Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-2012)

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

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I was sad to find out today that Christine Brooke-Rose died. I’m sure she’ll be memorialised for her novel Thru (1975), a typesetter’s nightmare, a joyous romp of over-spilling textuality that explodes the normal confines of the material book in so many wonderful, thoughtful, outrageous ways (even if it was, she once claimed, just “written almost tongue-in-cheek for a few narratologist friends”). But I hope somewhere along the way she is flagged up as a great experimental novelist in the truest sense of the word, and in that sense, truly alien (like her friend Muriel Spark, though to such different ends) to the English literary tradition. She wrote novels that engaged (separately) with chemistry, astrophsyics, structural linguistics, computer languages, evolutionary biology, and more. She wrote a novel without the word “to be”, and one only in future tenses. At the start of her career, she wrote four conventional novels (which she described as “sub-Waugh”) before having a Damascene conversion to experimentalism. And she stuck at it, absolutely: you can’t get a better, braver story than that. And her novels were not only experimental, but funny too.

And I hope, beyond this, that she is also recognised as a translator of Robbe-Grillet and Goytisolo, as the author of a book on metaphor that I still saw on reading lists as an undergraduate in 2006, as a brilliant and serious critic who thought very very deeply about narrative and all the upheavals it saw (in practice and theory) in her time, as well as a thrilling reader of Pound, James, Robbe-Grillet (again), and many more.

I could write all night about this sui generis novelist/poet/short-story-writer/translator/literary critic/narratologist/literary theorist etc. who was never given the recognition she deserved, who never even really picked up as a cult author as she should have. But instead, personally, what I think I value her for the most is her incredible intelligence. It shines out of every word she wrote, whether in her novels at their most tricky, or in the day-jobbing reviews she wrote for the Observer in the late ’50s/early ’60s. It’s not in her variegatedness or her encyclopaedicness that I see this the most, but simply in the incredible penetration of her intellect, her ability to show up complex things as complex, but to illuminate them nonetheless in a completely original way. Reading Brooke-Rose, you both see through so clearly to the subject at hand, and at the same time you are taken along breathlessly into her own unique vision of that thing, a vision utterly other in itself. Her writing is not a show, a performance at being/doing something: she wrote with the conviction of a convert, always, and you see in everything she wrote a belief in the reader to understand complex things in a complex way, and a faith in complexity as something important and meaningful.

I don’t know if these terms are terms she should be cast in: this has got a bit personal. I’m not even sure if this picture (from the back cover of her short story collection Go When You See The Green Man Walking (1970)) is how she would have liked to have been presented. Still, it’s a great image, and I know Brooke-Rose saw the funny side of the messages her author photos gave across.

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