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 – "a sense of being in touch with something else" – and the solitary hours confined to her bed produced the highly wrought novel Out (1964), inspired by the nouveaux romancierAlain 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 was due to meet and interview her in a matter of days. Flights booked, winding bus route plotted – I'd even wrapped a bottle of sherry in brown paper – to Cabrières d'Avignon, her home for the last three decades. She was prolific to the last. And her relevance will be lasting. The "passionate concern for language" may have been entirely her own, but her language-games were designed to be played. She was as much with us as against us. If she has taught us anything, it is that shifting curiosity is the very lifeblood of language. And literature must make us work for the reward. So, says Brooke-Rose: "Let us play: there are more theories in heaven and earth."
Ms. Brooke-Rose was a linguistic escape artist. In book after book she dons self-imposed syntactic shackles, and in book after book she gleefully slips them.
In “Between,” the very nature of identity is called into question by her avoidance of the verb “to be” in all its forms. In “Next” (1998), about the dispossessed in London, her characters are literal have-nots: throughout the book, she avoids the verb “to have.”
In “Amalgamemnon,” narrated by a literature professor about to lose her job, Ms. Brooke-Rose uses only verb forms — including future tense and subjunctive mood — that conjure conditions unobtainable in the present.
Ms. Brooke-Rose’s earliest novels, published in the late 1950s, are conventional satires of manners. But as early as her third novel, “The Dear Deceit,” published in 1960, she had begun to play with narrative form. The novel opens with the death of its protagonist and, in successive chapters, works backward to his birth.
This convention has a time-honored analogue in narrative nonfiction, as when, for instance, a newspaper article begins with word of its subject’s death and, only lower, reads:
Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva on Jan. 16, 1923, into a French-, German- and English-speaking household. Her enigmatic English father, who left the family when she was a child and died when she was 11, had been, she later learned, an Anglican Benedictine monk and a convicted thief, though not necessarily in that order; her American-Swiss mother became a Benedictine nun after the dissolution of her marriage.
Reared in Geneva, Brussels and Britain, the young Ms. Brooke-Rose worked at Bletchley Park during the war, decrypting intercepted German messages. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oxford, followed by a doctorate in medieval literature from University College London. From the late 1960s to the late ’80s she taught British and American literature at the University of Paris.
Ms. Brooke-Rose was married three times. (Her second marriage was to the prominent Polish writer Jerzy Pietrkiewicz.) Information on survivors was not available.
Her other books include an autobiographical novel, “Remake” (1996); the story collection “Go When You See the Green Man Walking” (1970); a volume of criticism, “A ZBC of Ezra Pound” (1971); and translations of the French experimental writer Alain Robbe-Grillet.
What proved to be her last book was a novel published in 2006. It is presciently titled, in the manner of a catalog entry, “Life, End Of.”Continue reading the main story