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This article is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.Remaking
I am going to talk to you about my autobiography, called Remake, which came out earlier this year. It was presented by my publisher as an autobiographical novel, and one reviewer at least was puzzled. What is the difference? This is what I want to discuss.
I have always felt a deep prejudice against both autobiography and biographical criticism, at least with reference to writers. This is perhaps due to my early and long mediaeval training on poets called Anon, or poets of whom nothing or little is known but their names.
Nevertheless I wrote an autobiography. Why? Simply because in old age one starts reminiscing? No. The reason was in fact autobiographical.
My twelfth and last novel (published 1991) was ominously called Textermination. This had nothing to do with my extermination as a producer of texts, but rather with the slow dying out of reading capacity. In this novel, hundreds of fictional characters from all regions and all periods gather at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco, at a Convention of Prayer for Being: they all attend prayer sessions, separated into various religions, and pray in their various rituals to the Implied Reader, for existence. I worked very hard so that no single real reader should recognise every single character, for none of us has read everything, and most of us have experienced the anguish of arriving at a huge conference and knowing no one. The people running the conference are of course also fictional, but they are my fictions, even if they seem non-fictional to the visitors from other fictions.
I play a great deal with these different levels of fiction. For instance the opening prayer session is interrupted by Moslem fundamentalist gunmen who want to kill Gibreel Farishta, one of the main characters in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses: in other words the fatwah is transferred from author to character, though this too the reader has to recognise, for no authors are mentioned. Or, another type of example, one of my own fictional characters, a graduate student called Kelly, who represents the reader's own confusion, finds herself on a vast list of forgotten characters nobody reads or invites, and therefore disappears. This also happens, even more ironically, to Mira Enketei, the main character from my own earlier novel Amalgamemnon, who at one point is supposed to be the author of the book.
I said the title Textermination was ominous. I don't know whether that was the reason, but after the novel I was totally blocked, for several years. There's usually a long space between my novels, but this is because I'm already toying with or working on another idea. This time there wasn't even an idea. I felt bereft. I now realise that I must have also fallen, unwittingly, into a numerological superstition: I had written four fairly conventional novels, very fast, at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. Then I started experimenting and wrote four novels with short prepositional or adjectival titles: Out, Such (that's an indefinite adjective), Between and Thru. Then four novels with one-word titles but longer and punning: Amalgamemnon, Xorandor, Verbivore, Textermination. Making twelve. But I had also written four serious critical books over the years. I'm not normally superstitious, and I think it was more of an aesthetic blockage: to write another novel would break that beautiful three or four times four sequence, making the list of novels thirteen, and the list of books seventeen.
So when my publisher urged me to write an autobiography, my first reaction was naturally no, never. Then, tied up in my numeric blockage, I thought, well, as an exercise, it might unblock me. And after all an autobiography is neither a novel nor a critical book.
Isn't it, though? Where are the frontiers? Much critical writing is yet another interpretation, in other words another fiction grafted on the original. And as for fiction, what is the difference in epistemological status between, say, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Journal of the Plague Year, which is neither a journal nor a fiction, nor even a reliable documentary? I start, you see, with the beginning of the modern novel, to show the ambiguity at source. As Oscar Wilde quipped, the nineteenth century as we know it is entirely an invention of Balzac. Or, later, Roland Barthes on Balzac; 'the realistic author spends his time referring back to books: reality is what has been written' (1970, 11. 1974 p. 38). And today of course we are, through the media, faced with the problem of faction, or the indistinguishibility of fact and fiction, since even the most 'truthful' documentary or reportage dresses the topic, using the techniques of fiction.
Inversely, when philosophers invent sentences to illustrate their propositions, when, say, J.L. Austin writes, to illustrate locutionary direct speech, 'she said, "shoot him'", is that not a minifiction, despite his refusal to consider fictional sentences or sentences said on the stage?
Or, to change the register, what is the epistemological status of, say, a Structuralist diagram such as the rectangle of contraries and contradictories from elementary logic, used by Greimas over twenty years ago in his narrative grammar? As a representation of a supposed narrative structure, it is a fiction, a theory about narrative movements, to be verified and proved, at least for simple tales. As a rectangle on a page, it is an object, a visual fact. And this is the kind of ambiguity I was playing with in Thru, written in the early 1970s, when I was plunged in both Structuralism and Post-structuralism, and even teaching them.,
Now Thru has always been called my most postmodern and self-reflexive novel. And indeed on one level it is a novel about the theory of the novel, a fiction about fictionality. But I have shown elsewhere (1996) that in its startling typography I am also doing the exact opposite of self-reflexivity, that is, using both language and typography 'so mimetically that readers who expect narrative conventions to indicate who's speaking, whether it's thought or speech, who the character is or why he's there… seem unable to grasp this direct, almost naive mimetism of how we act and speak and think at the same time, without telling ourselves who we are, even if it is also paralleled with direct mimetism of how a text… needs to constitute itself slowly, in fragments, with trial repetitions and variations and doubts, but not through explanatory flashbacks and so on'.
To return to Remake, clearly it had to be more narratively straightforward than some of my earlier more experimental novels, although the difficulties were quite other. At any rate, I went all the way back to my beginnings, not only as a person but as a writer. I wrote down my life as I remembered it, in a conventional order, and the result was dreadful. The general formula, a bit exaggerated perhaps, was 'And then… I, I this, I that'. It was my own life, my own experience, but even I couldn't re-read it. So I put it aside.
Clearly an experience is not in itself of the slightest interest merely because it happened to oneself. We all know the bores who recount themselves intensely but artlessly, or the semi-articulate people interviewed on television after an accident merely because they were there, or public figures asked for their reaction to some outrage and producing balnalities. All I had done, in fact, was an exercise in remem-oration. The facts were real, but that was all one could say about them.
Let me show you the difference with a brief example. In Remake, as I finally rewrote it, I describe a bare memory, more or less in the same form as in that first version, except that I say 'the little girl' at this stage, instead of 'I', and I'll explain that in a moment. After various primary schools in Brussels and London, my sister and I are suddenly given a governess:
And mysteriously, to cover the transition back to Brussels, a, brief governess called Miss Enoch, with an atlas. Joanne remarks triumphantly, France is bigger than England. The little girl looks and sees a sort of solid square for France and, for England, a crotchety old lady backside to the continent with stretched legs driving a motorcar into the Atlantic, Ireland as the wheel. But Miss Enoch turns to the world page and says Look, everything pink on the map belongs to England. The little girl looks at the dot of England and the huge expanses of pink and asks, Why? (p. 11)
This is from the first chapter, and if you read it you will see that I do other things to the passage immediately afterwards. But the memory is true, including my child's impression of England. The bit about the pink areas of the map, however, I had already used in an earlier novel, Between (1968), which is about a simultaneous interpreter who travels from conference to conference and hears and sees many languages. But the novel is also about the state of bilingualism, and to get away from my own (French and English), I made her French and German, and invented a whole German background for her. Among her occasional prewar memories, we get this:
- Und alles ROTE auf der Karte, das gehort ENGland. The schoolmaster glares around the class, looking for a scapegoat perhaps. - Und alles GRÜNE auf der Karte, das gehört FRANKREICH.
The gangling girl in pigtails grows cold and pale even as a girl she always did look pale, uninteresting, then suddenly hot and flushed as the whole class follows the stony glare at the französische Mädchen responsible for the green on the map slightly deeper than the yellowish green vastness of the Soviet republics right up to Siberia or for that matter Brazil and then again not quite so bright as the bright green United States of America together with Alaska beyond the crimson Canada the pale pink of Greenland (pink?) and responsible also no doubt for the dark and pale das ROTE on account of the Entente Cordiale. (Omnibus, p. 520)
The complete change of circumstances, (that is, from an innocent questioning of empire by a little girl of six in 1929, to an imagined envy of empire by an invented German schoolteacher at an unspecified date, probably in the 1930s, transmutes the 'real' memory into something else, which is fiction.
This brings me to my second difficulty: when I write a novel, I like to invent, not to know where I'm going, what will happen, what a character will grow into, each sentence leading to another and gradually creating a scene, a person, which give rise to another scene and so on. But here I had all my material ready-made, not just in my head, but in the two hundred pages or so of rememoration I had done, and there was nothing for me to do but to arrange it. I had done this very badly in that first version, and I wasn't in the least tempted merely to improve it. If I did that at all, I had to rewrite completely.
The obvious solution was to scrap the pronoun 'I', and get some distance. But this would merely lead me into another trap: most autobiographical novels are written in the third person with a fictional name, or even with 'I' and a fictional name. Indeed, most novels use autobiographical material.
And then I had a brainwave. I decided to scrap all personal pronouns and all possessive adjectives: no I, you, he, she, it, we, they, no her/hers, his, its, our/ours, your/yours, theirs. Now this was a real challenge. An autobiography without personal pronouns. Suddenly, I got interested again. I had found the constraint I needed.
For I had already, in two novels, imposed such constraints on myself. Between (1968) was written entirely without the verb 'to be' in any form, even as auxiliary, for complex reasons. First, naively and obviously, because the central consciousness is a simultaneous translator and never in the same place, sometimes by the end of a sentence, and that's one sense of the verb 'to be' (the static sense: 'the pot is on the table'). By avoiding the verb 'to be' I was consciously giving a flow, a movement to my prose, and, stylistically, forced to find other verbs, more. dynamic, or metaphoric, and more generally to rephrase sentences and so to avoid the expected, the banal. And secondly, by way of motivation, because she's always translating the ideas of others so that she loses all sense of identity (the other sense of 'to be', to exist), and these are the two reasons I myself gave when I later discussed it. They were the conscious motives. But also, and only half-consciously at the time, as I now remember it, I must have been feeling for both contemporary and later deconstructions of the notion of identity as a male humanist concept, a deconstruction already incoherently incipient in Virginia Woolf. A book does more than it knows. On authorial identity, I remember writing an article called 'The Death of the Author' for the Observer in 1961, some seven years before Barthes' essay of the same name (1968/1977), though of course more naively, but also less finalisingly dogmatic, and eight years before Foucault's demonstration that the concept 'author' is a construct out of specific operations (1969). Then, in the same year as the publication of Between (1968), I went to teach in Paris and plunged into Lacan's Ecrits (1966) and his displacement of the subject, and more enthusiastically still into Derrida (1967a, 1967b) and his deconstructions of fixed notions of essential truth. And in 1974 came the deconstruction even of sexual identity by Kristeva, for whom the dichotomy between masculine and feminine is metaphysical. Woman, as such, does not exist, except as a construct of the patriarchal Symbolic order, negatively and marginally through her refusal of it. Woman, is 'that which cannot be represented, that which is not spoken, that which remains outside naming and ideologies' ('La femme', 21). For Kristeva, as Toril Moi points out (1985, 12), 'it is not the biological sex of a person but the subject position he or she takes up that determines their revolutionary potential'. This position is not merely negative but relational, and is 'an attempt to locate the negativity and refusal pertaining to the. marginal, in order to undermine the phallocentric order that defines woman as marginal in the first place' (Moi, 163). All this applies also to the appalling tragedies caused by the notion of ethnic or national identity. It was extraordinarily comforting in the early 1970s to read as theory all that I had been groping for already in Out (1964, where I reverse the colour-bar and imagine the whites, called the Colourless, discriminated against as feckless, and, more specifically, the mind of an elderly white man), or Such (1966, where I imagine a man who has died briefly and sees distances between people as the radiotelescope sees the stars), and Between (1968), where my simultaneous interpreter only emerges through the travel sights and the conference discourses she translates, in other words, as in Out and Such, through what hits that consciousness. And this objectified narratorless mode (which is the only feature in my novels directly developed from Robbe-Grillet) not only privileges the time of discourse over the time of story, but, more concretely, means that this central consciousness never says 'I', except in dialogue, and that he or she has no name. In Between, the central consciousness has a job which is central in the sense of indispensable, but it is marginal, intermediary. Above all, because of this new constraint, she cannot really be, she is a construct, as identity is a construct, or, in Derridean terms, she is 'always already' there, and always deferred, if only till the next conference. Or so I then saw it, though other readings may see it otherwise.
By the next novel Thru (1975), I was much more conscious of all these things. For instance, I make it particularly difficult for the reader to identify with any narrator or know who he or she is: is it Armel Santores or Larissa Toren, who are near anagrams of each other except for 'I' in his name and 'ME' in hers? Or is it the students in a creative writing class? Or, at another point, the Master of Jacques le fataliste?
Then in the following novel I imposed another syntactic constraint: Amalgamemnon (1984) was written entirely in the future tense, or other non-realising tenses like the imperative or the conditional, partly to explore the pseudo-future of forecasts and speculation we all live in, but mostly as an anti-narrative device that avoids all declarative sentences, in other words, in what J.L. Austin calls the performative, as opposed to the constative, of which it can be said that it is true or false. Nothing can actually happen.
Now the constative tenses, the verb 'to be' and pronouns, are the most stable elements of language (they don't, for instance, get replaced by foreign words, even after the thorough invasion of English by French after the Norman Conquest), and to omit one of them involves a certain floating instability of the narrative. In the case of Remake, doing without personal pronouns and possessive adjectives naturally abolishes the gender problems of he/she, the power problems of I/We and the possession problems of my/your/our, but it also abolishes the deictics I/you, so that we are partly in a historic mode (the time of story) but only partly, for I still use the present tense throughout, and although I can't use certain deictics like 'yesterday/ tomorrow', except in dialogue, I do use others such as 'here/there, ago', or pointers such as demonstrative pronouns. So, as with my other novels, I privilege the time of discourse.
Secondly, doing without personal pronouns meant using names a great deal, since a pro-noun stands for a noun. And this led me, oddly enough, back to Chomsky. You may remember that many of Chomsky's example sentences are about John, for instance in the difference of deep structure between 'John is eager to please' and 'John is easy to please'. Or semantic restrictions in 'John builds a house' but not '*John is built by a house' or 'John continues' but not '*John elapses'. And in the Reflexivity rule, John (subscript 1) killed John (subscript 1): if both Johns are the same, i.e. coreferential, the second must be replaced by the reflexive pronoun: John killed himself. My problem of self-confrontation was resolved: John confronts himself. Except that I mustn't use the reflexive pronoun 'himself.
This John, who starts as an example in linguistics, soon becomes split up into many Johns, John 13, 51, 73, and other subscripts, who acquire personalities (as in a novel), according to what they say, John the nasty piece of perk, John the lit critter, John the pedant, John the psycho and so on, who keep interfering with the narrative, especially at the beginning. And this led me, quite naturally, since I must over-use proper names, to the decision that all my main characters, that is, all the people who most influenced me from childhood on, those I call the mentors, must be called John, or a variation: my mother is Jeanne, my sister Joanne, an aunt is called Vanna (Giovanna), a cousin Jean-Luc, my first husband Ian, my second Janek, with friends and lovers called Joan, Jean, Jane, Janet, Jock, Sean, Hans and so on. Anyone not called so is not a mentor. And of course I couldn't be called so, yet had to have a name, which isn't introduced until Chapter 4, when 'the little girl', remembered by 'the old lady', is named Tess, not because of Hardy but as a play on text (which gave tisser or weaving in French, and tessitura or the quality of a voice) and on tesselate, to build up with small tiles.
The little girl's name is Tess. Only a name and memory can tesselate and texture all those different beings, the baby in Geneva, the little girl in Brussels, Chiswick, Brussels, Folkestone, London and all the others to the old lady in Provence. (41)
Once I had found these constraints, I forgot all about my prejudice against autobiography. Why? Because I could now have fun with it. I don't mean that I could turn it into fiction and invent, but that my ready-made material could be transmuted, and made into an autobiographical novel rather than an autobiography. My exercise in rememoration, in other words, had produced no identity I could recognise, although all the memories were 'real', whereas Remake produced someone or other I felt happy with. Identity, in other words, is a fiction, made of language, and like all good fictions open. ended, and slightly unreal. So my publisher was right. I could even leave out items of reality, if the chosen constraint made it impossible. For instance, when I mention the bilingual jokes of my family in Brussels:
And the family deranges the range with trilingual jokes, quelle est la matiere, raped carrots, what is loose, have a good Fahrt, there is no what, taking something mit, grandpère a été délayé, like a sauce (p. 10).
But I had to leave out others, such as 'do not derange yourself or 'ça turnupera' for 'it'll turn up'. And quite often I had to leave out an anecdote because the punch line needed a pronoun, a possessive, or the real name. One example, with all three: the original of Janek was Jerzy, Polish for George and often pronounced 'Jersey' by the English, and Rayner Heppenstall, an earlier experimental writer, apparently said to Muriel Spark, who told me of it afterwards: 'Wouldn't it be nice to see Christine without her Jersey?' But perhaps it was just as well the constraints made me leave it out.
Alternately, I may have later invented some of these, the only real memory being the fact of bilingual jokes. This is made explicit in a later episode about my brief wartime husband, whom I call Ian, a musician who, to my disappointment, decides to study law, and who is fond of facile jokes:
Ian sends for big books on Roman Law and the law of Tort, and a nutshell series including Carriage of Goods by Sea in a Nutshell, chortle. The jokes become legal jokes, playing on set phrases, breaking and entry and aggravated buggery, conduct calculated to cause a breach of promise (Tess smiles), loitering with intent to feel. But perhaps the old lady invented these, the real jokes forgotten. (121)
Or again, the whole of Chapter 3 which, before I have even appeared as a child, tells of my mother's death in 1984, at the age of 92, is based on a diary I kept at the time, and diaries, as I clearly observe, over-use pronouns. So I break my own rule, partly because I'm using a real document, partly to point up the contrast, when strong personal emotion is at stake. All this of course is explained in the last chapter, in a conversation between Tess and the old lady (one and the same person), and more allusively in the first chapter, which is really about the resistance to autobiography that I've been talking about. But before I end let me just tell you that writing Remake did unblock me, precisely because I had been having fun with language again, instead of just plonking things down because they happened. The book took three years to come out, for chiefly legal reasons, and during those three years I moved house. But last year I started on a new novel, at long last, which I have just finished. It's not in the least autobiographical, for it's all about the homeless, who sleep in the street, and I was free to invent them. And naturally, since they have nothing, it's written without the verb 'to have'.
Austin, J.L. 1962, How To Do Things With Words (William James Lectures, Harvard University 1955), Oxford University Press.
Barthes, Roland, 1970, SIZParis, Seuil; 1977, 'The Death of the Author', in Image, Music, Text, New York, Hill & Wang.
Brooke-Rose, Christine, 1964, Out; 1966, Such; 1968, Between; 1975, Thru; all in The Christine Brooke-Rose
Omnibus, Manchester, Carcanet 1984. 1984, Amalgamemnon, Manchester, Carcanet 1984; Normal, III, Dalkey Archive 1994. 1996, 'Is Self-Reflexivity Mere?' Lecture at a Conference on 'Postfaction' at the University of Warwick, Nov. 1995, to appear in Quarterly West, University of Utah, December 96.
Chomsky, Noam, 1958, Syntactic Structures, The Hague, Mouton.
Derrida, Jacques, 1967a, L'écriture et la différence, Paris,
Seuil; 1967b De la grammatologie, Paris, Editions de Minuit (among others).
Foucault, Michel, 1969, L'archéologie du savoir. Also 1966, Les mots et les choses, among others. Both Paris, Gallimard.
Kristeva, Julia, 1974, 'La femme, ce n'est jemais ça', Tel Quel 59, 19-24, Paris, Seuil, La revolution du langage poétique, Paris, Seuil. Lacan, Jacques, 1966, Ecrits, Paris, Seuil.
Moi, Toril, 1985, Sexual/Textual Politics, London & New York, Routledge.
This article is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.