25 MARCH 2006, Page 29

Bright light at the end of the tunnel

Lee Langley

LIFE, END OF by Christine Brooke-Rose Carcanet, £12.95, pp. 119, ISBN 1857548469 ✆ £10.36 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 THE CHRISTINE BROOKE-ROSE OMNIBUS: FOUR NOVELS Carcanet, £18.95, pp. 742, ISBN 1857548841 ✆ £15.16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Christine Brooke-Rose is not an easy read. She is a sublime rollercoaster: hold on and hurtle with her — the ride will be exhilarating. She is dark, despairing, but her bleakness is Beckettian, the laughs never far away.

Now 83, she lives in France, near Avignon. Born in Geneva (British father), she has written 12 novels (four of which are collected in the Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus), worked as a critic and academic, teaching English language and literature in Paris, been claimed by the French as a nouveauromancier, a membership she rejects like all other memberships. Perhaps her staunch stand-alone path has led to her status as both eminent and little known. Her latest novel is an elegant disquisition on life and what follows: ‘Montaigne says life’s purpose is to teach us to die. However, the standard of teaching is now so low that the task is getting tougher and tougher...’ Her narrator, like the author, loves puns, word-play; she rages against grammatical decline and the dying of the light; she broods on the solar system, the nervous system, ‘the cardio-vasco de gamma network’, history, herstory, the egotism of ex-husbands. She examines the precariousness of friendship and the gradual destruction of her own body.

She shrugs off pain, coming to terms with new physical impossibilities and the relinquishing of a lifetime’s independence. She is aware that inward-turning is now regarded as unhealthy and weak-minded, but she sees it differently: ‘That withdrawal is the last tiny freedom, the last small piece of autonomy.’ When memory falters she wonders, ‘Can a black hole become an ivory tower?’ Symptoms of destruction are gaily described, legs that burn like fiery bushes, lack of balance, frailty dismissed as mere ‘diswalking and disstanding’. Polyneuritis is less threatening than ‘Vasco the Harmer’; on a hesitant day, ‘Vasco the Qualmer’.

Life, End Of follows the life and inner thoughts of this gallant, eighty-something narrator in her rambling house near Avignon, her flesh heir to daily worsening ills as she clashes with doctors, bullies the physiotherapist, resists Vasco the Charmer, and sees friends, those who fall into the category of True Friend (TF) welcomed with love and generosity. Alas, not all are TFs: the biggest problem of the old and disabled is Other People (OP). The local girl who cleans the house and looks after her, with a young husband who works in the grocer’s, are cherished TFs; the narrator’s ex-husband, a Polish poet, calling ostensibly to ask how she is (in reality to tell her how he is, and how celebrated he has become) very much OP. Again, slippery as an eel, our author was married for many years to a Polish poet and novelist. How tell the dancer from the dance? she recalls Yeats asking. Or the novelist from her story?

Brooke-Rose joined the WAAF as a young girl and worked at Bletchley Park, decoding German messages, an activity which she says helped her to become a novelist, making her aware of the viewpoint of the Other, of unmediated communication.

Her narrator, like the author, is in thrall to language; she homes in on words that catch her fancy or change their nature. Considering the Basques, she throws in a half-page that covers 40,000 years of history. An alchemist of words, in her hands cleverness is transmuted into poetry and passion.

The pleasures of Life, End Of are numerous and satisfying: she can spin from the profound to the frivolous in half a sentence, analysing, criticising and commenting on a thousand questions, moving and wonderfully funny. And how many challenging, elusive (and allusive) literary novels could along the way give the reader a useful recipe for blanquette de veau? All in 119 pages.

Lee Langley’s latest novel, A Conversation on the Quai Voltaire, is published next month by Chatto at £16.99.