'A Rose is a Christine Brooke-Rose'
by J. C.
It has been said before, but now must be said again: A Rose is a Christine Brooke-Rose is a Christine Brooke-Rose. The novelist and essayist, who has died aged eighty-nine, was that rare voice in British fiction, a self-conscious experimentalist. In a sequence of books, beginning with The Languages of Love (1958), she explored avenues more familiar to post-war French authors than to their English counterparts. Brooke-Rose’s novels often had single word titles: Out, Such, Between, Next, Subscript; one that gives the flavour of her writing is Textermination (1991). For almost half a century, she was an occasional contributer to the TLS. In the last essay she wrote for us (December 31, 1999), punctuated by “Narrative Parentheticals” and “Speakerless Sentences”, Brooke-Rose said she had long since retired from the theory wars, but still she felt impelled to add this on behalf of her idol, Alain Robbe-Grillet:
"Innovation has a strange way of surviving. In those distant days (the late 1950s), there was active prejudice in England, led by C. P. Snow, against the new fashion from France. But who even mentions Snow now, or his followers? For if the prejudice against experiment persists, the novel nevertheless has changed, and if Robbe-Grillet himself is also perhaps no longer read, some of his technique has insidiously survived, in a way that Snow’s has not."
In January 1963, her poem “Today the Acupuncturist” appeared in the TLS. Bearing witness to her admiration for Ezra Pound (on whom she wrote a book, A ZBC), it contains the Chinese ideogram (grain + mouth = harmony) which must have given the compositor a headache. These are the opening lines:
"Today the acupuncturist found my Achilles’ heel
above the right fourth toe. His electric pin
sang E sharp minor through my left side in
the mount of Venus to the North Pole gland
below the chin."
The next week, a witty letter in verse appeared, from one Keith Spence of Kent:
"Though mandarins no doubt in China
Intone their songs in E sharp minor,
Here such a key has not been written
From Palestrina down to Britten".
Prosaically put, E sharp minor doesn’t exist (it’s F minor). Brooke-Rose responded in turn, exhibiting her liking for wordplay while she was at it: “That is the point”, she said of the needle’s enharmonic hit.
An excellent account of her work by Ali Smith appeared in our Fiction pages on March 24, 2006. She spoke of Brooke-Rose’s love of punning, and ended with some delightful wordplay of her own: “Rose is the Christine Brooke-Rose is the Christine Brooke-Rose. She’s the definite article”. That would serve as an epitaph, had Brooke-Rose not provided the perfect one herself: “And there I am content to let the Meta rest”.