Christine Brooke-Rose, for whom Cooking Metaphors Don’t Fry


B-R coverBy Jeff Bursey

A festschrift is a collection of essays written by advocates of a scholar or academic, with the purpose of highlighting and commemorating that person’s contribution to intellectual life. Prior to reading this festschrift I had only heard of Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-2012).

Some of her fiction titles are The Languages of Love (1957), Go When You See the Green Man Walking (1970), Amalgamemnon (1984), and Textermination (1991); works of literary criticism include A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (1981), Stories, Theories, and Things (1991) and Invisible Author: Last Essays (2002); and a kind of autobiography, Life, End of (2006). Just as no collection of essays can do justice to a career that extended itself across many years and into a variety of fields, so this review is restricted to a selection of almost forty pieces, based on those that appealed most and can be most easily discussed.

It is a feature of festschrifts that the fascination of the motley often allows the striking colours of the subject to be better appreciated. There are five kinds of writing presented in this one: criticism, fiction and poetry by the subject; memoirs, biographical and introductory material; pastiches by other hands; literary criticism; and an interview. The contributions by or involving Brooke-Rose are of a high quality (though there is a caveat); the pastiches are filled with in-jokes (a piece written by Chretine Broke-Prose) and allusions that fans of her writing would understand and appreciate more than a newcomer; the interview is informative; and the criticism is of varying quality.

Two things come across forcefully from almost all contributors: the first is that in the world of letters Brooke-Rose is un(der)appreciated, and, following on from her relative obscurity, the position she occupies, at a nexus of French thought (drawing on the nouveau-roman’s techniques, most notably as practiced by Alain Robbe-Grillet, to push the “speakerless present tense,” “[d]ropping subjectivity but retaining immediacy and distance,” as far as it could go mingled with writing that either slightly predates structuralism and deconstruction or else allies itself with the thinking of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and others) joined with English empiricism (an analytical approach to language and its codes, stemming from her trilingual background—English, French, and German—sharpened during World War II while at Bletchley Park [where Alan Turing, the cryptographer and computer scientist, also worked], and expanded by her immersion in French culture in the late 1960s) has been forgotten over time. Brooke-Rose is a mirror on which dust has fallen, despite her active writing life, and this book is a first attempt to retrieve her from a cobwebbed attic.

It’s easy to imagine that what results from the (partial) combination given above would result in a style and manner of thinking that cuts two ways. On one side there is intellectual rigor, multilingualism, attention to grammar and language use, inventive typography set down in intricate design to push limits, and, as Adam Guy (or First Man, an alternate name suggested by this apparent non-de-plume) puts it in the lively essay “Brooke-Rose, Lastness,” a willed inhibition that operated in ways similarly to (but perhaps more overarchingly than) Oulipian ones, constraints that “are about lack, but about a tiny lack, a lack to creatively hinder composition, and to emerge as small hidden holes in a fabric that a reader, a culture, might think is whole, strange but unbroken.” (These constraints include, among many others, writing in the conditional or without the verb “to be.”)

On the other side, those same qualities have deterred readers. In “A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose,” conducted by Maria del Sapio Garbero in 1991 and reprinted here, Brooke-Rose states: “I’ve always had this rather technical attitude to what I am doing and I have often been blamed for this. English writers often seem to be against technique and against theory as if talent alone were all that mattered. It’s a very strange notion, which no one would ever dream of upholding in music, or in painting. But with writing they seem to think that a thorough grasp of theory blocks creation…. Of course technique isn’t enough, you’ve got to have both.”

Her novel Thru (1975) seems to have been the key work in determining her diminished popular acceptance: “… I admit that it’s a very difficult novel… It is a novel about the theory of the novel, it is a text about textuality and intertextuality, it is a fiction about the fictionality of fiction.” Brooke-Rose’s argument broadens out to include gender bias: “Nobody likes a woman to know. I am often accused of showing off my knowledge. I have never seen a man so accused; on the contrary, he is praised if he has a lot of knowledge.” (John Barth’s self-reflexive fiction comes to mind as examples of work that would receive more praise for their obvious intelligence.) Despite the fact that she “paid very heavily” for this particular novel, it is the one “my real fans like… best.” Brooke-Rose defended herself to Garbero in the usual way for those who have seen a new path:

… I think that it is largely unfamiliarity at the time which makes me seem difficult, and later in the context, with the exception of Thru, I don’t think I am as difficult as all that. I do demand quite a lot from the reader, but I don’t want to write a book where everything is given to the reader.

Without staying too long on one novel, the same sort of layout of a page from Thru that would set words at various parts of a page mixed with symbols and signs, and in patterns, can’t be done in a review; but it is done in three articles in the festschrift, and the best is “Translation, pastiche, and things,” by Françoise Gramet, Wee Teck Lim and G.N. Forester. Here, five fonts and manners of presentation are used, syllabic units are set above or below the word they are part of, text has to be read across both pages in two languages, footnote numbers appear at the beginning and end of quotations, there are arrows, and so forth, the entirety an arresting and witty visual display to go along with the dislocation of a comfortable perch for a reader. We learn to read again, as we always must when faced with the off-kilter.

Brooke-Rose herself is represented by poems, short fiction, and essays. Two of the latter that are highly recommended are “Illiterations” and “Ill Wit and Good Humour.” The first essay, dealing with the state of the experimental woman writer, is meant to be a “general, lightly deconstructing speculation on ancient prejudices—and what are prejudices but ill iterations of untenable positions in the face of change? And what can protests against these be but themselves ill iterations?” It is a trenchant piece, and usefully brings back to our minds not the divisions between experimental and realist fictions but their shared history:

For [Émile] Zola, the father of a certain kind of Realism, the ‘experimental novel’ meant a novel which had been carefully researched and backed by ‘experiment’ in the scientific sense of verification (of slaughterhouses, mines, peasant life), or what we now call documentary… In other words, a new kind, or school, of Realism, called Naturalism, almost a new genre.

From there, and on her way to speaking about the canon, Brooke-Rose takes us briskly through Thomas Hardy, the Formalists and into structuralism, to make the point that “women writers, not safely dead, who at any one living moment are trying to ‘look in new ways’ or ‘reread’ and therefore rewrite their world, are rarely treated on the same level of seriousness as their male counterparts.” (The VIDA statistics show how few reviewed books are by women and how few women reviewers there are.)

“Ill Wit and Good Humour,” well chosen by the editors as an appropriate companion piece, extends Brooke-Rose’s thoughts into comedy and women’s writing. “Historically, women have never been expected or allowed to be more than, at very best, witty in a society salon, that is, to add charm and general agreeability to an occasion, the icing on the cake, the spice to the dish—and it is interesting that I can only think of cooking metaphors.” She concludes with the belief that “outrageous humour” is more often found “on the male side.” These thoughts from 1991 open up lines of sight that are still applicable, to some degree, and provide a historical perspective that writers, and readers, would benefit from considering seriously.

Based on her conversation with Garbero, Brooke-Rose likely would not divide her critical aspect from her creative side, yet readers naturally approach each differently. In the short story “On Terms” her female character considers death:

Existence is not a temporal state but an energy which does not stop merely for lack of flesh although in many dead people this energy does degrade itself for lack of love so that it shrinks like a degenerate star into less than a pinpoint weighing many tons. Naturally they feel full of a heavy nothingness of which the rumour spreads apathetically sporadically through live matter like a transuranian element decaying over aeons into lead. And so this is what people in this needle of time think death is.

The movement of the prose, with minimal punctuation that makes us think a copy-editor has been sloppy, the attention to sounds (“aeons into lead,” for instance) and the use of a word like “transuranian” that slows tongue and mind, illustrate Brooke-Rose’s attention to detail; the “needle of time” is piercing and small (yet gestures towards a potentially wearying, and wearing, infinity) while signifying hopelessness, for in a story as replete with references to atoms and decomposition as this one, the eye of the needle comes to mind. In “Troglodyte” (with its wonderful opening line: “My friends were a little dubious when I announced my decision to become a troglodyte”) we are given a different kind of hopelessness (and perhaps coincidentally, as in “On Terms,” a woman alone or at least wanting to be) married with wit: cave life shares the same sort of intrusive neighbours, heavy-handed and insistent male suitors and irritating conveniences as a suburb.

Of the literary criticism and biographical material, in addition to those contributions already noted, the work of the editors, along with Nicolas Tredell, Victoria Stewart and Natalie Ferris are of most interest, and serve to place Brooke-Rose in context while providing strong cases for reconsidering her work.

The caveat mentioned above comes in here: most of the specimens of writing by Brooke-Rose are from material not owned by her main publisher, Carcanet Press, and though nothing is said about this in the book, readers will draw their own conclusions. That does limit the scope of excerpts, and is more of an impediment to getting better acquainted with Brooke-Rose, especially when one checks into the high price of acquiring any of her books in Canada (no matter who published them). So we must be thankful that we can get what we see here, and that Verbivoracious Press has plans to publish six of her works.

It is likely that the readership of Christine Brooke-Rose will remain small and devoted, and for those new to her, this book offers an initial taste—is it impossible to avoid a cooking metaphor?—of a writer who, only with rough handling, could be securely fitted into this or that movement or group (nouveau roman, Oulipo, experimental, women’s writing, British literature, and, according to her obituary in the New York Times, “science fiction”) but whose singularity keeps her outside these clubs. Thanks to Verbivoracious Festschrift Volume One: Christine Brooke-Rose, we have a series of perspectives on a writer who deserves greater study and a wider audience.

Verbivoracious Festschrift Volume One: Christine Brooke-Rose, Edited by G.N. Forester, M.J. Nichols | Verbivoracious Press | 320 pages |  $35.42 | cloth | ISBN #978-9810794064

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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.