Christine Brooke-Rose Biography
Christine Brooke-Rose comments:
Nationality: British. Born: Geneva, Switzerland. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, 1946-49, B.A. in English, M.A. 1953; University College, London, 1950-54, B.A. in French, Ph.D. 1954. Career: Freelance literary journalist, London, 1956-68; Maître de Conférences, 1969-75, and professeur, 1975-88, University of Paris VIII, Vincennes. Awards: Society of Authors traveling prize, 1965; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1967; Arts Council translation prize, 1969. Litt.D.: University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1988.
The Languages of Love. London, Secker and Warburg, 1957.
The Sycamore Tree. London, Secker and Warburg, 1958; New York, Norton, 1959.
The Dear Deceit. London, Secker and Warburg, 1960; New York, Doubleday, 1961.
The Middlemen: A Satire. London, Secker and Warburg, 1961.
Out. London, Joseph, 1964.
Such. London, Joseph, 1966.
Between. London, Joseph, 1968.
Thru. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975.
Amalgamemnon. Manchester, Carcanet, 1984; Normal, Illinois, DalkeyArchive, 1994.
Xorandor. Manchester, Carcanet, 1986; New York, Avon, 1988.
Verbivore. Manchester, Carcanet, 1990.
Textermination. Manchester, Carcanet, and New York, New Directions, 1991.
Remake. Manchester, Carcanet, 1996.
Next. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.
Subscript. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.
Go When You See the Green Man Walking. London, Joseph, 1970.
Gold. Aldington, Kent, Hand and Flower Press, 1955.
A Grammar of Metaphor. London, Secker and Warburg, 1958.
A ZBC of Ezra Pound. London, Faber, 1971; Berkeley, University ofCalifornia Press, 1976.
A Structural Analysis of Pound's Usura Canto: Jakobson's Method Extended and Applied to Free Verse. The Hague, Mouton, 1976.
A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic. Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Stories, Theories and Things. Cambridge, Cambridge UniversityPress, 1991.
With Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty, and Jonathan Culler, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, edited by Stefan Collini. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Translator, Children of Chaos, by Juan Goytisolo. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1958.
Translator, Fertility and Survival: Population Problems from Malthus to Mao Tse Tung, by Alfred Sauvy. New York, Criterion, 1960; London, Chatto and Windus, 1961.
Translator, In the Labyrinth, by Alain Robbe-Grillet. London, Calder and Boyars, 1968.
"Christine Brooke-Rose" by Sarah Birch, in Contemporary Fiction (Oxford), 1994; Christine Brooke-Rose issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), 1994; Christine Brooke-Rose and Contemporary Fiction by Sarah Birch, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994; Utterly Other Discourse: The Texts of Christine Brooke-Rose, edited by Ellen J. Friedman and Richard Martin, Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.
(1996) From Out onwards, experiments with language and forms of fiction.
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If one looks at the details of Christine Brooke-Rose's life, one is struck by the many displacements (both physical and linguistic) she has undergone. This feeling is magnified when one reads the novels she produced from 1964 on, where her lack of a strong national identity, coupled with her bilingualism, is reflected in the novels' unspecified settings. Because of the importance this borderline position has had in her career, any attempt to place her in a cultural/geographical tradition has failed. Paradoxically, whereas in Britain she is seen as responsible for introducing the French nouveau roman to this country, in France she is known principally as a teacher of British and American narrative, which she taught there from 1968 to 1988, before retiring to Provence in order to concentrate on novel-writing. We cannot deny the influence nouveaux romanciers such as Robbe-Grillet initially had on her work, but we also mustn't ignore the distance she soon put between herself and them, the fact that all her novels are written in English, that they share features common to those produced by various British and American authors such as Ann Quin, B. S. Johnson, and Thomas Pynchon, and that she was equally influenced by Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and Mikhail Bakhtin among others.
Although she has often been labeled a "difficult writer," the difficulties her novels pose have never been of a lexical or syntactical nature, but rather derive from the difficulty readers experience when trying to identify the various learned references in her texts. However, recognition of the source of these references is often irrelevant to an understanding of what the author is striving for, namely to shatter her readers' expectations and give these references fresh meanings, the discovery of which can be attained by readers only if they concentrate on how these elements work in the texts.
To this end, in her experimental novels Brooke-Rose replaces the narrator of Realist fiction with an impoverished narrator whose physical and psychological realities are never described, a perceiving consciousness who is "hit" by external phenomena and who simply registers what is happening around him/her. She creates worlds that cannot be placed in space or time; she produces texts that, by presenting different versions of the same events, prevent the reader from deciding which is the actual reality the novel depicts; she recognizes the poetic possibilities of specialized jargon and juxtaposes it to other discourses, in particular that of fiction.
Her Realist novels of the 1950s were essentially light and witty social satires, and although they already contained in embryonic form the thematics she would develop later—namely her concern with language (in particular the idea that there exist several, different languages interacting in the same person, and that language is all we have to apprehend reality)—it is only with Out, her first experimental novel, that she succeeded in adequately integrating them in her narrative. Here, she exploits for the first time the kind of discursive metaphor that would become fundamental in her work, and by positing a discursive system as her frame, she uses different discourses within that system as metaphors, making them interact with one another.
For instance, in Out—in which Brooke-Rose investigates what it means to be sick and to be made an outsider because of sickness—chemistry becomes a metaphor for illness and racial difference. Following a nuclear holocaust, referred to as the "displacement," the previously dominant "Colourless" races suffer from a malady caused by the ensuing radiation. Since the "Coloured" are unaffected, they become the hegemonic race, and by invoking the discourse of chemistry as an arbitrary justification for racial discrimination, they turn it into the coercive language through which they impose a racial identity on the individual.
In Such—which describes the near-death experience and subsequent recovery of a psychiatrist working for the astrophysics department of an unspecified university—the language of astrophysics is used as a metaphor for human relations. Hence, the "laws of communication" investigated by the astrophysicists (who study the way in which light and radio waves bounce off astral bodies) are treated poetically by Brooke-Rose, and are applied to the signals between human beings; the theory of an expanding universe metaphorically indicates our society, in which everybody is becoming distanced from one another, and the theory of the Big Bang is used to construct a "cosmic theory of identity" in which the formation of the individual is equated with the event that began our universe.
In Between, which focuses on the idea of the loss of identity through language (also suggested by the total absence of the verb "to be"), Brooke-Rose replaces the technical jargons of the previous novels with the languages of the specialized fields represented at the conferences attended by the narrator (a simultaneous translator), and the different national languages spoken in the countries she visits, thereby exploiting not only the metaphorical potential of different discourses, but also that of translation. Both aspects therefore function as agents of transition between different places, times, and contexts, and thanks to the novel's unique syntax, the reader can travel, within the same sentence, from one space/time to another.
Thru, which she wrote after moving to France, is an attempt to combine the disciplines of the critic and the writer, and pursues the discussion of gender issues she began in Between. The novel—in which Brooke-Rose urges the reader not to take the various theories the text plays with too seriously, since they are, after all, only words on a page—deals with the history of narratology, and is a maze of theories, linguistic games, typographical devices, verbal icons, and ambiguous settings. The book's myriad references are not always immediately recognizable, and all these "textual blocks," combined with an essential ambiguity about the novel's world, make it impossible for the reader of this very demanding "novel about the theory of the novel" even to identify the narrators with any certainty.
Having realized that with Thru she had gone too far, Brooke-Rose decided to strive for more readability, and after a gap of nine years published Amalgamemnon, a novel focused on the opposition between the past and the future and on the notion of redundancy. The novel is characterized by the parodic tone she adopts while treating various preconceived notions derived from Western history (in particular the phallocratic approach of Herodotus in his Histories), by the singular rhythm created by the tenses used (predominantly future and conditional), and by the mythological and astronomical imagery the novel evokes. The narrator, a female professor of literature and history who fears redundancy, is clearly imagining all that is described, and the whole novel consists of a long interior monologue in which she projects her fears and expectations for her future. As a result, the narrative material consists of her thoughts, memories, and fragments of her classical knowledge "amalgamated" with situations, fairy-tales, and dialogues with students, friends, and relatives that she creates in her mind (who often desert the roles she assigns to them and actually begin to interact with her in her world), along with extracts from the news, advertisements, quiz-games, and talk-shows from the radio that often function as a trigger for her imagination, displacing the discourse to another time, space, and narrative situation.
Xorandor—and its sequel Verbivore—are much more straightforward novels that return to a defined plot and—if we disregard the presence of talking stones supposedly from outer space who feed on radioactivity and who can interrupt all terrestrial wave-communication—to fairly conventional characters. Xorandor is narrated by two children, and is a self-reflexive science-fiction focusing on the ontological problem of what makes a human being a human being, the undecidability of truth, and various other philosophical, linguistic, and ecological matters. In Verbivore the reader learns that Xorandor was in fact the creation of Mira, the narrator of Amalgamemnon who returns in both novels, and it is narrated from different points of view, appearing as a collage of short narratives that draw on different genres (mainly the epistolary novel and the personal journal, although we also find a radio-play script, newspapers cuttings, and so on), each set piece characterized by the idiolects of the various people writing.
Mira is also present in Textermination, in which Brooke-Rose exposes the ambiguities implied by the notion of a literary Canon and discusses the relationship between high and popular culture. Mira attends the Convention of Prayer for Being, at which the fictional characters from narratives written by authors of all nationalities and all times converge to pray to the Reader, their Almighty God, who can decide the life or death of each character by reading or not reading particular novels. Because the various characters retain the identity and personal qualities they were given in their narrative of origin, the novel is not simply a collage of different texts, but is an inter-national and inter-temporal meeting point where the fictional worlds the different texts construct (with their separate beliefs, religions, and systems of knowledge) meet, often provoking amusing incidents caused by the clash of different cultures and eras.
Having concluded her second experimental tetralogy, Brooke-Rose then published Remake, where her own personal experiences and memories give birth to a novel in which the problematic distinction between history (personal and otherwise) and fiction is investigated.
After this autobiographical novel, in which (except for one chapter) all personal pronouns are intriguingly absent, in Next Brooke-Rose imposes yet another grammatical constraint on her prose (one that, as happened in Between and Amalgamemnon, is justified on a thematic level). Since the novel deals with the homeless (who do not own anything), she completely eliminates from her narrative the verb "to have." Twenty-six characters (one for each letter of the alphabet—a recurrent theme in this novel) appear in the text; all are loosely connected by the murder of one of the ten homeless characters whose initials, when taken together, form QWERTYUIOP, the first line of a typewriter. The murder remains unsolved, and by presenting no division into chapters or paragraphs, the novel—which denounces the responsibility that both the Government and the Media have for the creation of such a situation—emphasizes that the homeless are not only deprived of their homes, jobs, and social roles but of their identities as well, appearing alike to the outsider who hastily passes them by. Simultaneously, however, by transcribing phonetically the different levels of "Estuarian" language they speak, Brooke-Rose shows that they are, after all, different from one another, and by so doing not only does she render the changes of perspective that occur in the text very clearly, but she also enables her characters to oppose the attempted obliteration of their individuality enacted by their society.
Finally, in Subscript Broke-Rose exploits the discourse of paleontology and, beginning with a poetic description of a pre-biotic chemical reaction 4, 500 million years ago, she deals with the history of evolution from unicellular organisms to the early human species, creating a "pre-historic" novel in which the genetic code almost becomes a character itself, steering various organisms through evolution. The novel is entirely told from these organisms' viewpoint: from a single cell, the story is passed from female organism to female organism, in ascending order of complexity, evolving into the creatures that will eventually become humanity. Throughout the novel the "pack" develops into a "tribe" of two-legged "buntunaminu" who slowly learn to create tools, make fire, cook food, rear animals, cover their nudity, and, above all, play the "mouth-noise game" that eventually evolves into different human languages, leading to the birth of story telling, medicine, simple mathematics, and the like. The tribes slowly develop the concept of a supreme being, thereby creating the rituals and paraphernalia of religion proper, and evolve into totemic clans. These communities consolidate the concept of politics and colonization, and in order to stipulate alliances among them, begin to use their females as tokens of exchange. Hence, although the novel is obviously focused on ontological issues, it also asks questions related to both gender (ironically likening the phallocratic clichés men still live by to those of "cave-men") and the notion of colonization, pointing, as Brooke-Rose had done in her previous novels, to an idiosyncrasy peculiar to human beings, namely that everyone has a latent disposition for oppression and coercion.
With her numerous novels, several major critical works, and a plethora of articles and essays (as well as poetry and a few extraordinary translations), Christine Brooke-Rose has earned her place among major British writers of the twentieth century, extending the scope of the novel and stretching the possibilities of language to its limit, offering an insightful representation of our society.