I’m on an early morning train heading north through Kent as the sun rises on my right, contemplating another journey from over ten years ago, when I travelled to a little village near Avignon to meet the writer Christine Brooke-Rose. Since then, probably starting well before then, as I think I was jumping into some kind of a slip-stream generated by the interest of people like Stuart Kelly, Christine (I will use her first name as that’s what I ended up doing) has become rehabilitated as one of our leading experimental writers. I’m not entirely sure as I don’t really mix in the circles that would say they know; and although I think she’d be very glad to be thought of like that, to me she will always be a scream. Christine the experimenter and Christine a woman who made me laugh until it hurt. Christine Brooke-Rose.
From the start names were so very important. When I arranged to meet her during a crackling phone call in which she seemed more distant than I could imagine (it turned out later she was also trying to watch the tennis), she immediately became interested in my surname. One of her three husbands, Jerzy, from whom she had remained separated for many years, but with whom she was still occasionally in touch, was a Polish poet. The last time I saw her, Christine gave me the Polish-English dictionary covered in her notes from which she’d once gone about learning the language. So we arranged to meet and I stepped off the train in Avignon. Here’s how I started a piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday at the time:
There’s a woman standing by the exit to Avignon TGV holding up a small board with two words on it: “MADAM BONCZA”. The Boncza bit I can understand; you’d need a plank for my full name. But “Madame”? In what I hope passes for French I introduce myself (6ft 2in, unshaven, shaved head) and she’s understandably wary. If I was waiting for Madame Boncza, I’d be expecting a fairground fortune-teller. I tell her I’m here to visit the author Christine Brooke-Rose. The woman looks even more blank. “Une femme qui écrit?” “Ah oui!” she exclaims, “l’écrivain.” The Writer.
There were other names that I won’t forget from my visit: Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose manuscript for Dans Le Labyrinthe lay on the desk in her study; Richard Brautigan, all of whose novels stood on a shelf in the guest room where I stayed; Hélène Cixous, who encouraged Christine to Paris from London to teach; and Tim Henman, who was losing a match at Wimbledon while we discussed her new novel: Life, End of.
Perhaps this piece will do something else to further her name. She seems, over her life, to have been very good at encouraging the work of other writers, but the one she didn’t seem keen to encourage was her own. Oh: there was also Xorandor. I can’t forget Xorandor. The title of her novel I like the most, the first time I mentioned it to her I struggled to pronounce it. I think I called it something like Exorandor, vaguely like Excalibur, only to be halted in my tracks by an arm imperiously raised and the flat of a hand suggesting I had done something desperately wrong. ‘Zorandor’, she pronounced, her voice steepling on the a, as if she were announcing the name of a character Shelley or Rider Haggard (both of whom she was fond) had somehow let ride away from them, on a thundering Arabian charger, in the middle of a dark night.
Christine was very old when I met her and confined to a wheelchair from which she watched tennis, occasional crime dramas, and the foliage on the high stone wall opposite her living room (as she describes in Life, End of). These are the things she stressed, I have to say: counterpoints, perhaps, to her dismay at being rejected, she believed (with good reason), by the English writing establishment, and what she regarded as the sad absurdity of her, she also believed, final days (in fact she lived on for another decade). She was angry, I could see; and lonely.
If you read Remake (1996), her first autobiographical novel, you’ll understand more or less exactly the situation I walked into when I visited her: Christine Brooke-Rose retired to a small French village and retreated to a very nice but cut off flat on the upper floor of an old building, the entrance shielded by a remote-controlled iron gate; tended to by a very kindly French woman; and entertained by her large TV set (there’s a passage in Remake where some locals complain about the satellite dish she has fitted to her roof). You’ll also sample the sense of comedy, so dry sparks are never far from flying, that she adored. After spending a day with her I was relieved to find Richard Brautigan’s novels in her guest room. They offered something of a decompression chamber between Christine’s living room with the wine and the Catalan folk and love songs she played me on her guitar, the hours of conversation which I recorded with various stabs at past and present literary and sporting figures, the trips to her study on my own to examine things she believed, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly were there (she couldn’t climb the stairs any more) and sleep, which came at last on the first night at about two in the morning with some very strange dreams. She wasn’t in them, but it felt as if everything else was: telepathy, perhaps, the sense of her being overlooked which had found its way to me in the discussion, her questions, often ahead of mine, her singing and our laughter. I remember something she said to me:
I’ve never wanted to belong to a literary group or a political group. I never liked literary life. I was part of it for a time, going to publisher’s parties and so on, but I never missed that. When I went to Paris, I didn’t join the French literary movements because they were even worse.
And there was Life, End of. I stayed for three nights and on the second day she mentioned to me that she had written one last book. This came as a shock because the tone of our conversations up to that point had been very much in the space of her writing days being over. She asked me if I could read it and tell her whether it was worth publishing. She wasn’t sure. I read the entire manuscript in a single sitting, under the Brautigan, and listening to Christine sometimes shuffling in the rooms above me. She was anxious, she said, that she might be publishing something ridiculous; a book that would ruin her reputation. She still had dreams of being read widely and was grateful to the various writers who sometimes referred to her work.
There had been, it seemed, over the years, an infrequent and decreasing flow of visitors to her residence: many, perhaps, finding it hard to return when their relationship with her became strained. Christine had a way of straining relationships: it’s in her writing, pushing and pulling at the fabric of writing, propping up conflicts like megaliths and burying warmth like unfrozen soil, deep in wintry ground.
I told her what I took to be the truth: it’s an extraordinary book. It’s deeply sad and in parts, a scream. Something to accompany both unbearable pain and outrageous fun. I loved it. She had to publish it, and indeed she did (after a bizarre passage of shifting draughts and computer files between Avignon and London). If you’re interested, I was surprised to see that the piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday is still available on-line here
It’s mid-afternoon and the train’s moving on. Sunny and busy; somehow this piece broke and was continued; somehow I was at work. The conductor (who I should call an on-board manager, but can’t allow the phrase outside of these brackets) speaks quickly over the intercom, announcing the stations between Ashford and Margate. Somewhere between those places, between Nicola Barker’s Ashford-slum Darkmans and Margate’s version of Dreamland, Tracey Emin’s Why I never Became a Dancer, there are Christine Brooke-Rose’s novels. A strange sense of the middle of nowhere. A worrying euphoria. Something terminally dark and desolate. Something on the bright side of a muddy edge. She was a scream.