Christine Brooke-Rose (Carcanet)

Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-2012), born in Geneva but in retirement a long-time resident of Lou Jas in Les Maquignons (The Horsedealers), near Avignon in Provence, was almost certainly the most erudite and inventive English novelist of the second half of the 20th century. She produced 16 novels and five books of criticism, a book of short stories and a volume of poetry. If you want to discover what fiction can be in the wake of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Alain Robbe-Grillet, George Perec and Raymond Queneau, plus all the other gurus of postmodernism, she’s the one key English author to turn to (the other might be B.S. Johnson). (See Peter Hulm article on Rilke in the Swiss Valais)

But Brooke-Rose titled her 2002 “last essays” Invisible Author. It was partly a joke about her kind of novelizing. She commented: “Have you ever tried to do something very difficult as well as you can, over a long period, and found nobody notices? That’s what I have been doing for over thirty years”. In her 1996 semi-autobiography Remake, she described herself in her 70s as“an offbeat writer still barking up the wrong tree”.

She emphasized her books were meant to be difficult to write, not to read, and she won numerous prizes and accolades from major authors and critics, particularly for the series of experimental novels she launched with the publication of Out in 1964. A story of “Caucasians” facing racial discrimination after a future nuclear war when pale skin indicates radiation poisoning, it won the Society of Authors Travelling Prize. In 1986, early in the portable computer revolution, she published Xorandor, composed completely of dialogue between two children and a computer from outer space. It was described by one reviewer as “very, very funny…the most exhilarating brain-stretcher since Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach”.  The Wall Street Journal reviewer declared: “You do not have to be a computer nerd to love Xorander…very tricksy…a sensitive drama.”

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Next, published in 1998, is a murder mystery set among London’s homeless. It has 26 characters, each taking a letter of the alphabet, and ten of these live on the street. Together their names spell (English keyboarders will recognize this): QWERTYUIOP. She’s definitely tricksy. Textermination (1991) plays with the idea that fictional characters only live (in the San Francisco Hilton at an academic convention) so long as they continue to exist in the mind of the modern reader. And at the end she had television characters invade the literary convention seeking survival for themselves. In the tongue-in-cheek production Thru (1975) she had students in a university creative writing course collectively construct the narrative.

Born on 16 January 1923 in Geneva to an English father and American-Swiss mother, Brooke-Rose gives us few memories of the place, which she described as “that mountainously boring city” in the eyes of one of her relatives. There’s a French kindergarten in Geneva where the three-year-old Christine stands on a stool by the Christmas tree reciting a poem in French.  But throughout her life Brooke-Rose was resistant to personal revelation, partly out of her artistic belief in the importance of the author’s creative texts rather than biography and “a lifelong prejudice against biographical criticism”.

She reported that her maternal grandparents left Geneva under a cloud, when the 65-year-old grandfather working for the Naville bookstore and publishers had somehow comprised its reputation. Something similar happened with the Red Cross founder Henri Dunant.

As a result, Brooke-Rose was “brought up bilingually in a more or less exiled family”. Her parents separated in 1929, and her father died in 1934. She moved with her mother to the maternal grandparents in Brussels, and in 1936 to the U.K. She later learned her father had been a Benedictine monk and convicted thief who served time in Parkhurst prison. Her mother also later became a nun.

As Brooke-Rose put it, her childhood was spent “forgetting French, forgetting English, relearning French, relearning English, learning Flemish, learning German, forgetting Flemish, relearning English not really forgotten”.  And growing up bilingual meant many mishearings and mistranslations: “Le lendemain is le lent domain, un fait divers is a winter fact, the flick of a coin is le flic du coin, une arrière-pensée an afterthought, a bas-relief a base relief. And the family deranges the range with trilingual jokes: quelle est la matière, what is loose, have a good Fahrt (German for journey), there is no what, taking something mit (German for with), grandpère a été délayé, like a sauce”.

 “I had always wanted to be a writer,” she said. “But I was a slow developer. I think that bilingual children often are. During my teens […] I felt neither in one language nor in another.”

The Grand’Rue in the Old Town of Geneva. This international city often finds it difficult to honour its artists. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Brooke-Rose joined the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War and translated intercepted German communications as an intelligence officer at Bletchley Park. She then studied at Somerville College, Oxford, graduating with a BA in English philology and medieval literature (1949). She married a Polish poet, Jerzy Peterkiewicz, and earned her doctorate in Middle English from London University in 1954. Her thesis was a “grammatical analysis of metaphor” (Friedman 11) and she published A Grammar of Metaphor in 1958.

Christine Brooke-Rose (right) in her WAAF uniform before she went to Bletchley Park, Oxfordshire, UK. (Photo: Brooke-Rose Archive, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin).

Brooke-Rose published her first book Gold, a volume of poems, in 1952. Her first novels were comparatively conventional. Only comparatively. The Languages of Love (1957) was a satire on philologists mainly set in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Similar humorous novels followed: The Sycamore Tree (1958), The Dear Deceit (1960) – about a man tracing the life of his father from death to birth – and The Middlemen (1961), all now difficult to obtain.

Christine Brooke-Rose’s early book of poems.

She started her experimental novels during a medical crisis. She fell “desperately ill for two years” in France. “I found I couldn’t read novels, good or bad, about love-affairs, class-distinctions and one-upmanships, or portraits of society […]: the sort of novel, in fact, that I had been writing”. Out was written a few sentences at a time while she recovered from kidney surgery. “It was like a return to my essential self”.

Such (1966) shared the James Tait Black prize, one of Britain’s most honorable awards, given to four British authors who later won Nobel Literature Prizes. Such’s main character, a psychologist, starts the novel by apparently dying and then seems to be transported to a hallucinatory state, where he experiences quasi sci-fi adventures. “Far from having no plot, Such is almost overloaded with potential plots,” says Brooke-Rose specialist Richard Martin.

Professor of American Literature at the open-admissions University of Paris (Vincennes) from 1968 to 1988, Brooke-Rose was an unrepentant cosmopolitan, and her experience can be enlightening to international Genevans. She once told a British interviewer she chose to stay in France rather than England because its health service was better.

More seriously, she discussed in her writings the experience of being expatriate. Though she approved of the changes in the French educational system in 1968, Brooke-Rose was warned by the President of the University after one transgression (she had described the obligatory medical examination of immigrants as “une comédie” to the doctor and was rejected for work in France by the vengeful official): “Never criticize the administration.” And she received the same advice at the end of her French teaching career.

“I came to understand […] exile can be an astonishingly destabilizing experience” though it can be “an immense force for liberation, for recovery, for extra distance”, she observed.

“After twenty years abroad […] I discovered to my astonishment that I feel more alienated in England than in France,” she wrote, though describing the French as “quarrelsome, self-centred and self-righteous”. But she preferred “to feel mildly alienated in a sunny part of France to feeling more than mildly elated in my own country. I even enjoy it.”

“Rooted in all kinds of exiles are opposing desires,” she suggested. “The desire to integrate/not to integrate; the desire to identify with the society left behind rather than the society lived in; the desire not to belong to the society left behind but to the society lived in; the desire not to integrate either with the society left behind; and many more ambiguous Postmodern variations”.

For international Genevans, her third experimental novel Between (1968) has particular interest. Richard Martin says it is “Brooke-Rose’s most enjoyable accessible novelistic experience”. The well-regarded traditional novelist Angus Wilson declared: “Her finest novel completely succeeds because subject and language are one.”  But its fundamental appeal lies elsewhere, in “the lunatic, empty speech-making of different congresses” and the experience of a simultaneous interpreter. As she wrote in Invisible Author, Brooke-Rose is “never in one place, always in planes and hotel rooms and among slogans and instructions in ten different languages that her bilingualism is insufficient to cope with”.

Christine Christine Brooke-Rose: an “alone-standing woman.”

In Between Brooke-Rose excludes the verb “to be” throughout, to stress the narrator’s disoriented sense of identity – one year before George Perec became famous in France for omitting the letter “e” in La Disparition, admittedly an even more difficult challenge. Later, in Next she omitted the verb “to have” to emphasize the deprivation of the homeless.

These lipograms, as these devices are known, weren’t just academic exercises. They often provided the spur to starting the novel. The challenge engaged her, giving the act of writing a distinct newness and offering the reader a unique experience. In Textermination the fact that you couldn’t recognize all the references was part of its aim. Amalgamemnon (1984) uses only verbs that describe possible rather than actual states (e.g. the future and conditional tenses) in this presentation of a woman whose job may be terminated.

Brooke-Rose described herself as anti-Joycean in her literary experimentation, though that’s not an example of Geneva vs Zurich (where James Joyce lived in his later years and is consistently honoured). Brooke-Rose says she didn’t read Joyce till 1969. “Biographically, I could never get through him, and in practice never had time. Technically, as I finally found out only recently, Joyce’s narrative experimentation is diametrically opposite to mine. […] I came to Joyce very late, with continuing distaste, in the seventies, long after my first experiments. […] I had earlier read the Pound-Joyce correspondence, and every letter from Joyce sounded mean and petty compared to Pound’s generosity.” She admits coming later to appreciate Finnegans Wake.

Brooke-Rose’s creative originality and cherished sense of privacy didn’t make life among the literati easier for her, particularly as an “experimental woman novelist”, a dismissive label she has written about, along with a very funny send-up of poststructuralism in “Woman as a semiotic object”. But back in 1968 the Times Literary Supplement reviewer of Thru even took exception to her academic “Frenchness”, noting that her foulard in the “Frenchly chic” cover photo displayed “Saint Laurent” in the V of her jacket.

However, the book’s extreme experimentalism led to the invitation to teach at the newly created Vincennes Paris VIII and a completely new life (Paris VIII, by the way, is now in St. Denis). Between has a term for its heroine that you could apply to Brooke-Rose: an “alonestanding woman”, a term that requires a knowledge of German as well as English. Typically, it’s not just a joke. The novel shows us the woman interpreter in the Second World War on both sides.

Finally, it’s worth underlining that Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs pointed out in conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose: “Each novel, since your first, seems to have more humour and vitality. There is a joyful tone that comes through each” (33). And Brooke-Rose agreed. Her last novel Subscript (1999) starts with a prebiotic chemical activity that becomes a living cell and moves forward across four billion years. Her last book, another novelization of life in old age, published in her 80s, was Life, End of (2006). Typically, this sardonic autobiography excludes the word “I”.


* According to Musil’s Diaries it was Chemin des Clochettes, Champel.

Brooke-Rose’s four earliest experimental novels, Out, Such, Between and Thru are available in an omnibus edition on Kindle, as well as Life, End of. Others are in paper, new or secondhand on Amazon.

The short wikipedia article on Christine Brooke-Rose records her father’s name as Alfred Northbrook Rose and her mother’s born name as Evelyn Brooke. At Bletchley she met and married Rodney Bax in 1944 but it was annulled within the year when she had an affair with an American army officer that ended this marriage. She married Pietrkiewicz in 1948 but separated from him in 1968 and moved to France (they were divorced in 1975). In her third marriage she was briefly attached to her cousin Claude Brooke (1981-2).

Her publisher Carcanet announced her death but did not say where. Wikipedia gives her place of death as Cabrières-d’Avignon, scene of a 1545 massacre of about 700 Vaudois, reformists declared heretical by the Roman Catholic church and known as the Massacre of Mérindol where the anti-Vaudois campaign began. (Some details also from The Guardian’s obituary).

PN Review’s obituary described Brooke-Rose as “one of the greatest British experimental novelists” but even the Guardian’s laudatory obituary that described her as “increasingly invisible in Britain”, put this caption under her photograph: “Christine Brooke-Rose translated the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet”. The obituary writer Stuart Jeffries justly complained: “Britain has all but airbrushed one of its most radical exponents of experimental fiction.” A pity the Guardian hoisted him on his own petard.

Her papers, 34 boxes of them, are held at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. Perhaps it’s time for Geneva to claim her, along with Provence.

** The Bodmer Foundation marked the 30th anniversary of Borges’ death in 2016 with five conferences and a book on Geneva and Buenos Aires, supported by the Canton of Geneva and the Argentinian mission. But little seems to have come from this, to judge from the few Internet references.

Key source

Ellen G. Friedman and Richard Martin (eds.) Utterly Other Discourses: The Texts of Christine Brooke-Rose. Dalkey, 1995.

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