‘What is “experimental” art,’ the late Christine Brooke-Rose once asked, ‘or an “experimental” novel? Is it a genre?’ The question was the theme of a symposium on her life and work at the Royal College of Art last week, organised by Natalie Ferris. Tom McCarthy, like Brooke-Rose mistrustful of the label, suggested that the question had to be: ‘Experimental compared to what?’ He said that Brooke-Rose’s experiments ‘are already rehearsed’ in the work of Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. (Does that make it a genre?) ‘Here form is content, content is form,’ McCarthy said, quoting Beckett on Finnegans Wake. Brooke-Rose once described her experience of writing as ‘one of groping with forms’, which would sometimes lead to something being grasped. (Though as Frank Kermode observed a few years ago, Brooke-Rose was also ‘a firm believer in fiction that has content, information. One novel required research into astrophysics, another into palaeontology; the best experts were consulted, were amused, interested and co-operative. It was important to get everything right.’)
Brian Dillon said that one of the biggest risks Brooke-Rose took was having her critical and novelistic selves so intertwined on the page. This is perhaps most evident in Life, End of, her last book, an apparently autobiographical novel in which the word ‘I’ appears only in dialogue, and as much a critical work as a creative one. Kermode, reviewing it in the LRB, wrote:
there is a pedagogical episode containing a lecture on the varying grammars of the Narrative and the Speech modes, and one on the role of the author, who is firmly declared not to have died or disappeared. But the transfer of the author’s narratological expertise into her creation – this character, this old woman approaching death in Provence – is said not to have worked. We may have forgotten that the old lady is a fiction, a character writing a ‘dying diary’ and not Christine Brooke-Rose, whose actual plight hers so much resembles.
Ali Smith gave an overview of Brooke-Rose’s career in a lecture-cum-performance entitled ‘All Is Language’. Among her subjects Smith mentioned language, love, faith, adultery and sexism: ‘All her books are concerned with sexism.’ Smith, whose own novels are full of word-play, made the point that there’s nothing trivial about Brooke-Rose’s language games, which she turned to after the more conventional satire of her first four novels. ‘Silence says the notice on the stairs,’ Brooke-Rose wrote in Stories, Theories and Things (1991), ‘and the stairs creak.’