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Christine Brooke-Rose, experimental fiction writer

By Io Montecillo

Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.
Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.

“With news of the death of Christine Brooke-Rose, the world of letters has lost a significant and courageous writer,” said Karen Lawrence, President of Sarah Lawrence College and author of Techniques for Living: Fiction and Theory in the Work of Christine Brooke-Rose.

A writer known for her unorthodox and experimental style, Christine Brooke-Rose died on March 21. Her archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 16, 1923. She was the youngest of two daughters of Alfred Northbrook Rose and Evelyn Brooke Rose. After the dissolution of their marriage while Brooke-Rose was quite young, both became Anglican Benedictine monastics.

During World War II, Brooke-Rose served as an intelligence officer in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she met her first husband, Rodney Ian Shirley Bax. They married in May 1944 and divorced four years later. In February 1948, she married Polish poet and novelist Jerzy Pietrkiewicz. When Pietrkiewicz became ill in 1956, Brooke-Rose began to write novels after publishing Gold (1955), a metaphysical religious poem based on the anonymous fourteenth-century English poem Pearl.

After her own illness in 1962, Brooke-Rose’s fiction changed dramatically. Her next novel, Out (1964), discarded the traditional ideals of character and plot and began the play with language and form that has marked her work ever since. Some of her more famous works include Between (1968), which centers around the experiences of a professional translator and is written without the use of the verb “to be” in all its forms. Another, Xorandor (1986), is a science-fiction story about the discovery by two children of a silicon-based civilization that feeds on nuclear radiation. The story is written in the form of dialog and computer printouts by the children, who use an invented technological slang.

“As she herself pointed out, Christine Brooke-Rose escaped most would-be canonic labels,” said Lawrence. “She was a narrative theorist, literary critic, and novelist for whom new fictional techniques were necessary to represent the increased ‘unreality’ of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her fictions are rehearsals for living under the constraints of a new world, yet with comedy, nuance, and toughness, they draw creative vitality and moral inspiration out of the very limitations they evoke.

“In different modes, Brooke-Rose’s overtly valedictory last books (Invisible Author: Last Essays and Life, End of), as well as her brilliant novel Textermination, dramatize the ‘death of the author’ and the fragility and tenacity of the connection between language and being. In doing so, they offer what she has called ‘techniques for living,’ new forms for telling the human story within the unreality of contemporary life.”

In Memoriam: William B. Todd (1919–2011)

By Richard Oram

William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.
William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.

Not everyone remembers that Harry Ransom was a fisher of minds as well as of rare books and manuscripts. One of his early catches was William B. Todd, an up-and-coming young bibliographer at Harvard’s Houghton Library who had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Todd had served with distinction during World War II, receiving two wounds during the Normandy Invasion. In the late 1950s, Ransom saw that Todd might become the bibliographic intelligence behind the Humanities Research Center, then just a vision.

Once in Austin, Bill Todd, who died this past weekend, settled into a comfortable berth in The University of Texas English Department and began exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Department. In partnership with the English scholar D. F. Foxon, he discovered that the turn-of-the-century forger Thomas J. Wise had spent many hours in the British Museum Library removing leaves from copies of seventeenth-century plays. Wise then proceeded to improve his own inferior copies of plays purchased for a shilling or two. He would then have them rebound and ship them off to Chicago, where they were snapped up by his hapless dupe, the financier John Henry Wrenn. Their ultimate destination was Austin once the University acquired the Wrenn Library in 1918. The Todd-Foxon discovery created quite a splash—so much so that the British Museum asked for its “used” leaves back (they were not successful).

Todd made many noteworthy scholarly discoveries and contributed in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the Harry Ransom Center through his publications (nearly 300 on a dazzling variety of subjects), exhibitions, and advice on acquisitions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his characteristically thorough and precise examination of the three available copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the annus mirabilis of 1977–78. He undertook this project with his longtime bibliographical partner and wife, Ann Bowden. Together they looked at every significant feature of the Bibles and concluded that the Pforzheimer copy was the one to bring to Austin.

The Todd-Bowden team went on to accomplish labors unthinkable by lesser mortals, such as the first comprehensive bibliographies of the German reprint house Tauchnitz and Sir Walter Scott. Endeavors on these scales were built on world travel, which they both loved, and book collecting (ditto). Their libraries now form part of the collections of the Ransom Center, Lehigh University (Todd’s alma mater), and the British Library. In between their travels and writing, the Todds attended almost every Longhorn football game and entertained extensively. As the comments make clear, the Todds were mentors to a couple of generations of bibliographers and rare book librarians, who will not soon forget them.