Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose
The biographical note at the head of this book describes the writer as ‘now’ living in the south of France; but the cover copy describes it as her ‘extraordinary last novel’. The implication seems to be that she died at some point between the printing of the main text and of the cover.* (Consultation with the Internet suggests otherwise. But that is strictly inadmissible evidence, unavailable at the time of reading.) Normally such matters would be of no concern. It is difficult not to take them into account, however, when a book begins with an unflinching description of the difficulties entailed in performing simple ablutions with the handicap of multiple disabling ailments. We know from the start that things can only get worse; and, making the almost inevitable assumption of its autobiographical nature, we may begin to fear that, as the writer’s faculties fall prey to degeneration, the book will become as unbearable to experience as the late music of Schumann or - in some people’s opinion - the canvases painted by de Kooning after his stroke. Indeed, the way we are teased with this possibility, and the ways it is repeatedly circumvented, could be said to constitute the adventure of the work. Any measuring-up to the fact of death is likely to be heroic. What is special here is the terms in which the confrontation is couched.
We may not notice straight away - but if not, our attention will be drawn to it soon enough - that Brooke-Rose’s seemingly first-person narration avoids, except of course in direct speech, the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’. In that case, why do I call it ‘first-person’? Well, I think you would find it hard, though perhaps not impossible, to read it in a third-person sense, especially since the frequent lengthy soliloquies, seemingly addressed directly to the reader, clearly embody the main character’s preoccupations; and it is worth noting that when the present tense is used, as it is here, the ‘free indirect style’ of such soliloquies is not grammatically distinguishable from direct speech. There is nothing at all wilful or arbitrary in my recourse to such terminology when discussing this book. The text itself introduces it, and debates these concepts at length, if never perhaps in a manner which might settle things once and for all. For Brooke-Rose, it appears, the key function of the pronoun-free story-telling is to avoid any identification between herself and her character. Yet in explaining this she cannot help but acknowledge the difficulty both for her and for us, revealing, or seeming to reveal, points of common experience between the two. ‘This author ... is never the main character in a book.’ Fine; but - to borrow the Barthesian question with which the narrative is punctuated - who is telling us this: the author or her character? Mischievously, Brooke-Rose seems content to elide the concepts of author and narrator. But if that seems to simplify matters, there is a further twist, in that she always refers to the author as ‘he’. Is this merely a reversion to pre-feminist convention, or does it imply a wish to disassociate herself even from the author, let alone from the narrator or the character: a progressive flight from identity? It would not be too surprising. After all, even the author’s interventions largely dispense with the first-person pronoun.
Writing is an amusement; but it is a very serious one. (Let me own up to a Freudian slip: I initially typed, ‘Life is an amusement...’) The surface of this book presents a constant shimmer between the elegance of construction and the evidence of pain. The struggle of the character to retain dignity and self-possession is enacted in the struggle of the author to avoid identification with her, as if the ultimate collapse of the pronoun-free sentence would mark the moment of defeat for both of them. Thus the grammatical contortions are not games - or not only games. They carry the emotional charge of the narrative. At one point the ‘I’ does put in a few appearances, but is quickly shut back in its box. The attempt to maintain a manageable distance is, of course, announced already in the title, Life, End of: as if one’s life were no more than an entry in an index or an inventory, an item or an attribute among others. This belongs to that rare category books which, once begun, we will drop everything else to read to the finish. Yet it is also a book we read more and more slowly as it progresses: partly, no doubt, because we are afraid of its ending, but also because someone’s final thoughts seem to deserve a special consideration. Because they embody an accumulated wisdom, or merely because they are final? I am not sure. But consider the observation: ‘...no, why make a profit and loss account of it? Even loss can become profit.’ I think you would have to be a very self-assured person to steam past that without giving it a pause for thought.
There is something sad about discovering a wonderful new writer just in time to catch her last book. Quite improperly - for it is none of our business, just a question of common humanity - I find myself wondering how closely Brooke-Rose’s own situation conforms to that delineated in this novel. Meanwhile, Houdini-like, her character, or perhaps it is her narrator, or even possibly her author, takes her or his leave with a defiant, multi-layered yet ultimately self-annihilating pun.