Winter Facts

Lorna Sage

Christine Brooke-Rose’s story of how this new book came to be is that she set out to write about her life, and instead produced a kind of antibiography. It’s described in the jacket’s blurb by Carcanet as ‘an autobiographical novel with a difference’ which ‘uses life material to compose a third-person fiction’. Inside the covers we’re told with confessional baldness that ‘the old lady’s publisher has asked for an autobiography. But the resistance is huge. The absorbing present creates interference, as well as the old lady’s lifelong prejudice against biographical criticism, called laundry-lists by Pound. Only the text matters, if the text survives at all.’ But then, isn’t life always text for a Post-Structuralist? And then again, treating the facts as fiction doesn’t seem exactly a major departure if your fiction is of the pared-down, see-through, new-novelish kind. Whichever way you look at it, Christine Brooke-Rose is on home ground in Remake: making it over is second nature to her.

She does have a serious quarrel with most kinds of life-writing, of course, but that is a matter of genre. Which genre is such a text to claim kin with? What she objects to is treating life stories as romantic or realistic affairs. The writer she is, you gather, wouldn’t be seen dead inhabiting such a plausible and formative life: that version of the Author is dead as a dodo for her. And that means questioning the importance of childhood, and the archetypal, claustrophobic family romance that’s supposed to be so character-forming. Yes, it’s significant that she grew up in various places – born in Geneva in 1923, brought up in Belgium and in England – but as much for the languages as anything. There’s no one mother-tongue in this story, to provide a starting-point, and no real father-figure either. Father was English, in fact, and early went missing, and you have to read between the lines pretty carefully to piece him together at all. ‘A thief, a lying mythomaniac, a cheater,’ he’s labelled in passing – a colourful, piratical parenthesis, no more. In fact, a younger and different Christine Brooke-Rose did once write up the adventure of the Search for Dad, in conventional style, in a novel called The Dear Deceit, in which she disguised herself as a male narrator and went to town on the details: dad had been a member of an Anglican Order, a kind of monk, and had run away and stolen the plate, and been sent to prison, among other picaresque episodes his wife and daughters only found out about after his desertion, and indeed after his death. The Dear Deceit was published in 1960, before she redefined herself as a writer (her first ‘new’ novel, Out, came out in 1964), and its use of real-life material is of the conventional kind – made over fully into fiction, with convincing characters and a questing plot. That father – in other words – was the father of a writer-daughter who was trying to fit herself into the conventional mould. Reborn, she refused to carry on the family ‘line’. ‘Forbidding but remarkable,’ said the Telegraph of Out, and Punch thought that the author was so sure of her new self that she must belong to the school of Samuel Beckett.

In Remake it’s this wise child she celebrates, and indeed she mischievously cites – from Jenny Diski writing in the London Review of Books, as it happens – a witty mock-theory about the ‘crucial years of an individual’s psychological development not being from birth till five, but between the ages of 42 and 47’.

The psyche and personality in the first half of life would be merely malleable and unfinished, childhood trauma not trauma but neutral and neural experience. People would simply be analysed between the ages of 40 and 42 and get sorted out before the critical age – the Mid-Life Crisis – and be ready to spend fruitful years from middle age to death as positive, harmonious and psychologically healthy Houyhnhnms.

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