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Christine Brooke-Rose: The Great British Experimentalist

Christine Brooke-Rose, brilliant and neglected, was also an intensely funny writer who taught us that the true pleasure of language is in the delight of discovery.

Christine Brooke-Rose

Playful … Christine Brooke-Rose Photograph: Alexa Brunet

A formidable voice is no longer with us. Christine Brooke-Rose,
one of Britain’s foremost experimental writers, has also been one
of the most deplorably neglected. Yet, as her close acquaintance
Roland Barthes said, it is only once the voice loses its origin that
writing may begin. Was Brooke-Rose ever really with us?

Born in January 1923 in Geneva to an English father and a
Swiss-American mother, Brooke-Rose was brought up in
Brussels speaking English, French and German. The linguistic
crosscurrents were to feature heavily in her work, fictional and critical
alike, giving her a keen ear for the commonalities of utterance, and
also securing her a position translating decryptions of the Enigma code
at Bletchley Park during the second world war. After completing a PhD
in medieval French and English philology at Oxford shortly after the war,
she began to writefiction in order to combat the stress induced by the
near-fatal illness of her husband, the Polish poet Jerzy Peterkiewicz. Her first novel,
The Languages of Love, was published alongside her scholarly study
A Grammar of Metaphor, in the late 1950s. As a critic in the Empsonian line
of the time, she is lively and crystalline, testing out the academic lacerations
to language that would comprise her artful, prankster lyricism.

It was her own serious illness in the early 60s, however, that prompted
the turn away from her first four comedies-of-manners novels, and from
the literary orthodoxy of postwar Britain. Upon recovery, she claimed to
have attained a different level of consciousness – “a sense of being in
touch with something else” – and the solitary hours confined to her bed
produced the highly wrought novel Out (1964), inspired by the nouveaux romancier
Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Brooke-Rose later translated). Following her move
to a volatile Paris in 1968, to teach linguistics and literature at the
Université de Paris VIII, she never again wrote a novel that didn’t risk some
breach of the realist contract. Lauded by Frank Kermode as the “sole practitioner”
of narrative on the British side of the channel, hers was also a style denigrated
as “resplendently unreadable”.

Yet in all the hardball of her lipograms, jargons, and typographical play –
often likened, much to her discomfort, to the work of her British compatriots
Ann Quin and BS Johnson, as well as French counterparts George Perec and
Philippe Sollers – her prose is also intensely funny. Her novels prod at literary
pretention: Derrida is ‘Cramping / HIS styl us’ in Thru (1975); in Xorandor (1986),
a pebble Lady Macbeth attempts to blow up the world; famous literary characters
gather in Textermination (1991) to pray for their continued existence in readers’ minds.
Brimming with all the “affrodizzyacts” of misaligned references, deliberate malapropisms
and tricksy puns, she makes us realise that the true pleasure of language is not in
recognition, but in the delight of discovery. As she claimed in 2002, “I’ve always tried
to avoid the expected word.”

I was due to meet and interview her in a matter of days. Flights booked, winding
bus route plotted – I’d even wrapped a bottle of sherry in brown paper –
to Cabrières d’Avignon, her home for the last three decades. She was prolific to the last.
And her relevance will be lasting. The “passionate concern for language” may have been
entirely her own, but her language-games were designed to be played. She was as much
with us as against us. If she has taught us anything, it is that shifting curiosity is the very
lifeblood of language. And literature must make us work for the reward.
So, says Brooke-Rose: “Let us play: there are more theories in heaven and earth.”

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