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Interview with Christine Brooke-Rose

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, The Independent on Sunday, 27th March 2005

Christine Brooke-Rose: The Texterminator

B S Johnson claimed her as a soulmate; the French nouveaux romanciers begged her to join their cliques. Yet the formidable Christine Brooke-Rose preferred to keep a low profile. Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski tracks her down in deepest rural France to talk about her life and novels.

There's a woman standing by the exit to Avignon TGV holding up a small board with two words on it: "MADAM BONCZA". The Boncza bit I can understand; you'd need a plank for my full name. But "Madame"? In what I hope passes for French I introduce myself (6ft 2in, unshaven, shaved head) and she's understandably wary. If I was waiting for Madame Boncza, I'd be expecting a fairground fortune-teller. I tell her I'm here to visit the author Christine Brooke-Rose. The woman looks even more blank. "Une femme qui écrit?" "Ah oui!" she exclaims, "l'écrivain." The Writer.

British taxi drivers may think they know a lot, but I'd be intrigued to find one who has ever made the same connection. Brooke-Rose should be a very well-known novelist, but somehow she isn't. Born in 1923, raised in Belgium until she was 13 and then in England (her father was English, her mother half-American, half-Swiss), she first came to prominence through the publication of four well-received but conventional novels in the 1950s. However, a decision to embrace experimentalism in Out (1964), Such (1966), Between (1968) and Thru (1975), a book so typographically complex that it bears the legend "painstakingly typeset" on its title page, led, in spite of much critical praise, towards her current position on the margins of literary history. In 1968 she also moved to Paris to lecture at the radical university in Vincennes.

A gap of nearly a decade followed before the appearance of Amalgamemnon (1984), the first book of what has sometimes been referred as the "Intercom Quartet". The following three novels, Xorandor (1986), its sequel Verbivore (1990) and Textermination (1991) should, however, have propelled Brooke-Rose back into the greater consciousness. They are not just accessible and highly intelligent, but also incredibly funny. In Xorandor, a pebble (of sorts) overdoses on Caesium, becomes convinced it's Lady Macbeth and threatens to blow the world up; in Textermination, a range of characters from great works of literature gather at the annual "Convention of Prayer for Being" held in San Francisco to pray for their continued existence in readers' minds. Following a terrorist attack, Columbo investigates. Other novels followed (Next, 1998; Subscript, 1999), as well as a most unusual autobiography (Remake, 1996). You don't have to understand Brook-Rose's experimental aims to enjoy these books, although perhaps it does help. And the nature of her experiment? It seems to be a question of trying to create a novel where the author doesn't get in the way of what's being said; where no one seems to be speaking and stories seem to be telling themselves. Perhaps she'll explain more when I meet her.

It's late afternoon and the winter sun is already starting to set. We drive for some time through desolate vineyards until we reach a rambling Provençal village and weave through narrow streets lined by ancient stone buildings. Finally, we stop before a tall and forbidding black iron gate. The driver gets out, presses a buzzer set into the wall and the gates swing open slowly. She points towards an iron staircase outside the tall building in front of me and gesticulates up, to where a light burns from behind shuttered windows. She leaves me staring rather nervously at the light, hoping this is the right address - somehow feeling it must be. Access to the Brooke-Rose residence could never be straightforward.

It's a short climb to the top, where a heavy-looking door stands ajar. I push it open. A high-backed chair faces away from me, offering a view through the windows out over the town. Sitting contentedly is l'écrivain.

"Perhaps you'd like a drink?" she asks. "There's Zubrowka - I expect you might want to try that." Polish bison grass vodka. The drink calms any nerves; as do our Polish connections. Brooke-Rose was married for many years to the Polish poet and novelist Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, a man with a similar background to my father, both of them brought to England by the war. The war had a deep impact on Brooke-Rose's life, too. At 18, she joined the WAAFs and almost immediately found herself transferred to Bletchley Park where she worked with decoded German messages. What effect did it have, reading these transcriptions that were completely unmediated by propaganda?

"I became very aware of the Other, with a capital 'O'. I was patriotic, as every one is in wartime, but I suddenly realised that there was an enemy, and for him we were the enemy. I always think now that it helped me become a novelist because I loved creating other characters. I didn't want to write about myself. I didn't write these self-narratives that everyone seems to be writing now."

Brooke-Rose, it turns out, is not a fan of the self-narrative. "Most people think that if you've learned to write, you're a writer - nobody thinks that about art or music - but you've got to know some technique. I once had a class in Vincennes where we were teaching creative writing. I asked the students to produce a first sentence, any sentence, and somebody produced this: 'He sat on the chair kicking the bed.' I got them to see that every word, especially in the first sentence - but really in all sentences - gives the writer a choice of how to go on. 'He': who's 'he'? Are you going to describe him? Or are you going to talk about the chair or the bed? Is someone in the bed? And of course you have to decide who's speaking. Is it someone looking in at the window or is it someone else in the room? That's what I call technique. It's nothing to do with oneself. How can anyone find their identity if they're always writing about themselves?"

Bletchley Park also had a more direct effect on Brooke-Rose. She arrived possessing only a school certificate but, after working almost exclusively with graduates, eventually left to take up a place at Oxford studying the medieval period. A PhD followed, but academic work proved hard to find for a female medievalist, so she turned to freelance arts journalism.

Meanwhile, of course, there were the novels. "My early four books were really quite conventional, apart from The Dear Deceit which was written backwards - long before the Amis Arrow. I wasn't yet plunged into real experiment. I like the first one, it's called The Languages of Love and it's all about philologists. Then there's a terrible second one called The Sycamore Tree - I prefer to forget that. It was supposed to be a satire - all those novels were satires - but it struck me as much too easy." "A lot of people were writing satire in the 1950s, weren't they?" I say. "Yes. And this one was supposed to be a satire on a glossy kind of posh life and glossy magazines. I somehow missed the tone and was taken seriously, as if I believed in the goodness of these things. You know, I just didn't get the parody side very well. I hadn't read Bakhtin yet."

She laughs and asks if I'd like to make us some coffee. "I'm forbidden it," she tells me. "It's bad for the cardiovascular system. But it's so nice to break the rules." I put a pot on to brew and while it hisses, I think about rules, and how many of them Brooke-Rose has broken. She identifies Out as her first experimental novel and it seems to have come about in unusual circumstances.

"My husband and I went to France to stay with my aunt, near Grasse, and suddenly I became very ill. I was rushed to the clinic and operated on - I lost one of my kidneys - and had a very bad time recuperating. But as I lay on the bed I started writing Out. I didn't know it was going to be Out. I just saw two flies fornicating and started describing that."

Of course, while working in London she'd also started to immerse herself in work by French writers of the nouveau roman such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. A movement that involved writers replacing metaphor with precise descriptions and deliberately creating ambiguous points of view clearly appealed to Brooke-Rose, who wanted to move away from traditional literary realism. In 1961 she wrote one of the first English features on the movement, a piece for The Observer entitled "The Vanishing Author".

"Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie [1957] is in fact written in exactly the manner I adopted for Out," she says. "I never claim what I was doing in the beginning was original; what I do claim is that I developed it and explored it after Robbe-Grillet." She sent the manuscript to Secker & Warburg, who had published her first four novels, but they turned it down. At that point, she says, "I knew I was on to something." Michael Joseph eventually published the book.

Despite being influenced by the ideas of the nouveau roman movement, Brooke-Rose has never been interested in joining groups. "I've never wanted to belong to a literary group or a political group. I never liked literary life. I was part of it for a time, going to publisher's parties and so on, but I never missed that. When I went to Paris, I didn't join the French literary movements because they were even worse." She laughs long and hard. "I knew a lot of them but I didn't belong to any group."

What were the main groups? "There was Tel Quel, with Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva. They were very authoritarian - always banishing people they didn't like. And of course there was OuLiPo [Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle], with people like Queneau, which was all about mixing writing with mathematics. I became friendly with one of them. He wanted me to join, but I said no. I admired the group and was all for it, but once you belong to a group you have to do what they want. Maybe I'm unusual, paranoiac or something. Also I didn't have time. I was too busy learning to teach, learning structuralism and teaching it at the same time, correcting papers and doing research because we had to publish in order to be promoted."

And what about that other British experimentalist, the Fiery Elephant himself? Would she align herself with him? My question draws first a pause and then a carefully worded response. "B S Johnson did a great deal to defend experimental writing but in my opinion, and it is only mine, he was not an experimental writer. His stories belong to the then fashionable drab socio-realism, added to which he flings in typographic tricks, all of which have been used before, and which remain very separate from the content instead of merging as one, each reinforcing the other. When he was pro-me he would go up and down the country saying, 'Christine-Brooke Rose and I are the only two experimental novelists,' and I'd think, oh no, I don't want to be bracketed with him."

We've finished our coffee and I think it might be wise to return to Brooke-Rose's own experiment. How would she, herself, explain what she has tried to do? She pauses, fixing me with the kind of penetrating gaze I'm sure her students had to get used to. "When you think about medieval literature, we know so little about the authors. Nothing really about Dante, nothing about the author of Beowulf. So, you don't have to know about the author. The real author who has toothache isn't interesting. The real author is of no consequence. All that I'm declaring to you about my work is the same. It's nothing.

"After all these years I've discovered that what I'm doing is using scientific discourse for the novel. I didn't even realise I was doing that. I don't know whether it's worth anything. I simply would like people to criticise me or praise me for that. Not just to go on telling me my style's difficult."

I suggest that her work is criminally neglected. "I don't think any crimes have been committed," she remarks dryly. "If you look back at people who were a huge success in the past, say Hugh Walpole in the 1930s, many of them are hardly spoken of now. It's been quite interesting to see how chancy it all is. I've never expected anything. It's a pure lottery. And I've never won a lottery."


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