biography of Firbank (1973) around whom she built a whole theory of creative fiction, critical assessment of the painter Aubrey Beardsley (1976) and her final, fairy-tale novel, Palace without Chairs. Given the magnitude and the timely and timeless relevance of Brophy’s career as writer and public activist, Moore’s concluding note of exasperation seems apposite: “The neglect of this brilliant woman’s work and contributions to contemporary aesthetics is scandalous.”[3]

Fearless iconoclasm is what marks Brophy’s crucial text, “A Heroi-Cyclical Poem,” In Transit (1969). In terms of critical classification and characterisation, In Transit is an oddity: when describing the text, even a critic as perceptive and skilful as Frank Kermode had to settle for the indeterminate metaphor of “a kit of symbols” that can be “fit together in an indeterminate number of ways.”[4] His description echoed one of the text’s many self-definitions as “less a book than a box of trick tools, its title DO IT YOURSELF KID” (IT, 14), an instance of the text “reading itself” omnipresent in Joyce’s fiction. The novel’s opening offers a reflexion on the linguistic, or indeed textual, representation of consciousness and the issue of authorial authority and presence:

Ce qui m’étonnait c’était qu’it was my French that disintegrated first.

Thus I expounded my affliction, an instant after I noticed its onset. My words went, of course, unvoiced. A comic-strippist would balloon them under the heading THINKS – a pretty convention, but a convention just the same. For instance, is the ‘THINKS’ part of the thought, implying the thinker is aware of thinking? (IT, 11)

Following shortly is a meditation on time and tense function in literature, as well as the distinction between history and fiction: “History is in the shit tense. You have left it behind you. Fiction is a piss: a stream of past events but not behind you, because they never really happened” (IT, 13). The four-section narrative is set in an airport transit lounge and famously centred on the protagonist Evelyn Hilary “Pat” O’Rooley’s plight of “no longer remember[ing] which sex I was” (IT, 69). Its progression can indeed be characterised as a concatenation of disintegrations of many of the central concerns of the 1960s. From language and communication (the very first sentence is also a first symptom of the narrative subject’s “linguistic leprosy”) to sexuality and gender (the main plotline, but also the many quips like “we shall soon reach a point where the questionnaire item ‘sex’ gets filled as ‘yes, thrice weekly’” [IT, 74]). From modernist artistic styles (“our century prefers function to style” [IT, 22]) to cosmopolitan internationalism (“no one is native. We’re all transients” [IT, 29]). From history “in the shit tense” to the currently fashionable liberation movements: the two precepts of the female uprising are “WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE. / YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE / BUT YOUR LABOUR PAINS” and “WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE. / YOU HAVE EVERYTHING TO / GAIN – IN PARTICULAR, / YOUR DAISY CHAINS” [IT, 130]).[5] Conversing with Leslie Dock in 1976, Brophy herself stressed disintegration as the leitmotif of her novel:

In Transit is about a series of disintegrations of rulebooks, including the sexual stereotypes, ending with the question of whether Aristotelian logic might disintegrate […] I mean that what is being questioned is, do [the rules of the logic] reflect any necessary truths, or are they entirely arbitrary?[6]

In fact, the protagonist’s loss of awareness, or indeed visibility, of gender, is foreshadowed by an early mediation on its linguistic roots:

They’re sly, though, these romance languages, in this matter of sex. Sly rather than shy, I shurmise; for they sometimes do, sometimes won’t, the girlish things. Sometimes the adjectives don’t change. Vous êtes triste? Tick:— masc.□ fem.□. Strik(e) out whichever does not apsly. J’en suis content(e). And o that so demurely flirtatious mute e that may be appended to ami, where, dimpling, it can be seen but not heard. That’s why my French is literary. I am so sex-obsessive I must know. They’re sexsessive, too, the languages: but unsophisticatedly. I shed them in sheer impatience at the infantility of their sexual curiosity. I do not want to be told the sex of inanimate objects. (IT, 41)

The technique which the text itself terms “masophistication” (IT, 51)—one in which commonly held distinctions and binary oppositions are brought to interact with and collapse upon one another—is revealed as a direct corollary to what Brophy perceives as the aesthetic principle of her time:

What’s the nearest to a twentieth-century style? Why, that sort-of-pop-brutalistic tabbying, those curds of canned plum-juice declining to integrate with custard, bits of a jigsaw free-drifting weightless in space: an amateur method of do-it-yourself exterior house-painting, developed out of military camouflage, whose purpose is, precisely, camouflage: to disguise the silhouettes of Victwardian buildings, to break up the outlines of their structure or pseudo-structure […] to pretend that the husk of the Great Exhibition of 1851 can be naturalized into today’s breakfastfood. (IT, 23)

However, it is one of the transitory features of the text that Brophy not only preaches against the twentieth-century “pop-brutalistic tabbying,” but also joins in the game: she has her “he/she-Pat” narrator take part in a TV show What’s My Kink? (“devised by Brigid Brophy”), one of whose panellists is “the well-known Irish-German writer, Thomas Mahon” (IT, 131; 136); parts of her narrative are recast in the form of an opera libretto (called Alitalia, featuring male sopranos and female baritones); in one of her “Interlewds” (IT, 98), vast portions of the text quote from a fictitious pornographic novel L’Histoire de la Langue d’Oc (a parody of The Story of O); and finally, her whole narrative is flipped into a cliché thriller featuring Pat in the role of Slim O’Rooley, “dead-beat dick; weeper peeper, down-at-the-heel heel” (IT, 153). The associative link connecting these overblown burlesque slapstick scenes is largely wordplay and punning: Pat’s briefcase carried through the entire mock-quest gives rise to his/her detective reincarnation determined to make a “brief case” of the goings-on (IT, 163); the transportation belt workers’ uprising evokes a response from a mob with a bar counter used as headquarters – a veritable “counter-revolution” (IT, 202). In a late “alienating interlude” Brophy makes it clear that “at least one of the hero(in)es immolated throughout these pages is language” and together with that, “the work’s sub-title is: Or The Autobiography of Sappho’s Penis” (IT, 214). Brophy’s “misprinted mistranslated oversestimated sadomasturbatory pornofantasy-narrative” (IT, 143) is a “juicifixion” (IT, 217) that repeatedly (and deliberately) stages a failure to nail down the body in and through language; together with lapse in gender awareness the multilingual narrator is stricken with “linguistic leprosy”: “My languages gave their first dowser’s-twig twitch and I conceived they might be going to fall of” (IT, 12).[7]

Brophy clearly aligns her experimentation, however mock-seriously, with what she recognises as Joyce’s anti-imperialist, de-colonising linguistic project. In the conclusion, Pat is killed off twice in two textual columns, first as a she, then as a he, yet the final-page images of St. Theresa “expir[ing] in a smile of orgasmic ecstasy” and Aphrodite (“re-sea-born of the sperm and spume bubble-and-squeaking about her da’s off-torn, projectiled, sea-crashed virile member”) suggest a rebirth and rejuvenation. The text concludes with a fish-ideogram, the French word for end, FIN, written over its lower “fin,” harking back to the “Ce qui m’étonnait” of the opening premise (IT, 230). In Transit is a fundamentally Joycean text.[8] “How” In Transit is both Joycean and very much its own has been noted by critic Chris Hopkins who points out that although Joycean, In Transit’s independence of its precursor lies in the complete absence of its protagonist’s identity.[9] Hopkins is not entirely correct, here, for Pat O’Rooley’s “I,” though notoriously ephemeral, does have one explicit anchoring: its Irish heritage of an orphan whose two sets of parents (natural and foster) have been killed in plane crashes, a harsh contrast with some early idyllic reminiscences from a childhood spent in Dalkey.

The theme of Irishness is functionally employed in service to Brophy’s chief project of the “immolation of language”: “We speak English as a foreign language, even when we have no other (This is my foster-mother-tongue, since when I have used no other)” (IT, 34). Irishness is also used as a backdrop for several irresistible puns, such as “What name shall we coin for the natives of Erin? Erinyes,” or “We are all Greek heroes, we Irish – O’Dysseus (whom Joyce disguised under the vocative form You-Lysses), O’Edipus, and most cogently of all, with not a syllable displaced, O’Rion – […] O’Restes” (IT, 47, 56). More seriously, Irishness is presented both generally and specifically as linked to other colonial groups and their experience of “transculturation” as “disculturation” but also as a special case of the colonial legacy:

We Irish had the right word on the tip of our tongue, but the imperialist got at that. […] What begins as endemic lapsus linguae we peddle as precious lapis, with which we illuminate our Book of Sells (an early Book of Ours). We are never knowingly underbold. We are in the grips of compunsion.

Youlysses have fore-suffered all. Before the Jew wandered, jew did.

Is that another of your dog-headed Irish slips?

(Pardon me, ma’am, your mollibloomers is shewin’.)

Cynoscephalae, ladies, sigh no tom-moore.

(We lost Thermopylae, the double pom-pom Bloom.) (IT, 35)

Indeed, it is the legacy of Joyce that Brophy most explicitly invokes as the precursor of the linguistic side of her experiment; a precursor fondly acknowledged, but later outgrown. Near the very end of the novel Pat apostrophises Joyce through Finnegan: “O, it’s thou. Old Father Finnegan Go-and-don’tsinagain. Father Irefish Finn. Well, I saw through you, you old pro-façade, before I was out of my boyhood or girlhood. […] I can’t hear you, ex-father. I’ve switched me deaf-aid off” (IT, 228). Despite the irreverent linkage between influence and “deaf-aid,” it is clear that Brophy’s imaginative “revolution of language” is based on that of Joyce. This is evident in how mentions of Joyce are tied with evocations of Odysseus, “the hero who can never accomplish the return of the native, because he isn’t one” (IT, 35). At one point, the hero/heroine of In Transit identifies him/herself with “Oruleus (latinised as Ulrix and thence rather quaintly englished as Unruly)” (IT, 175). Early on in the text, the “I” admits that his/her “fantasy steps tiptoed up on that ever-tempting serpent, my compatriot, mike” and wonders should he/she “snatch it and announce to all In Transit my tribute to my great Triestine compalien, the comedi-chameleon, the old pun gent himself?” (IT, 36). A rhetorical question, of course, for the text itself is a tribute to Joyce, but if the novel names Joyce as a forefather, it nevertheless also treats him as father who must be outgrown. For the “Triestine compalien” blends together compatriot and alien. Lawrence has shown that Brophy, through her exploration of a postgendered position for her protagonist, takes issue with Joyce whose “revolution of the word works its disruptions still within a certain phallic framework,” and that through her central metaphors of circulation and transit, Brophy attempts “to figure more radical indeterminacies of sexual identity, even as they pay homage to Joycean (and, by way of Joyce, Odyssean) exile.”[10] In doing so, Brophy posits the narrative’s own ancestry as a problematic one – even the metaphor of parentage, with its secure roles for male and female, does not suffice to represent the foster, mixed, and transcultural ancestry of the sex-changing narrative. Still, In Transit is one of the most explicit proofs that Joyce’s voice, within the context of the British fiction writing of the 1960s, was not of one crying in the wilderness: “I could loose on the Lounge his obituary: I am the voyce of one crying in the wilderness; rejoice with me” (IT, 36).

 

[1] Steven Moore, “Brigid Brophy: An Introduction and Checklist,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15.3 (Fall 1995): 7.

[2] Moore, “Brigid Brophy,” 7.

[3] Moore, “Brigid Brophy,” 10.

[4] Frank Kermode, “Sterne Measures – Review of In Transit,” The Listener (25 September 1969): 414.

[5] For more, see e.g. Brooke Horvath, “Brigid Brophy’s It’s-All-Right-I’m-Only-Dying Comedy of Modern Manners: Notes on In Transit,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15.3 (Fall 1995): 46.

[6] Leslie Dock, “An Interview with Brigid Brophy,” Contemporary Literature 17 (Spring 1976): 166-7.

[7] Critic Karen Lawrence has noted how the narrative switching between gender identifications (and Pat switching back and forth between a he and a she), enables Brophy to launch “a fantastic, punning linguistic journey,” a “wild ride of the signifier” through which Brophy “parodies the myth of the phallus as transcendental signifier, the myth that props up all the paradigms of the journey underwriting Western culture” (Karen Lawrence, Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition [Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1994] 233).

[8] As Lawrence has suggested, Pat’s final suicide suggests the painful position of Pat, the Irish orphan, who “feels both a kinship with her Joycean heritage and the sense of an ending, the possibility that that heritage no longer sustains her circulations” (Lawrence, “In Transit: From James Joyce to Brigid Brophy,” 42).

[9] Hopkins argues: “Here the model is clearly James Joyce […], but the text has games of its own to play, in particular with gender. For while In Transit is as interested as any Joyce text in multilingual punning, its most striking feature is that its first-person narrator has no idea of her own identity. The speaking “I” knows that it is in an airport […] and hence “in transit” and seems to have a capacity for generating language, but that is all. Thus the voice has a great consciousness of the culture embodied in language, but no knowledge of how it relates to the discourses it refers to so promiscuously” (Chris Hopkins, “The Neglect of Brigid Brophy,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15.3 [Fall 1995]: 16).

[10] Lawrence, “In Transit: From James Joyce to Brigid Brophy,” 40.

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