The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
If X = Xtine Brooke-Rose, and Y= Why? then X÷Y = Remake.
Remake is the autobiography of Christine Brooke-Rose “dit” (as they say in France when the mean, “also called”) for the purposes of this novelised version, Tess (whom we shall call, T). In Remake, Xtine Brooke-Rose = X to the power of T.
X ÷ Y = Remake = Xᵀ
Xᵀ = X ÷ Y
In Remake, X tries to unravel the power of T.
The power of T is that she is ﬁction, not factional.
Xtine Brooke-Rose “dit” (as they say in France, when they mean “spoke”) English, French, German, having lived a fraction of her life in each country. A Verbivore, XBR fed from three languages, at least. “A linguistic escape-artist,” the NYTimes obiturist (1)dit her: if you don't like one language try another. In England Tess was hemmed in (and also given ways out) by a war that brought her, grace à her long langue, to work at Bletchley Park, as a code translator: dit - dash - dit. Morse code: the negative as long as the positive, XBR’s introduction to binary: what isn’t as important as what is.
(A diversion. Fast forward to Xorandor - coding as metaphor, as pun. Boolean logic contains the XOR operator, a code that causes an action when exactly one statement is true, but not both.
Xor and or
or and or
Her characters, Jip and Zab, zip and jab through Xorandor’s binary, sibling-squabbling over whether language is male, or female.)
“It’s just signs on a piece of paper,” XBR said of Thru, “Language is only a system thru which one sees the real” (2)
Backﬂip: XBR’s ﬁrst books, written in the 1950s, weren’t like this. The contained: rooms haircuts armchairs love-affairs trains trees libraries politicians tea trays taxis curtains hedges, in short - in long - all realism. But this was too constraining for a “literary escape-artist”. In sum, she had to narrow the trap. Add up all the minuses here:
Between = X - B (it’s minus the verb, “to be” meaning, in Between, nothing settles)
Amalgamemnon = C - P ((C)assandra Cs the future but the book, written in the future/subjunctive, has no time like the present)
Remake = X - I (also minus You, He, She, It)
Next = 26 x N(arrators) - “have” (not one of them has control of the text)
Never so many missing X-factors. All those minuses can make her work difﬁcult to grasp. Though slenderised (an Oulipian method of operating, to remove - for example - the ‘i’) her work is never slim. She was the author of 26 books, one for every letter of the alphabet.
Even so, XBR, “Will she ever make it?”(3)
Into (“out of?” as each movement is similar, if differently-directed) what? Into literary history, avoiding Textermination by canon, of course!
So will she ever make it? I hope so but… never a joiner, always a sub-tractor, she wilfully self-constrained, spending later years in a rural French - or was it Wiltshire (4) -Box, instead of membership of - what? - Oulipo? Tel Quel? But X found in herself, like her sister-mother, the qualities of a nonne and, after teaching at the Sore Bonne, quietly anchored herself in Provence.
How could she have left this land of bad puns studied like currents in Bath buns?
X, how could this B?
This happy breed of little men, this world
Was it this blessed plot, this ingrownland?
Well, yes, there was the ex-factor. XBR admitted her leanings, but, in 1968 - a revolutionary act! - (Dorothea) Brooke rose, left her poet-mentower, drove to Paris and never came back. The mentowers remain in her books as sounding boards.
“Stop punning Mira, it makes me mad.”(5)
Amalgamenon’s narrator, Mira/Cassandra (C - kappa in Greek - the same letter as K), is also Kirke - a pig-keeper, she turns men into swine, if they aren’t already. Oh those Ex-es!
“insomniac insolent machinery of love…
in life’s deadly conversation with death,
there then can be no remorse, only the cold closeness of creation.”(6)
(Sex, that’s what she’s talking about: Es. Ee. eX)
XBR suffered from misplaced urethra (Remake) - a pun (taking one thing for the other) a piss-take, a mistranslation of the body. Should it hurt like that? She didn’t know for years, couldn’t name what was wrong. Silence, yes, she knew exactly what it felt like.
But what about that other “cold closeness of creation”? Writing’s another ex: it hovers, escapes the mouth (cigarette smoke?) blown into the ear of the reader/lover. Once Out (or Thru), It stays Between, never landing. Where does it all end?
Not here, not in England.
“I call myself a Channel writer,” (7) said XBR, landing in the literature of neither landfall: a native French speaker whose work was not published in France, whose English homeland found her too full of “the whole Left Bank box of trucs.” (8)
Well, to read is never the act of a native-speaker.
“Reader are interpreters, and interpreters extrapolate. We’re all spies from Extrapol.”
(That’s Mira Inky-tie - X to the power of Cassandra - appearing in both Amalgamemnon, and Textermination, the narrator-not-quite-omnipotent-author).
In 2012, X leaves the equation again: this time for good. In my editions, bought last month, published by Carcanet, XBR still “lives in the South of France,” though, in what counts as literal, not literary survival, she died in March 2012.
And to think she ended where she began, in a francophany, her last mentower a man also named Brooke, when she was dit Brooke, already.
Dit - dash - dit.
“Relevance is a protean concept. OK?”(9) says Mina, or one of her avatowers.
“There are far too many books in the world."(10)
OK. Stop, Verbivore. (Full.)
Joanna Walsh is a writer and illustrator. Her work has been published by Granta, Tate, The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The White Review, Gorse and others. Her story collection, Fractals, is published by3:AM Press. Her blog is here
*You can see a whole range of more sensible appreciations of Xtine Brooke-Rose here:
There’s also an interesting discussion of XBR’s use of computer coding languages here:
2. interview with AS Byatt at ICA
7. ICA interview by AS Byatt
8. via Natalie Ferris
9. Textermination, p91
10. Textermination p 102