I don’t think I was an especially critical English literature student when, many years ago, I was an undergraduate at Sussex University. I certainly didn’t spend much time studying theory or semiotics – as the central characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot ceaselessly seem to do – or spend time agonising over the death of the author (despite being endlessly encouraged to do so). I didn’t challenge the consensus which favoured one superb author over another, or spend too long working on my (probably facile) theory that Salinger, Fitzgerald and DH Lawrence were over-rated. But I did always find the fact of the accepted canon a bit odd, and it’s perhaps for that reason that I’ve spent a great deal of time since university picking up books by authors of whom I had never heard. I like and have always liked the concept of discovering authors who, for one reason or another, popular lit-crit has ignored.
I’m no expert, of course, but given how much time I spend in second hand bookshops, and given that I probably buy and read more novels by women with old-fashioned names that I do by anyone else, I was a bit surprised that when an obituary appeared recently in The Guardian for an English, 20th century female novelist who achieved a little aclaim for her short, experimental novels (but little lasting fame), the name didn’t ring any bells. The author was Christine Brooke-Rose, who died late in March at the age of 88. The Guardian described her as ‘marvellously playful and difficult’; Stuart Jeffries goes on…
Britain has all but airbrushed one of its most radical exponents of experimental fiction… Many critics hailed her fiction, for all that it was sometimes scarcely comprehensible or pleasurable to those ignorant of the underpinning theory. Ellen G Friedman put Brooke-Rose among those 20th-century experimental female writers – Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein – whose novels “explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative”. Brooke-Rose wrote 16 novels, five collections of criticism and several collections of short stories and poems. Frank Kermode considered that her originality and skills deserved “a greater measure of admiration and respect than we have so far chosen to accord them”.
Well – difficult novels are often a total chore, but her stuff sounds really interesting. I’m just about to start reading her breakthrough novel, ‘Out’ which is ‘narrated by a white character facing racial discrimination in the aftermath of a nuclear war, with pale skin now indicating radiation poisoning and dark skin health’. Will report back.