From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1989, Vol. 9.3
Q: In your essay “Ill Iterations,” which you wrote for “Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction,” you mention the difficulties experimental writers face when they are male, but you say also that the differences are compounded when the experimental writer happens to be a female. Will you talk about those difficulties for the woman writer?
CBR: Yes, although it took a long time to become aware of them. Once in Paris, quite a long time ago, Helene Cixous rang me up and asked me to write something about the difficulties I’ve had as a woman writer. Naively, I said, “Well, I haven’t had any difficulties as a I “woman” writer. I’ve had difficulties that “any” writer would have; can I write about that?” And she said, “Oh, no.” She wanted something feminist. I was a bit antifeminist in those days, in the early 1970s. I didn’t consciously feel that I had had any difficulties. My later revision of that feeling came from genuine experience. As I look back over my career I realize that, in fact, I did have difficulties, but I took them for granted, as part of the nature of things. From the moment I went experimental, however, when I wrote “Out,” and my then-publishers couldn’t understand it and turned it down, I did actually start having difficulties. And when I wrote that essay for you, I started looking back and thinking about it, trying to fathom it out, and I became aware that the woman experimental writer has more difficulties than the man experimental writer, in the sense that, however much men have accepted women’s writing, there is still this basic assumption, which is unconscious, that women cannot create new forms. They can imitate others, they can imitate their little lives, tell their love stories and their difficulties and so on, and they do it extremely well. I’m not downgrading that kind of writing. But if by any chance they dare to experiment, then they are imitating a male movement, and usually one that’s already dead. In my case, I always get the label “nouveau roman” in English because “nouveau roman” is, from the English point of view, safely dead and no one talks about it anymore. In other words, all one is capable of as a woman is to do what the men do, and not so well. There is an unconscious refusal, really, to look at what I’m doing in any kind of detail. Whereas men experimenters or innovators of any kind do get that sort of attention.
Q: What does the phrase “utterly other discourse” from “Amalgamemnon” mean for you? Do you feel that you are writing “utterly other discourses”?
CBR: In “Amalgamemnon,” it doesn’t actually mean that. It doesn’t refer to the writing, it refers to the woman reading and thinking quite other things until she has to switch back to talking to the man. In fact, though, I do feel that my writing is different. I haven’t actually seen other writing quite like mine, but it is very difficult for me to say how “other” it is, or even whether it’s any good. I can’t really judge it, so I can’t really answer that questions. I do what I want to do.
Q: But you did make a conscious decision at one point in your career to write the indeterminate novel, rather than something realistic?
CBR: What a strange opposition. The realistic novel has its own indeterminacies. But anyway, it didn’t happen that way at all. It was much more negative than that. I was simply dissatisfied with what I was doing. I had written four novels, which are really quite traditional, satirical, comic novels. I did experiment with time in one of them, which was written backwards, for instance, so that in each chapter the hero gets younger and younger. But that was still classical irony. They were basically traditional modern novels, if I can use such a phrase, in that the main concern was, like most novels, epistemological, concerned with reality and illusion. But I felt it was too easy. It was great fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted. Originally, when I was very young, I used to write poetry every day, but I soon discovered that I was not a poet; but that urge to write poetry . . .
Q: But you are a poet.
CBR: Perhaps, but I had to get around to it in a very different way. I then thought I had found myself as a novelist, but after those four early novels I realized it still wasn’t what I wanted. So eventually—yes, I do now write very poetic novels, more deeply poetic at any rate than the poems I was writing every day. At the time of this dissatisfaction, I suppose it was Nathalie Sarraute’s “The Age of Suspicion,” and her putting the modern novel in question, which was the first turning point for me, much more so than her novels, for although I like them very much, I can’t say there’s a direct influence of Nathalie Sarraute on what I write. Whereas Robbe-Grillet did have a direct influence, at least on “Out.” But I soon got out of it. So it wasn’t a decision to write indeterminate novels as such. It was simply a decision not to go on writing as I used to write. But the other thing that happened was much more important. I had a very serious illness, lost a kidney and had a very long convalescence. I fell into a semi-trancelike state for a long time. I was very much thinking of death as the meaning of life. And I began to write “Out,” which is a very “sick” novel. I think one can feel that. I imagine a time when the whites are discriminated against; the whole color bar is reversed. But the reason the whites are discriminated against is because they are sick, dying from this mysterious radiation disease to which the colored people are more immune. My protagonist is a sick old man who cannot get a job and cannot remember his previous status. This exactly reproduced the state of illness that I was in, so in that sense of protection it was still a very mimetic novel. But I wasn’t consciously trying to do anything different. I started writing a sentence and fell back on the pillow exhausted. I didn’t really know where I was going, and it took me a long time to write it. I was groping. So I don’t think it was a conscious decision. But then with “Such” I really took off on my own. I don’t think there’s any more influence of Robbe-Grillet on “Such.” I would say that “Such” is my first really “Me” novel, where I don’t owe anything to anyone else.
Q: Can you characterize that “Me-ness”?
CBR: I think “Such” is more imaginative, for one thing. It’s still, of course, concerned with death since the man dies and is brought back to life. Again, I don’t explain why. I get much more interested, in fact, in the impact of language on the imagination. I suppose it’s really with “Between” that I discovered what I could do with language. With “Such” it’s still a fairly straightforward use of language, but very much in another world with this slow return to reality as the man comes back to life, but he then sees the stars as radiation. And having hit on that idea but not really knowing where I was going, I then had to do a lot of work, learn something about astrophysics, for example, since I was using it as a metaphor for the world. It’s in “Such” that I discovered that jargon, of whatever kind, has great poetry. For instance if you take a scientific law and use it literally, it becomes a metaphor. Of course, this is a schoolboy joke. If the teacher says, “Weight consists of the attraction between two bodies, ” everybody giggles. But if you take it further and use more complicated astrophysical laws about bouncing signals on the moon, for instance, to express the distance between people, then it becomes a very active metaphor. Yet it’s treated as ontological in the world of the fiction, like a sunset or a tree. So this sort of thing, you see, isn’t a conscious decision, it’s a discovery.
Q: Is that how you would define the experimental novel?
CBR: Yes, in a way. People often use the term “experimental novel” to mean just something peculiar, or as a genre in itself (on the same level as “realistic” or “fantastic” or “romantic” or “science” fiction). But to experiment is really not knowing where you’re going and discovering. Experimenting with language, experimenting with form and discovering things, and sometimes you might get it wrong and it just doesn’t come off. When I discovered that there is great beauty in technical language (and this comes into its own in “Thru” where I actually use critical jargon as poetry), I also discovered that there’s beauty and humor in confronting different discourses, jostling them together, including, for instance, computer language. In “Such” it’s astrophysics and in “Between” it’s all the languages, the lunatic, empty speech-making of different congresses, political, sociological, literary and so on, and of course, actual languages, different languages, all jostled together, since my protagonist, who’s a simultaneous interpreter, is always in different countries. Discourse became my subject matter. So discovery is one meaning of “experimental,” and this would be, to answer your earlier question, my “utterly other discourse,” where the actual language is different from the language you and I are using now, or that I find in other books. The second meaning is to see how far I can go with language, with vocabulary and syntax, and this is much more conscious. In “Between,” for example, a sentence can continue correctly, but by the end of it we are elsewhere in time and space. And I chose an imposed constraint, not using the verb “to be,” just as in “Amalgamemnon” I decided to use only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.
Q: Why did you write “Between” without the verb “to be”?
CBR: I wanted to get the constant sense of movement. She’s always on the go; she never knows where she wakes up. It’s amazing how once you don’t use the verb “to be” (and it’s extremely difficult not to), you’re forced to find another verb, and it’s usually an active verb. This gave a sense of constant movement. The other reason was the other sense of the verb “to be,” the existential state—she doesn’t know who she is, she is always translating from one language to another and never quite knows to which language she belongs, and in fact she belongs to three because she’s German, French, and married to an Englishman, or divorced from him, I forget the details. And of course, it’s written in English, so the basic convention is English. The other languages are used to show that she doesn’t know every language in the world. They block the text, rather like the ideograms in Pound. Things like “exit” in Polish, people don’t necessarily recognize it. So I’m playing with disorientation, the disorientation of travel, we’ve all had it. And the double-reading jokes, too, are familiar. If you read a word in your own language, it can come out like a pun: “lecheria,” in Spanish, for example, which means milk shop, but of course, she reads it as “lechery.” And that kind of disorientation is very personal to me. I was brought up in a trilingual family, and we were always making these kinds of jokes. This loss of identity through language was very important. I don’t know that the lack of the verb “to be” actually contributes to it, but that was the reason for it. It would be very indirect, but that was a conscious choice; I wasn’t groping for anything. Experiment, then, means two things. One is that you’re groping, you don’t quite know where you’re going, and you make discoveries about language. And the other is that you decide on a constraint, which produces a different style, the reader doesn’t know why but he feels it, the physical signifier is made more physical, the signified less important. A year after the publication of “Between” (1968), Perec brought out “La disparition,” written (much more drastically) entirely without the letter “e.” In French, this means far fewer feminine pronouns, and then only with the definite article “la” (“une” being outlawed), or abstractions in “-tion” (etc.), whereas all the masculine nouns have to be introduced by the indefinite article “un” (“le” being outlawed). This consequence alone, and there are others, such as rare words, foreign words, makes the language extraordinarily immediate, concrete, cliche free. Obviously we had similar concerns.
Q: But not using the verb “to be” in “Between” had a thematic purpose. Does using only the future tense in “Amalgamemnon” also have a thematic purpose?
CBR: If you like. But my original purpose was purely technical. Genette shows how language is so structured that you have to situate yourself in time, but not in space. You have to use tenses so that the narrator is either speaking after the event he is telling (that is the large majority), or before, with the future, the event hasn’t occurred yet. The future is theoretically impossible over a whole narrative; it occurs only in a mini-narrative such as a prophecy or a marching order. Even SF is written in the past and post-dated, so is the Apocalypse. This is because the reader needs to know that the story he is reading has happened or is happening. So that was a challenge, a purely technical one. But the more I explored narrative in the future tense the more I realized that we’re all living in the future. I don’t mean an actual event that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of speculation like, “Tomorrow the Prime Minister will meet the President of . . . and they will probably discuss . . .” By the time they’ve met and discussed it, it’s gone, and they’re speculating about something else, when will the summit be, and so on. We’re always living in this kind of future so that when a thing happens, it’s always a big letdown, not to mention THE future of the death of the planet, which is hovering over all of us. This is something new that I wanted to explore, the sort of predictability of discourse in private situations. Even more so since sociologists and psychologist have analyzed it, and we all understand each other’s hidden motives. This is something which has taken surprise and wonder out of living. So, the original technical motive acquires a thematic “motivation” (in the Genette sense). Not the other way around.
Q: Each novel, since your first, seems to have more humor and vitality. There is a joyful tone that comes through each novel. Part of the tone is due to the language and its playfulness. Do you work intentionally to communicate that joy?
CBR: Yes, I am aware of it. Obviously, like everyone, I’ve known deep unhappiness, but I think I’m a very balanced person. Perhaps balance is the wrong word. It sounds as though I never lose my temper, but that’s not true, I’m very impatient. Serene is perhaps what I mean. And humor is one of the ways to achieve that serenity and the bubbling result of it. Almost out of disillusion, if you like, that you don’t expect anything else. It gives me, at any rate, a tremendous . . . how shall I put it . . . self-reliance. Some people are so terrified of being alone they’d rather be with a bore. I love interesting people but I’d far rather be on my own than with a bore. To answer your question, the only moments in life when I’m 100 percent happy, almost deliriously happy, is when I’m writing, so that there is this feeling of creation of what you can do with words, this joy when you hit on something. Well, I know what Freud would say about all this, but that doesn’t worry me. I’m just very happy when I’m writing. I think this probably comes through in the joy of the text. “Out” was probably a sad text, and some people think that I’m actually a melancholy writer beneath the dazzling wit, and all that. This is the sort of thing that tends to be said by the reviewers.
Q: There is a sense of solitude in “Amalgamemnon” and “Xorandor.”
CBR: Yes, well you can’t hide what you are. I “am” alone, but I think I’ve become a far better writer through being alone. It’s amazing the exploration one can do when one is never interrupted. My kind of writing takes immense concentration and single-mindedness. I think this is also one of the difficulties most women writers experience if they have children and families and they’re always interrupted, then they get scattered. In that sense, my being alone has been a blessing. It probably means that I put a tremendous intensity into it because it’s all I’ve got, so that probably explains this feeling of joy. It means, of course, that I lead a very selfish life, too. I never have to think about feeding a man, and if I want to work until five in the morning, I work until five in the morning. I mean, I live “only” for myself. There are always students who need help, and friends, but basically, I don’t have this constant pull that most women have. But after all, artists are selfish people. If you really want to give yourself 100 percent to your art, then it’s better to be alone. Most male writers have found this out. They’ve used their women very badly, or just as slaves to bring them cups of tea or do their retyping.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the redundancy in “Amalgamemnon”?
CBR: Socially, being redundant means that you’re out of a job. This is in England, I don’t know if it has the same meaning in America. But in information theory, redundancy means that something is marked over and over again. For instance, some languages are more redundant than others. French is more redundant then English. If you take a French sentence like “Les petites filles sont jolies,” you’ve got the plural marked in five times. In “the little girls are pretty,” it is marked only twice. The feminine is marked three times in the French sentence and only once (lexically) in the English. Redundancy here means that an element is said many times in case of noise or disturbance. In that particular opening of “Amalgamemnon” the first meaning of “And soon I shall be quite redundant at last despite of myself” is the social meaning, but when I come to “like you after queue,” I play with the two meanings. Because of course the letter “u” coming after “q” is redundant, since it always comes after “q.” Its information content is zero. It is merely a marking of the “q.”
Q: How would you say the idea of redundancy is carried through thematically in “Amalgamemnon”?
CBR: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, because originally it didn’t start like that at all. I forget how it did start, it was just this use of the future, this Cassandra theme, and this predictability, and by predictability, of course, I mean redundancy. The social meaning didn’t come until later. What concerned me was this predictability of the news. Politically, if somebody is interviewed about something, let’s say the leader of the Communist party, you know just how he’s going to answer, same with other parties. Everyone’s playing his role. That’s what I wanted to explore, this predictability. The Cassandra theme in the novel refers not only to Cassandra in the Greek myth, where she is prophesying the end of Troy, and nobody believes her. That’s one side of prophesying. But prophesying can also come from this predictability that is just so obvious that you wonder why nobody sees it. For forty years the economist have been telling us, “Oh no, there couldn’t possibly be another stock market crash like 1929.” Well maybe, technically, the crash of 1987 wasn’t like 1929, but I’d been waiting for it, and I know nothing about finance. So this is what I was trying to explore, why it is we are led by people who can’t even predict what it’s their job to predict. I was trying to explore on all sorts of levels—political, psychological, metaphysical, and so on. And then precisely to make things easier, because originally it was quite a difficult text, and since I’m accused of being difficult, I made a conscious effort to motivate this, as the theoreticians would say, to place this Cassandra creature in some sort of context, and I hit on this idea of making her a redundant professor, and it fit in very well since she’s reading Herodotus. In other words, I gave a realistic framework to this, and that was perfectly conscious. I simply gave a realistic motivation to all her inventions. She’s got nothing else to do now since she’s redundant. It was like a sop, to help people understand, and naturally all the reviewers picked on that and said the novel was about a redundant woman professor!
Q: Your work, for many readers, is extremely demanding. Although novels like “Amalgamemnon” provide realistic details as a frame for the abstract elements, it’s often difficult to separate them. In fact, the text seems quite porous as the abstract and realistic commingle. One must read in a new way, so to speak.
CBR: I don’t apologize for that at all. One of my aims in writing the way I do is to teach people to read. They have forgotten how to read. I want what Barthes calls the writerly text as opposed to the readerly text—the readerly text is the consumer product, which can be flicked through. I’m not against that—to read on the train or in the bath. But where is the pleasure of reading if, in fact, you’re just going to skip through description? The very word “redundancy” comes back here because, as you know, structuralists did a lot of work on this—what is the description, what is the effect of the real, how is the effect of the real provoked, and so on. There is a vast amount of redundancy in the realistic novel which the reader skips. That was the point, swelling the detail to fantasy pitch, the fetish object. But today people get that from other media and read just for the plot, for the event, and they don’t really want to know what the writer is doing. I think this is a tremendous loss. So what Barthes calls the writerly text is the text which the reader is writing with the writer—I want to share my writing with the reader. Of course, that means the reader has to wake up and see what I’m doing. All the writers of the postmodern movement are doing this; I’m not the only one. Many people say that my novels are difficult; indeed, a lot of people complain about it, but when my fans say that, it’s a compliment. They go back and see that I’ve done this, or that. They say my books are slow reading, and consider this a pleasure. If I achieve that, then I am very pleased.
Q: “Xorandor” is somewhat easier but still requires a great deal of attention to every word.
CBR: Yes, but that book is a much more “realistic” novel. SF always is realistically anchored. I was very pleased with Ellen’s paper on it which treats it still as a self-reflexive experimental novel, because a lot of people thought that Brooke-Rose was having a rest and writing “just” science fiction.
Q: Your two most recent works, “Amalgamemnon” and “Xorandor,” seem, in many ways, more readable than some of the earlier works—also innovative, but more accessible. Are you doing this intentionally?
CBR: Probably, yes. It’s a little exasperating to be told all the time that one is difficult and unreadable, but also don’t forget that my path had to go through “Thru,” which is a very special sort of unreadable book. I had to write it because—there I was teaching narratology and being a writer. The contradiction, the tension, was such that I had to write “Thru,” which is a novel about the theory of the novel. It’s the most self-reflexive novel that it’s possible to write. It’s a text about intertextuality, a fiction about fictionality. But it is very difficult and I knew that I would be rapped on the knuckles. Still, I needed to write it, I needed to send up the structuralist jargon, also to use it as poetry, to use the very jargon on narratology as metaphor, in a way, to deconstruct it. It’s a very Derridean book. In fact, all the things it spelled downwards in the beginning, announcing certain themes acrostically, are straight out of Derrida. I was influenced by Derrida at the time, but I didn’t want to do just a deconstruction of realism. . . . Yes, that really is a very difficult novel. It was almost written tongue-in-check for a few narratologist friends. I never thought it would be accepted. It was something I had to do. My publisher loved it; at least my editor loved it, the publisher was perhaps not quite so pleased, and of course, it didn’t sell. And after that I did realize that I had probably, career-wise as they say, done myself a lot of harm because I was really dismissed as completely potty, doing surrealistic tricks and typography, and so on. It’s written for people who understand narratology and the crisis of representation. If you like, it’s a little bit as though I wrote a book entirely on engineering that only engineers could understand.
Q: However, many readers, particularly American readers, know narratology in fairly superficial ways, and they probably could follow much of “Thru”—more than you might think.
CBR: That’s good, because I had so accepted the fact that people found it unreadable that, I suppose, with “Amalgamemnon” I really did make a big effort. There were many versions of that. It took nearly nine years to get it right, although I did produce a critical book as well. It took me so long to get it right, partly because of this question of tone, because the future tense can sound very portentous, and I didn’t want that, but also because I wanted it to be readable, and the first versions were not. They were kind of thick and dense. So yes, there has been a conscious effort. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s also come naturally. I’m more at ease, and I’m happier in my writing, as you pointed out yourself. Perhaps I communicate better and have simply learned my trade. It’s taken me a long time! But it’s true that in “Xorandor” I went back to telling a story, though I still had to do it in this way, with the kids quarreling about how to tell it themselves. Yes, I quite agree. The two novels I have in my head that are to follow will probably be easier to read. But I still think that people should take pleasure in reading, that it is up to the writer to write in such a way as to direct the attention of the reader to the richness of the possibilities of language. Because otherwise we’re just going to lose language, this sloppy, almost un-English English that everyone is talking. People are just not aware of the solidity of their language. It’s sliding away. Of course, something always comes to replace it, but I still think that unless we do something the whole reading and writing capacity is going to just disappear. Do what? Well, all one solitary writer can do is to fight against this consumer-product attitude, to make people enjoy working with you.
Q: Then can we assume that we do not need to worry that you’re moving towards realism?
CBR: Were you worrying? Well, I might be, you know. I have nothing against realism. Why not? I think I say somewhere in “A Rhetoric of the Unreal” that realism may come back, but in a new form, refreshed by all this. We already have magic realism and hyper-realism after all. Fantastic realism. The real made unreal and vice versa. Sometimes there is a period of tremendous experiment, and then somehow the old thing comes back again, renewed by all the experimenting that’s been going on. That may be the only useful purpose of such an experiment, I just don’t know. But that doesn’t concern me too much. I also think that the way “experiment” is set against “realism,” the way I and others are said to be working against the “realistic” novel, is a great oversimplification. Even the most experimental, most postmodern writer is still basically realistic. They may not be “imitating” reality, in the sense of reproducing a familiar situation, but ultimately they’re representing something. There’s always a representative function simply because language is representative. There have been very naive attitudes towards representation, and we’ve all become much more self-conscious about it, but I don’t think we can actually get out of representation.