BY Natalie Ferris in Profiles | 01 OCT 12
Featured in
Issue 150


The life and work of the late, great experimental writer, Christine Brooke-Rose

BY Natalie Ferris in Profiles | 01 OCT 12

Christine Brooke-Rose, 1964. Photograph: Mark Gerson

The hornets weave their way between the cracks in the stone. The sunlight is directed at angles through the gated passageway of rue Haute. A single silk scarf hangs, looped through a yellow hosepipe around a nail. And all is quiet. Christine Brooke-Rose is not at home.

On the 21 March 2012, the writer Brooke-Rose passed away in the seclusion of her home in Cabrières d’Avignon, in the south of France. A medieval bastion set deep in the Vaucluse valleys in Provence, it is a tiny village flanked with cedar trees, flinted furrows and dry-stone walls, a charming but stark détournement within the heady land of lavender, honey and Viognier; a place as dotted with cherry blossoms as it is knotted with vines.

I was due to meet Brooke-Rose and interview her in early April; I’d even wrapped up a bottle of sherry in brown paper. Flights were booked, circuitous road-route plotted, questions inked. The quest to track her down had been difficult. From the relatives of nouveaux romanciers, old academic colleagues and lost publishers, to a number of mayoral candidates, village librarians and healthcare staff, until at last: contact with the writer herself. And yet, by the time I arrived, a formidable voice was no longer with us.

She was never really a voice that was with us, however, as she was deplorably neglected by the annals of literary history. Born in 1923 in Geneva to an English father and a Swiss-American mother, she was brought up primarily in Brussels speaking English, French and German. This cross-cultural linguistic tug was to feature heavily in her work – both fictional and critical – grounding her with a keen and inventive ear for the commonalities of utterance. After working at Bletchley Park during World War II, where she translated decryptions of the enigma code, she married the eminent Polish poet Jerzy Peterkiewicz in 1948 and completed a PhD at Oxford University in medieval French and English philology. She only began to write fiction in order to combat the stress induced by her husband’s near-fatal illness. Her first novel, The Languages of Love (1957), was published alongside her scholarly compendium of thoughts on metaphor, A Grammar of Metaphor (1958). Following in the directive Empsonian criticism of the time – notable for its scholarly eccentricities and the mercurial hermeneutics of the critic and poet William Empson’s ‘Practical Criticism’ – she is lively and crystalline, beginning to perform the academic lacerations to language that would come to comprise her artful, prankster lyricism.

Lauded by literary scholar Frank Kermode in the late 1960s as the ‘sole practitioner’ of narrative on the British side of the Channel, she was nevertheless widely dismissed by reviewers and the largely conservative literary establishment of the time for a style and a schema that – according to Francis Hope writing in the New Statesman in 1964 – is ‘resplendently unreadable’. Each of her books – following her exposure whilst teaching in Paris to the prose experiments of the nouveau roman – were what literary scholar George Steiner deciphered as ‘language-games’, apposite to much of the anti-Modernist empiricist writing in Britain at the time (such as that of Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Ivy Compton-Burnett or Iris Murdoch). As Kermode scoffed in the Times Literary Supplement (tls) in 1963: ‘Not for the English, the sophisticated epistemology of the new French writers.’ Brooke-Rose quipped years later that the TLS criticized the ‘Parisian’ flim-flam of her author photograph rather than the ambition of her 1966 novel, Such.

This disregard never seemed to trouble her too much, rallying in an expository essay from 2002: ‘tant pis for readers who can’t share in this scripting, this fiction was not written for them.’ Difficulty was often the point, drawing upon Roland Barthes’ notion of the lisable (readerly) and scriptable (writerly) text, conceiving of the reader as generator. While her novels may be deliberately obscure – jostling between fused jargons, tricksy puns and multilingual utterances – they question the very fundamentals of language as moments of movements in meaning. And it was this proclivity for the glinty shards – and most intriguingly her attention to the graphic manipulation of meaning on the page – that provided the level at which Brooke-Rose’s unique sense of ‘experiment’ was conducted. Alert to all the intricacies of the marked and unremarked detail in language – visual, aural and epistemic – hers was a continual ‘groping’ after meaning.

Intriguingly, the winding paths of Cabrières are devoid of voices, or even people. And yet my journey here had been propelled by voices. Few knew where Brooke-Rose had chosen to live her life of willed seclusion. My various attempts to track her down were often met with disaffected grunts, mainly due to my broken French. Many were sceptical of her continued lucidity, noting that it had been a decade since her last published work, and that little had been heard from her since. It was tantalizing, however, to know that somewhere Brooke-Rose continued to write her darkly allusive prose. I turned, in desperation, to a close friend and Royal College of Art colleague, the writer and cartoonist Clo’e Floirat. Offering to do a little groundwork on my behalf, she set about unearthing what she could in her native French.

And where better to begin than with Catherine, the wife of Alain Robbe-Grillet? Brooke-Rose was the first to translate his novels into English, and so taking the weighty bundle of the French Yellow Pages to task, Clo’e rang the first number under ‘Robbe-Grillet’. Her luck, however, was short-lived. An emotional Catherine had no idea where to find Brooke-Rose, having last seen her in the 1980s – when Brooke-Rose took leave of Paris – and suggested contacting Les Éditions de Minuit, Robbe-Grillet’s publisher, and the imprint that published Brooke-Rose’s translation of In the Labyrinth in 1968. No luck, however; they suggested calling a former teaching colleague, from whom the name Cabrières d’Avignon was first mouthed. But, as Clo’e asked, how do you phone a village? So, following a sequence of calls to the mayor, a number of civic officials, and the local librarian (the extremely helpful Delphine), we were finally handed the mobile number of Brooke-Rose’s live-in nurse, Marie-Odile. This is the woman with whom we were to have daily contact, and through whom we were to have contact with Christine herself, until the last.

The wild flowers below Brooke-Rose’s tiled roof buttresses seem poised. The author had chosen to retire to this quiet place in the hills from her hectic 20-year post teaching linguistics and Anglo-American literature at the ‘experimental’ Université de Paris VIII (Vincennes), as playfully depicted within the typographical dexterity of her 1975 novel Thru, settling down to her corner cottage in 1988. Pulling away from the sterner scholarly pursuits of Paris – involved as she was, both socially and professionally, with such bulwarks as Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers – she moved to what she dubbed her ‘burotic study overlooking the orchards and vineyards and wooded hills’ in order to at last confront herself.

And her imprint is still etched into Cabrières. Although the residents knew little of her, whilst strolling the lanes I came across the enigmatic marker pen scrawl of her name written across the lip of her letterbox: ‘Rose Christine Brooke Rose’. Encouraged by her publisher to write an autobiography whilst in Cabrières, she was forced to ‘intercept all those interseptic messages’ of her life, much as she had done all those years ago at Bletchley Park. Yet she balked at the prospect of personal revelation. Neither fiction nor fact, Brooke-Rose’s refusal of a translatable reality always prompts a reaction – her formal constraints do not ‘mime’, but often mark the absence of any kind of reality. This is illustrated in the omission of the verb ‘to be’ in Between (1968); ‘to have’ in Next (1993); the constative sentences in Amalgamemnon (1984); and in the omission of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives in the eventual autobiography Remake (1996). As her ambivalent ‘other’ amidst her ‘beautiful four-times-four sequence’ of 12 novels and a further ‘four serious critical books’, Remake does not deny reality, or reveal it, but remakes it:

‘… the old lady can’t help repeating, for a laugh, a smile, in vain, all the mentors and all the selves, the baby in Geneva, the little girl in Chiswick, in Brussels, Folkestone, the young girl in Liverpool, in Thornaby-on-Trees, in Bletchley Park, in Occupied Germany, the student in Oxford, in London, the young wife and writer in Chelsea, the traveller in Spain, Austria, Italy, Eastern Europe, Turkey, the less young wife and writer in Hampstead, the middle-aged professor in Paris, New York, Buffalo, Brandeis, Jerusalem, Geneva, Zurich, the old lady in Provence.’

Like all her fiction, reality here is itself multifaceted, it ‘is a scandal, it never quite fits’, as she wrote in her 1990 essay, ‘Whatever Happened to Narratology?’

Something about Cabrières clearly prompts introspection. It is a town with much of its circuitry exposed; neon arrows daubed on the roads betray heavy construction and whitewashed walls are tracked away with rain. Perhaps it is the life lived behind such heavy slotted stone, or perhaps it is the quiet; the only heard exchange is the Morse-like code tapped by the twisted electricity lines. Brooke-Rose wrote a second autobiography in Cabrières, Life, End of (2006), documenting the ‘flinch wince jerk shirk’ plight of an alert mind in an ever-infirm body. Yet what she calls her ‘passionate concern for language’ endures. It may have been a pleasure entirely of her own, but her language-games were designed to be played. As elucidated in the final chapter of Remake, she will always be ‘an off-beat writer still barking up the wrong tree become tree of life’. ‘Resplendently unreadable’ she may be, but it is all the literary offshoots, meta-quizzical exclamations and idiomatic hilarities that fuel her imagination. Hers is a language brimming with all the ‘affrodizzyacts’ of poetics – one of her many witty, self-regarding neologisms – making us realize that the true pleasure of language is not in recognition, not in the familiar readerly experience, but in the delight of discovery.

is the English Editor of the architecture journal SPACE. She works at Enitharmon Press & Editions and is a freelance writer. In conjunction with the Royal College of Art, London, UK, she is organizing a conference to take place in 2013 to celebrate the life and work of Christine Brooke-Rose.