Christine Brooke-Rose, Inventive Writer, Dies at 89
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: April 10, 2012
Christine Brooke-Rose, an English experimental writer known for wielding words with the ardor of a philologist, the fingers of a prestidigitator and the appetite of a lexivore, resulting in novels that exhilarated many critics and enervated others, died on March 21. She was 89.
Carcanet, via Guardian of London
Her death was announced on the Web site of her British publisher, Carcanet Press. Fittingly for a writer whose work could take artful pains to dispense with seemingly indispensable linguistic foundation stones (she once wrote an entire novel without using the verb “to be”), the “where” of Ms. Brooke-Rose’s death — whether it occurred at her longtime home in the South of France or elsewhere — was unspecified.
The author of more than a dozen novels, as well as short stories, essays and criticism, Ms. Brooke-Rose was one of relatively few Britons to maintain a long association with experimental fiction. Her stylistic techniques — playful, polyglot, punning, postmodern and slyly self-referential — are more typically associated with writers of the French Nouveau Roman school.
Because she often used alternative narrative devices (including unorthodox chronology and unusual typography) to create alternative realities, her work is sometimes classified as science fiction, though much of it is beyond category. As with much postmodern fiction, her writing — organized around an unspoken compact between the author, who is unspooling the text, and the reader, who is watching it unspool — is about the act of writing itself.
Her best-known novels include four whose combined titles run to just five syllables — “Out” (1964), “Such” (1965), “Between” (1968), “Thru” (1975) — followed by a syllabic splurge: “Amalgamemnon” (1984), “Xorandor” (1986), “Verbivore” (1990) and “Textermination.” In “Textermination,” published in 1992, literary characters from a spate of famous pens — Austen’s, Flaubert’s, Pynchon’s, Rushdie’s — convene in a San Francisco hotel to importune readers for their continued existence.
Ms. Brooke-Rose was a linguistic escape artist. In book after book she dons self-imposed syntactic shackles, and in book after book she gleefully slips them.
In “Between,” the very nature of identity is called into question by her avoidance of the verb “to be” in all its forms. In “Next” (1998), about the dispossessed in London, her characters are literal have-nots: throughout the book, she avoids the verb “to have.”
In “Amalgamemnon,” narrated by a literature professor about to lose her job, Ms. Brooke-Rose uses only verb forms — including future tense and subjunctive mood — that conjure conditions unobtainable in the present.
Ms. Brooke-Rose’s earliest novels, published in the late 1950s, are conventional satires of manners. But as early as her third novel, “The Dear Deceit,” published in 1960, she had begun to play with narrative form. The novel opens with the death of its protagonist and, in successive chapters, works backward to his birth.
This convention has a time-honored analogue in narrative nonfiction, as when, for instance, a newspaper article begins with word of its subject’s death and, only lower, reads:
Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva on Jan. 16, 1923, into a French-, German- and English-speaking household. Her enigmatic English father, who left the family when she was a child and died when she was 11, had been, she later learned, an Anglican Benedictine monk and a convicted thief, though not necessarily in that order; her American-Swiss mother became a Benedictine nun after the dissolution of her marriage.
Reared in Geneva, Brussels and Britain, the young Ms. Brooke-Rose worked at Bletchley Park during the war, decrypting intercepted German messages. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oxford, followed by a doctorate in medieval literature from University College London. From the late 1960s to the late ’80s she taught British and American literature at the University of Paris.
Ms. Brooke-Rose was married three times. (Her second marriage was to the prominent Polish writer Jerzy Pietrkiewicz.) Information on survivors was not available.
Her other books include an autobiographical novel, “Remake” (1996); the story collection “Go When You See the Green Man Walking” (1970); a volume of criticism, “A ZBC of Ezra Pound” (1971); and translations of the French experimental writer Alain Robbe-Grillet.
What proved to be her last book was a novel published in 2006. It is presciently titled, in the manner of a catalog entry, “Life, End Of.”