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.

On this model, the move into reflexity that turned Brooke-Rose into an experimenter in fiction would figure as a kind of DIY analysis, at 40. However, as the tone suggests, this notion that we’re born again at forty-something isn’t meant entirely seriously (no one can be so taken with demystification as to find Houyhnhnms altogether congenial), and her childhood in the ordinary sense does after all get some space. In the beginning was language (‘once upon a time there is a little girl born in French’), and early ‘scatterings and smatterings’ acquired in Geneva, Brussels and London, cherished mishearings and mistranslations: ‘un fait divers is a winter fact.’ The set-piece memory that stands in for a lot more, the only memory – we’re told – ‘still firm, personal and alive’, is of grandmère’s death in 1933. The old lady lies ‘under an eiderdown of flowers, smelling of faint rot’, and, terrifyingly, her eyes snap open to stare at her grand-daughter (disguised under the name of Tess) –

At supper grandpère asks Tess the colour of grandmère’s eyes. Blue. Because grandpère’s eyes are blue. Comment! Forgotten so soon? And Tess weeps into the bouillon, the tears joining the small golden rings of richness and the innumerable little letters made of pasta.

The scene has a sensuous force of conviction; you can see and hear and smell it. At the same time it’s comically characteristic of Brooke-Rose that the alphabet pasta gets in, even here: the signature in memory’s soup.

Most other early scenes flicker past, ‘like forgotten photographs out of a drawer’, and although she expresses some token regret for the vagaries of recall, the present-tense ‘old lady’ at her word-processor doesn’t actually mind too much. Isn’t life a story? she asks herself. And answers: No, life’s a file – ‘today all the terms for memory are spatial, screening, filing, effacing, storing, labelling, visualising, doors opening on doors.’ The snapshots of the past are cross-cut with scenes from the present, the view from her windows, ‘vineyards stretching towards the wooded hills of evergreen oak and pines ... red and orange, the cherry-orchards dark crimson against the yellowing poplars’, and this picturesque stuff is cross-cut in its turn with the polyglot TV babble and images of world news, for there’s a vast dish on the roof now that she has ‘all the time in the world to watch the world’. You’re not allowed to forget for long that the work of memory is part of the same cartoon-strip, the same conspiracy to animate the still scenes and string them end to end. Do soap operas fit feminist theories about flux and fragmentation? Her own practice, in that case, is politically incorrect, for she feels compelled to register the ironies and absurdities and sleights of eye by which stories get sewn together, ‘identities ... a seamless tissue of half-lies’.

Still, this antibiography does follow a female ‘line’: mother’s death is as memorable as grandmère’s, indeed in some ways more so, for she dies ‘bathed in love’ in a Benedictine convent in London, at 92. This after forty years as a nun, converted just after the war, when she is transformed from middle-aged, middle-class mummy to Mother Mary Anselm, leaving her two grown-up daughters strangely orphaned in the rejected ‘world’. (Daddy dies – in a parenthesis, again, daddy est mort – back in 1934, but he’s already ‘been dead for ages’ by then.) This time for mother’s end there’s a diary, ‘a meditative account of a dying and a death, written between the acts’, and this licenses a switch to the first person, for once. The lonely and vulnerable ‘I’ that suddenly appears in these pages isn’t particularly eloquent, but does convey something of the anguish of losing a parent, even when you’re middle-aged yourself, even when it’s a death so long foreseen and so well prepared for. The loss is compounded, since this mother has so long been a stranger: ‘They say she was always very strong, digging in the garden, working hard. As a young mother she was always exhausted ... the nuns ... file out, leaving me alone with her for a moment. I kiss her suddenly waxen brow. Outside, I cry out wildly against the wall, wondering at such pain.’

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this first-person confession of unbelief and grief is not her distance from her dying mother but her distance from her living sister, Joanne. Joanne (who has a restless, roving career) doesn’t get much space altogether in the book, but she enters its pages like an avenging, intractable force. She writes hateful letters that this author, her sister, destroys – ‘a totally mad, repulsive, compulsive, correspondence over forty years’ – though a small specimen of her savagely sarcastic style survives to be quoted: ‘How kind of you to have insisted – against everyone else’s wishes – that I be summoned so’s Mummy could see us both together, as I proposed to you, in writing, almost 2 years ago. Funny thing is that in a chat I had with the Ma P on arrival, she told me she’d done the insisting.’

Joanne is the bad sister, the guilty proof of one’s failure as family, failure in closeness. She’s also a reminder that Brooke-Rose’s experiments with breaking the rules don’t just involve detached jokes about narrative strategy, but extend to the documentary transgression of kidnapping someone else’s words onto the page. It’s the middle-distance focus and the rounded character she wants to avoid, not the raw material of others and otherness. Joanne and ‘I’ are ‘deeply different ... from the first irreconcilable’. And you get the uncomfortable feeling that putting ‘Joanne’ in this book is part of an ongoing battle, no holds barred, no reconciliation achieved, mother’s death just one in the series of sibling conflicts over space, ‘this invented rivalry about happiness’.

After this episode even the book’s customary third person seems to secrete a kind of insoluble solitariness. Brooke-Rose’s habitual tone is a curious mixture – at once cosmopolitan and uncomfortably direct. She’s in many ways cool and dry, and yet at the same time undefended, exposed. What’s being deliberately stripped off (again) is the sociable, consistent carapace of a public personality – the sort of thing we rehearse for in the family, and which her family so signally fails to develop in her. Be that as it may, she contrives to take an overview of her life across the years without losing a sense of the oddness, partiality and contingency of its shape. One striking example of this is her account of the (de) forming of her sexual life because of an infantile love-affair with words. It starts with the seemingly harmless habit of sitting on her foot to hold in a full bladder, while listening to stories as a toddler, ‘enjoying the fullness of the moment even with the fullness of the bladder’. This is in many ways so improbable that she had better tell it in her own words:

That heel-habit, formed for the prolongation of intellectual pleasures as the old lady knows full well, must have caused the so-called congenital malformation – mais l’urèthre plonge dans le vagin – blighting an entire sexlife, not discovered by any English gyno or uro for over thirty years, found through the simplest fingerprod in Paris and fixed, decades too late. No wonder Tess rarely enjoyed sex ... the child turned into an incongruous Sue Bridehead wanting only companionship, with sex as price to pay for love.

Neither using French nor taking the names of Thomas Hardy’s heroines does much to dilute the painful intimacy of this. Why confide it? The graphic detail serves, seemingly, one major purpose for Brooke-Rose, which is to reveal herself as an author, as the self-made – or better, self-unmade – woman. Not therefore the creature of ready-made circumstances, or some mysterious fiat, some Godly dispensation, or some Freudian diagnosis. ‘Congenital? Self-inflicted more likely.’ If there is something nun-like and untouchable in her own character, like her mother’s, then it has a particular, material (‘neural and neutral’), origin. She’ll go a very long way, it seems, almost to any lengths, to avoid having a psyche or harbouring a soul.

The other main factor in shaping her sense of herself also has its strangeness, but it’s a strangeness shared with quite a lot of other members of her wartime generation – a spell at Bletchley Park, decoding German signals: ‘The young WAAF officer ... reading and evaluating German messages all day for priority lists to the interpreters and cryptographers ... The otherness of the other learnt young, the real war, seen from the enemy point of view.’ It was, she says, her first university, and it made her aware of the power knowledge gives, especially knowledge out of the air, ‘intercepted, decrypted, translated and transmuted’. Bletchley Park is an inspiration, more so, we gather, than the rather inept muse that’s dictating poems to her at the time, on the side. Also on the side, she meets and marries and parts from her first husband, also at Bletchley, a wartime blip that leaves less of a trace than those airy messages – ‘from the enemy viewpoint, the British being the enemy ... the writer does that, learning to imagine the other. All human beings should ... On the other hand, experiencing that same war as pure information ... helps to turn Tess into a detached intellectual, never experiencing the grime, the cold, the heat.’ On balance, and with Houyhnhnm hindsight, though, she’s grateful for the training in seeing through the propaganda, especially when she contemplates the world her dish delivers to her retirement, ‘the planet retribalised, everyone behaving as to the manna born’. The new media are cleverer not truer.

Her own cleverness gets her to Oxford after the war, where she takes up philology and enjoys watching the words cavort and shift and change: ‘consonants breaking vowels, becoming mute, still there as dried-up foetuses in the spelling but unuttered’. She has met the love of her life by now, in more senses than one. There are the words; and there’s the man, a Pole in exile, Janek, also an intellectual, also a writer, whom she meets and marries, and who transforms the world for her. This passage is written to match her euphoria; and also, since it’s in the neo-romantic style of postwar poetry (David Gascoyne? Dylan Thomas? the Muriel Spark of those days, even?), to measure the distance between now and then: ‘London is transformed. The red underground becomes blood thundering under London’s skin ... The stuttering sky full of birds plucks the eyes like parchment. A sigh sprinkles the night.’ She isn’t parodying her young self exactly, just observing the gap between. In 1957, quite a long time before the marriage fell apart, she would write A Grammar of Metaphor. The ‘dissociation of mental and physical’ is, alas, her lot – and despite her love for Janek, ‘there’s no dark Lawrentian passion for Tess.’ Pretty soon, in the Sixties, she’ll write Out – and Such and Between – and (in 1988) be off on her own, to take up a university job at Paris VIII.

She found herself in the Sixties, then, but in a characteristically oblique and ironic fashion, which had nothing much to do with liberation. And we stop there, really, since that’s the point and focus of the book, the life of writing, the making of the writer. And yet, she contrives to the very end to sustain a teasing and troubling ambivalence on this very matter: are we getting only those aspects of the life that are relevant to the work? Or – as one comes increasingly to suspect – is this her real life, is this as real as it gets? The person she’s writing about, and the one doing the writing, converge and mirror each other. And the portrait she gives of her present tense self, sitting in her cottage in Provence with the dish on the roof chanelling the world’s images through her study, makes her out to be a kind of high-tech wise woman, like a figure from a 21st-century fairy-tale – which is picturesquely pleasing, but doesn’t resolve the matter of her good faith as a life-writer.

And perhaps it’s unresolvable. After all, the question ‘What is an author?’ has become one of the most often asked and most unsatisfyingly answered questions of our times – whether you think of high theory, or the boom in literary biography, or the proliferation of readings and creative writing classes. What Remake does is to offer Christine Brooke-Rose’s inconclusive evidence – her experience of making herself up. Her non-answer, though, has the edge on a lot of the answers to the author-question, precisely because of the way her theories and her practice coincide and collide and fertilise each other. It’s a disconcerting performance – sometimes dry, sometimes moving, sometimes eccentric and evasive. But this is another way of saying that she leaves you wondering whether this is a book about someone experimenting in writing, simply telling it differently, or someone who experimented in living; and that uncertainty is exciting, like the unreasonable feeling of being on the verge (only on the verge, but never mind) of something new.