Textual Harassment

Nicolas Tredell

  • Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose
    Carcanet, 182 pp, £12.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 85635 952 1
  • The Women’s Hour by David Caute
    Paladin, 272 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 586 09142 4
  • Look twice by John Fuller
    Chatto, 255 pp, £13.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3761 4

Nervousness and nostalgia mark these three novels. The nostalgia of Christine Brooke-Rose is, surprisingly, for a golden age of character in fiction; David Caute harks back to the Sixties and the heyday of radical hopes; John Fuller conjures a world in which stories can still enchant. But these novelists are all, in their respective ways, nervous about the power of fiction to enthrall, and they live on the frontiers of representation, constantly checking their credentials, never quite venturing into full-blooded fictional territory.

Characters in fiction have fallen on particularly hard times. Modern critics, and some novelists, have tried to diminish or do away with them. Absorbed into textual totalities, shrunken to structural props, dissected into sets of semes, indicted as ideological impostors, dispersed into flickers of false presence, they now seem to belong, in their full, substantive versions, to the heavy plant of the 19th century realist novel, an obsolete industry fit only for a theme-park. Where are those readers now who will feed them the blood of belief, warming them to life as Odysseus warmed the shades?

This need of characters for readers is the germ of Textermination. Brooke-Rose offers, not six characters in search of an author, but several hundred characters in search of readers. E.M. Forster’s image of authors simultaneously at work in the British Museum Reading Room gives way to a vision of a vast range of characters who gather at the San Francisco Hilton for the Annual Convention of Prayer for Being to their Reader-God. They include the two Emmas, Woodhouse and Bovary, real historical figures recast in fiction, such as Goethe, Pastor Oberlin and Philip II, Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s Lotte, Christa Wolf’s Kassandra, Prince Rama, Rushdie’s Gibreel Farishta, Humbert Humbert, Dorothea Brooke and Mr Causaubon, the Emperor in his non-existent new clothes and Calvino’s Non-Existent Knight. With those characters the reader already knows, Textermination offers the pleasures of both recognition and novelty: we see people we know in fresh contexts. The reader’s self-congratulation may be checked as he encounters characters beyond his ken, but this provokes the humbling and enhancing awareness that the range of texts that might be called literary is now so vast that no one could ever experience more than a fraction of it. The Leavisian hope that one could grasp all the literature that mattered, and thus confirm one’s centrality, is revealed as parochial and pusillanimous, a stratagem of Urizen.

The promiscuous mix of characters in Textermination produces startling, often comic juxtapositions: Emma Woodhouse and Valmont, Madame Bovary and Sir Lancelot, Humbert Humbert and unknowing Maisie, Becky Sharp and Man Friday, Dorothea Brooke and Jude, the Man Without Qualities and the screwed-up governess, Goethe and Oedipa Maas. Mr Causaubon, bemoaning the fact that his wife has always had the lion’s share of critical attention, goes to hear a paper devoted to him – only to find that this Causaubon is Umberto Eco’s, from Foucault’s Pendulum. But other characters are in a worse case: their names fill the Index of Names Forbidden by the Canon. One character realises she can’t go on when she finds in the Index her own name: Mira Enketei. Mira who? Ms Enketei figures in Brooke-Rose’s previous novels, Amalgamemnon and Verbivore, and her appearance here functions as her creator’s wry comment on her failure to enter the canon.

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[*] Routledge, 336 pp., £30 and £12.99, April 1990, 0 415 03154 0.