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‘present past improved’: Tom Raworth’s Writing
(PN Review 236) Pomace (trans. James Womack)
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Christine Brooke-Rose is dead
Thursday, 22 Mar 2012
One of the greatest British experimental novelists Christine Brooke-Rose, also a critic and a leading interpreter of Modernism, died on 21 March. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford and University College, London. She taught at the University of Paris, Vincennes, from 1968 to 1988 and she retired to the south of France where she spent the rest of her life. She contributed major articles and interviews to PN Review between 1986 and 1997. Her memoir-novel Remake (1996) takes the reader through her eventful life. It is an autobiographical novel with a difference, using life material to compose a third-person fiction, transformed in an experiment whose tensions are those of memory -- distorting and partial -- checked by a rigorous and sceptical language which probes and finds durable forms underlying the impulses and passions of the subject. It is not a simple process of chronological remembering. Remake captures not facts but the contents of those facts, the feelings of a war-time child, the textures of her clothing, tastes and smells, her mother, an absent father, a gradual transformation into adulthood. The facts are simple enough: birth in Geneva; a bilingual childhood in Brussels, then London and Liverpool; work in Intelligence at the Bletchley Park decoding centre during the war; marriage; Oxford; London; literary journalism; the emergence of the novelist.
In her last novel, Life, End Of (2006) she wrote close to the life -- and death. She is eighty. She considers her experiments with narrative, and with the narrative of her life. At the centre of Life, End of, in a mock-technical lecture from the Character to the Author, she accepts that her experiments in narrative are like life: the narrative creates itself. There is here, as in her earlier writing, a darkly comical imagination exploring the meanings and non-meanings to which, in the end, life and art lead us.
In PNR 171 Michael Freeman addressed this verse letter to her:
Letter, February 2006
An old age harder than you'd gambled on,
You've lodged yourself the exile that you chose
As concierge and châtelaine of Lou Jas
And the novel where you bring bets to their close.
Nearly blind now you're given guidance
On how to read again, decline to mention
You peeled the rhetorics of what we read,
The palimpsests subscribing each invention.
Your high-walled home fends off most neighbours now
Who haven't read your work, though some have heard
You've been professor, writer, maybe still
Scanning the village for this deed, that word
Just as you bricked me in this final novel,
Walled me in well enough to risk the rift.
In each new chapter-house the dean remains
Herself in each displacement, every shift.
Your Bletchley war was put to work again
Tracking the day's transmissions to unmask
Our call-signs, sitreps, then as now decode
The other, taking otherness to task.
Your novels always travelled by new maps,
Not waiting till some walking man goes green.
Powering new lights to play in Plato's cave
The invisible author's shadowed on her screen.
In the park of post-war codes you raised the building
Regulations in Procrustean texts
For Protean tales, where Mira now admits
No subscripts, remakes, brooks no rosy nexts.