Christine Brooke-Rose Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Christine Brooke-Rose 1923-

Swiss-born English novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Brooke-Rose's career through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 40.

Brooke-Rose has earned an international reputation as a postmodern novelist whose fictions are highly influenced by poststructuralist literary theory. Though written primarily in English, her novels are closely associated with French literary theory, drawing comparisons to the mannerist novels of Iris Murdoch and the nouveau roman style of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Beginning with her fifth novel, Out (1964), however, Brooke-Rose developed her own distinctive and experimental prose style. Her subsequent narratives are highly self-conscious and anti-realist works, continually reinforcing the notion that fiction is ultimately about language and does not reflect reality. Brooke-Rose emphasizes these ideas through a range of verbal pyrotechnics, such as puns, wordplay, invented words, and the intermingling of multiple languages. She is also fascinated with scientific language, and her novels utilize scientific jargon as metaphors for various elements of human experience. Though by no means a popular or best-selling novelist, Brooke-Rose has become highly respected as a creative novelist-critic and an alternative to male-authored postmodern fictions.

Biographical Information

Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 16, 1923. With her English father, whose last name was Rose, and Swiss-American mother, whose maiden name was Brooke, Brooke-Rose grew up in a household where three different languages were spoken. While French was Brooke-Rose's first language, the family also spoke English and German. Her parents separated in 1929, and her father later died in 1934. After the divorce, Brooke-Rose moved with her mother to Brussels, Belgium, where they lived with her maternal grandparents. In 1936 she moved with her mother to England. During World War II, Brooke-Rose worked on assessing intercepted enemy communications for the Allies. She was married in 1944, but the marriage lasted less than a year and was later annulled. After the war ended, Brooke-Rose attended Somerville College, Oxford University, earning a B.A. in English in 1949. In 1954 she earned a Ph.D. in Middle English from University College, London. While still a student, Brooke-Rose married Jerzy Peterkiewicz, a Polish writer and professor. The couple later divorced in 1975. During a period in 1956 when her husband was suffering from a near-fatal illness, Brooke-Rose began writing her first novel, The Languages of Love, which was published in 1957. From 1956 to 1968, she worked as a freelance journalist and literary reviewer in London, contributing to such publications as the New Statesman, the Observer, the Sunday Times, and the Times Literary Supplement. In 1962 Brooke-Rose suffered a long and serious illness and underwent kidney surgery, from which she emerged with a new perspective on her fiction writing. Out, the first of her experimental novels, was the product of this period of reflection and re-evaluation. She began teaching at the University of Paris in 1969 and, beginning in 1975, she served as a professor of English and American literature and literary theory. After retiring from teaching in 1988, Brooke-Rose settled in Provence, France. Her fictionalized memoir, Remake (1996), recounts her multi-national childhood, her experiences as a young woman living in London, and her later successes as a novelist and professor.

Major Works

Brooke-Rose's early novels, such as The Languages of Love and The Sycamore Tree (1958), are social satires of romantic intrigue among intellectuals in London. Her third novel, The Dear Deceit (1960), is a somewhat experimental narrative in which a man traces the life of his deceased father backwards from death to birth. Out, a futuristic tale set in Africa, addresses issues of racial inequality. Taking place in the aftermath of a nuclear war, pale skin is now viewed as an indicator of radiation poisoning while dark skin connotes health. Subsequently, a social hierarchy develops in which dark-skinned people rule and light-skinned people have become the underclass. Out is narrated by a pale white protagonist, one of the so-called “colourless race,” who is unable to find work due to discrimination. The narrative of Out has been compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1957 novel La Jalousie. Such (1965) concerns a psychologist named Larry—a reference to the biblical character Lazarus—who reflects on his life and career as it runs through his mind during a hallucinatory episode in the final three minutes before he dies. Larry works in an astrophysics lab, and astrophysics functions as the novel's central metaphor for human relationships. Other elements of the narrative serve as metaphors for conscious and unconscious states of mind. The protagonist of Between (1968) is a professional translator belonging to a team that travels throughout the world attending various international conferences on translation. Between is structured as two intersecting narratives. One narrative strand is expressed in the present tense in several different languages and describes the breakdown of the protagonist's marriage. The second narrative strand presents a series of love letters written in medieval French. Brooke-Rose does not use the verb “to be” anywhere in Between, having explained that it functions as an expression of the narrator's disoriented sense of personal identity. Thru (1975) is Brooke-Rose's most self-consciously narrated novel, exploring further the author's role of engaging the reader in games of language and meaning. The story centers around a university creative writing course in which the students collectively construct a narrative, thus giving the text no central unifying “consciousness.” Instead, Thru is comprised a series of fragmentary texts, such as student essays with handwritten changes superimposed on the typed text, musical notations, mathematical formulas, diagrams, and resumes, among others. Thru begins and ends with a view from the rear-view mirror of a car, exploring language and experience as a fragmentary, ever-changing, backward reflection.

Brooke-Rose gave the collective title “The Intercom Quartet” to her next four novels—Amalgamemnon (1984), Xorandor (1986), Verbivore (1990), and Textermination (1991). These novels are unified by Brooke-Rose's thematic exploration of the impact of information technology on science, literature, and humanity. Amalgamemnon is narrated through the consciousness and imagination of Mira Enketei, an insomniac woman who sits in bed reading Herodotus while her lover snores beside her. Mira makes use of various forms of wordplay and imagines herself in the role of the mythical Cassandra. Amalgamemnon explores the tensions between fact and imagination as well as probing the status of women in relation to traditional epistemological hierarchies. Additionally, Brooke-Rose avoids all use of present-tense verbs in Amalgamemnon. Xorandor and Verbivore cast a series of inanimate but sentient stones as the central characters. Xorandor is narrated entirely in the form of dialogue between a pair of twin “whiz kids,” Jip and Zab, and their computer. The twins discover a stone, which they name Xorandor, that feeds on radiation. Xorandor, a sort of naturally occurring computer chip, has the ability to absorb communication technologies, from computers to radio broadcasts, and to communicate with the twins through their computer. Xorandor leads the twins to believe that he is from Mars, but later reveals that he originated on Earth five thousand years ago. Xorandor has the ability to reproduce, and one of his offspring—due to a “syntax error”—takes control of a nuclear power plant and threatens to create a nuclear bomb. Xorandor explores the impact of communications technology on modes of narrative, as the children find that they do not understand the now-antiquated concept of storytelling. Verbivore includes characters from both Amalgamemnon and Xorandor and concerns a breakdown in technological communications systems that forces everyone to communicate in writing. Textermination is set at an annual conference in San Francisco, attended by fictional characters out of the pages of literary history. Characters from the works of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, and Salman Rushdie, among others, populate the novel as they gather to petition potential readers with the help of literary critics who “interpret” them for the masses.

Remake is a highly self-conscious fictionalized memoir in which Brooke-Rose explores the workings of memory and imagination in the formation of narrative. In this attempt to “remake” her life by retelling it, Brooke-Rose asserts that adaptations are never as compelling as the original. Critics have also referred to Remake as a meta-biography or anti-biography. Next (1998) focuses on the homeless population of London, featuring twenty-six narrators, each of whose names begin with a different letter of the alphabet. Written in a conversational mode, Next is notable for its diverse range of accents and dialects among London's ethnically diverse inhabitants. Omitting the verb “to have” from the novel, Brooke-Rose emphasizes the material deprivations of the homeless. Her next novel, Subscript (1999), explores the birth and development of human life and language from prehistory to the present. Brooke-Rose has also published several works of literary criticism, including A Grammar of Metaphor (1958), A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Stories, Theories, and Things (1991), and Invisible Author (2002).

Critical Reception

Brooke-Rose has been recognized as one of the few modern writers whose critical perspective successfully informs her fictional narratives. As Karen R. Lawrence has observed, Brooke-Rose's novels are “radical experiments in which theories inform fiction and yet fiction intervenes to dramatize theory's limitations.” Critics have commended Brooke-Rose for skillfully utilizing the precepts of poststructuralist theory to create narratives that playfully demonstrate the “fictionality of fiction” in a critique of realist notions of literature. Maria del Sapio Garbero has noted that, “[t]he problematic relationship between language and reality is nowhere posed more radically than in Christine Brooke-Rose's work.” Brooke-Rose has also been praised for engaging readers in extended games of wordplay as a means of deconstructing realist notions of the relationship between the reader and the text. Susan E. Hawkins has commented that Amalgamemnon “does what most innovative writing should do: it challenges the audience in terms of accustomed modes of perception, interpretation, and reading strategies—in short, challenges readerly ideology.” Feminist critics have celebrated Brooke-Rose as an innovative female novelist whose narratives offer an alternative to dominant male modes of postmodern fiction. Ellen G. Friedman has ranked Brooke-Rose among a handful of twentieth-century experimental women writers—including Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein—whose novels “explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative.” However, most reviewers have agreed that Brooke-Rose's novels are challenging to readers, with some arguing that her works are needlessly dense and almost incoherent to readers unfamiliar with her frequent textual allusions. Such critics have complained that the effort required to understand Brooke-Rose's writings diminishes their impact on audiences.