Flinch Wince Jerk Shirk
- Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose
Carcanet, 119 pp, £12.95, February 2006, ISBN 1 85754 846 9
Christine Brooke-Rose, being in her eighties and suffering many intractable illnesses and disabilities, recognises that her life must be near its end. Since her retirement from the University of Paris (Vincennes) she has lived alone in a village near Avignon. Being well acquainted with illness, she has offered as her main reason for choosing to spend her old age in France the conviction that the French health services are far superior to the British, an opinion she has not had occasion to revise.
As a young woman she wrote four accomplished but orthodox novels and seemed firmly established in London, but in 1964, after a dangerous illness, she ‘went experimental’ and published Out, after which she never again wrote a novel that didn’t offer, first to herself, then to her readers, some technical challenge, some breach of the usual unexamined ‘realism’ contract. The publisher who had been happy with the more conventional early books rejected Out, but she was undismayed, for she had now discovered the work she was born to do; each book thereafter was an erudite game and she took great pleasure in it, testing her own intelligence and the intelligence of her readers, now a much reduced party.
It probably did not help her British sales that in 1968 she moved to Paris, taught linguistics and related subjects, and was soon in close touch with the likes of Cixous, Kristeva and the rest of the Parisian avant-garde, always an object of suspicion over here. Out, she admits, was directly influenced by Robbe-Grillet, but that relationship of mild dependence was not what she wanted, and with her next novel, Such, she ‘really took off’ on her own.[*]
Sometimes the intelligence-testing can be rather severe, but occasionally the reader is granted the favour of relative plainness. In an earlier autobiographical book, Remake (1996), the ‘old lady’, a kind of fictional double, does ‘think about the techniques of fiction’, but nevertheless offers a perspicuous narrative of what might be thought a life interesting in itself, even to readers who shrink from narratological exercise. For this old lady had a perfectly credible if mildly exotic existence: she was born in Geneva, reared in Brussels and London, educated at Oxford. As a young WAAF officer she had an interesting and intellectually taxing job at Bletchley Park and after the war became a serious and adventurous student of medieval literature and language. She married a romantic Polish poet and when, after many years, that union ended, she quietly became a professor at the outrageously advanced new Paris campus at Vincennes.
In addition to her 4+12 novels there are three more professorial volumes: the first book, A Grammar of Metaphor (1958), a brilliantly learned and original work, the writing lively, the ideas difficult; A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure (1981), a series of investigations into the nature of narrative using an expository mode quite different from that of her fictional experimentation; and Stories, Theories and Things (1991), of which the brief opening chapter is helpful to anybody who wants to understand something of Brooke-Rose’s attitude to her own work, and especially to people who dismiss it as a waste of time. A Grammar of Metaphor is related to her PhD work in London and, though lively, is rather formal; the other two have many humane autobiographical allusions. And somewhat to the side, but not to be forgotten, there is the excellent ZBC of Ezra Pound (1971). When one looks at this large collection of books, not one of which is a makeweight or an apology, nearly all of which were written in the intervals of earning a living by teaching, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the originality and skills of Brooke-Rose deserve a greater measure of admiration and respect than we have so far chosen to accord them.
In one way or another Brooke-Rose positions herself above the general run of novels which demonstrate a comfortable tacit agreement between author and reader as to the relation of fiction to reality. This move, this Erhebung, is essential to most of her thinking about fiction, for she also places herself above her own opinions on the subject and is also capable of teasing; some have been put off by the complexity of these relationships, though their exposition is always clear enough. She did confess in an interview that Thru (1975) – a novel about the theory of the novel, a deconstruction of narrativity – was inaccessible: it was ‘the most self-reflexive novel that it’s possible to write’, a book written ‘tongue-in-cheek’, she admits, ‘for a few narratologist friends’. But deconstruction rejoices to demonstrate that an author has really done the opposite of what she meant to do, and narratological theory can itself be deconstructed, which, in a way, is what Thru achieves. An essay called ‘Whatever Happened to Narratology?’ in Stories, Theories and Things concludes that, like structuralism, narratology turned out to be something that declined into triviality, something that one wanted (like Barthes) to escape. It had its uses, but it also had the fatal flaw of defeating pleasure; and pleasure, whatever the result, is always the intention. Brooke-Rose regarded her narratological studies and exercises as part of her apprenticeship as a novelist. ‘I benefited immensely from understanding in every tiny detail how a narrative text functions. I obviously know that this isn’t enough.’
Each novel depends on an elaborate technical programme and has its own distinctive content: she is 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.
Sometimes the choice of programme is not such as to require vast deviations from the realist norm. Thus Remake offers the reader a lot of accessible information about the life of its author, now ‘the old lady’ in Provence, then a child in London or in Brussels, confronting herself, playing with Chomskyan grammar (the famous test sentences ‘John is easy/eager to please’ are a running gag). There is much linguistic chatter, for she loves language to the point of enjoying bad puns and doing a good deal of unrepentant punning herself, the pun being a model of the natural instability of language. There is no ‘I’ in the book – one of several examples in her writing of the device of omission. In this she claims priority over Perec, who left the letter ‘e’ out of his 1969 novel La Disparition. The group called Oulipo, which included Perec, Queneau and Calvino, set themselves to write under such arbitrary formal restraints, and Brooke-Rose would easily have qualified for membership. Between (1968), a novel in which the central consciousness belongs to a simultaneous translator, is written without use of the verb ‘to be’. Amalgamemnon (1984) involves much play with tense and mood. Nobody in or out of Oulipo noticed that all this constraining was going on.
A television programme about the war sets her thinking of her time at Bletchley Park evaluating German messages: ‘Einsatzbereitschaftbericht, Einsatzmeldung, Einsatzbefehl, from Keitel to Kesselring, from Kesselring to Rommel … the otherness of the other learned young.’ Bletchley provided her ‘first training of the mind, a first university’, and Remake includes an uninflected account of her life there. Other memory trips, not in chronological order, as they come up: Chelsea, Liverpool, Geneva, Zurich, New York; then back to the old lady in Provence. We are offered some personal information about her family; about one brief and one long but broken marriage, rather sourly remembered; about her mother in an Anglican convent; about sisterly enmity. Then the convent school, and so on, with a sceptical John sometimes questioning the truth of the memories. After the travails of peace, the decisive move to Paris.
There isn’t much visible trickery here – nothing obscure, an honest account in continuously lively prose of an unusual life. As presented in a book, the life is nevertheless a fiction. So, it’s reasonable to add, is this last book, Life, End of. An old lady staggers round her kitchen from support to support, dresses with almost comic difficulty, discusses with herself the strangeness of such words as ‘looking-glass’, not a glass that looks any more than a dressing-gown dresses. To stand requires the help of both arms, so eliminating gesture. Walking is painful: ‘The legs now burn permanently, hot charcoal in the feet creeping up the shins.’ At every step the legs ‘flinch wince jerk shirk lapse collapse give way stagger like language when it can’t present the exact word needed, the exact spot where to put the foot’. The description of the pain has already enacted in language the gross physical difficulty. This enactment of a state of affairs written about by means of the writing itself is a familiar device, related to the obsessive punning. Mention of the pineal gland brings to mind the fact that Descartes placed the soul in it, ‘thus putting de cart before dehors’. Useless to wince flinch stagger; this is all part of the programme and a matter of habit, the result of ‘long familiarity, long love of language and its bones and flesh’.
Of course other people have to be dealt with. There is the doctor, professionally reticent, soothing, declining to explain even when the patient, obviously an intelligent person, understands already. Old friends are a special problem. When they visit will they admit that they are in Provence for some reason other than the visit? Will they lie about this? Will they ignore the old lady’s stipulations: they must hire a car, consider her problems in the kitchen, and thus avoid bringing an end to a thirty-year friendship? A bad-tempered but deserved rebuke to a guest causes a sleepless night. Almost better off alone, and not in a mouroir (old people’s home), she enjoys her house, though its upper rooms, and the books they contain, are now virtually inaccessible. She observes and fantasises the changing shapes in a dry-stone wall, later covered with the leaves of morning-glory, or meditates the condition of the world, population growth, the failure of medicine for the aged, the curse of advertising.
To remind us that this old lady has done some strenuous thinking about narrative, 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.
The old lady has a bad fall, uses a zimmer frame but cannot quench the fires in her feet. Nor can she find out the exact nature of her many ailments, although she suffers from the novelist’s ‘permanent desire to understand everything’, the desire that made her study astrophysics and computer language. On the last page her sight is failing. The computer is dead, the fantastic figures have disappeared from the stone wall, the morning-glory has withered. The legs are burning. There is a passing thought of suicide. However, there is no outcry, nothing like the passionate railing of Philip Roth in his terrifying new novel, Everyman. The old lady is like the author, formidably intelligent and bien élevée, and she has, in her usual admirable way, written what it would be slightly vulgar to call a novel or an autobiography or an exercise in ars moriendi, though, as the light of one’s attention falls on it, it may be read as any or all of those things.
[*] These novels, along with Between and Thru, have been republished as The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus (Carcanet, 742 pp., £18.95, February, 1 85754 884 1).