- A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, especially of the Fantastic by Christine Brooke-Rose
Cambridge, 380 pp, £25.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 22561 2
If Christine Brooke-Rose had stayed in Oxford, instead of migrating to France, she might have been rather like Helen Gardner. Her new book is written with a crispness and a briskness which at once evokes a certain atmosphere: a highly intelligent unresponsiveness to theory, a fear of subjectivity (she even recalls, with obvious relish, her Oxford tutor’s phrase for mere criticism, ‘personal effusions’). But this manner is overlaid by a thick stratum of French theory and French taste. Professor Brooke-Rose knows all about and uses the writings of Barthes, Todorov, Genette and Hamon, and takes pleasure in applying chill taxonomies to racy American Science Fiction (Vonnegut, McElroy). The resulting mixture is heady stuff, but not very satisfying.
Vol. 4 No. 24 · 30 December 1982
SIR: A.D. Nuttall’s tardy account of Christine Brooke-Rose’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (LRB, 18 November) consolidates your recent practice of inadequate reviewing of ‘new’ criticism. Professor Nuttall does not properly describe the book and summarises quite lopsidedly. When he takes issue with it, it is clear that this is because he has failed to understand much of it. He claims that The Turn of the Screw is ‘unambiguously supernatural’, because ‘the governess, never having seen the living Quint, gives a correct description of him’, in ‘ “another talk”, as James tells us near the beginning of Chapter Eight’. James, of course, does nothing of the sort. Only the governess does. (Furthermore, she admits that, far from endorsing her version, Mrs Grose ‘wishes, of course – small blame to her! – to sink the whole subject’.)
To Professor Nuttall even such elementary distinctions may represent no more than a tiresome ‘playing with narrative techniques’ – but in that case could not a reviewer with at least the patience to make them be appointed?
Trinity College, Cambridge
Professor Nuttall had not written for us before: we take pride in having hit on someone so exquisitely attuned to our pursuit of mediocrity. It would seem that D.H. Sexton can hardly fail to do well at Cambridge. For a more insinuating style of academic reproof, he might care to look at the last words of the letter that follows.
Editor, ‘London Review’