A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for the Spectator Books blog about how one ought – or, indeed, ought not – to arrange one’s bookshelves. I revealed the scintillating news that many of my books are arranged as though they are at a huge literary party: I think of which characters might get on with characters in other books and put them next to each other. So, for instance, Old Filth by Jane Gardam is next to Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald because I think that Eddie Feathers (a.k.a. Filth) would get on well with Richard from Offshore. On Offshore’s other side is Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent – while Lady Slane might not entirely approve of Offshore’s Nenna, I feel sure that she’d sympathise with her, as they both defy their family in choosing where to live, be that in a small house in Hampstead or on a rickety boat on Battersea Reach. Knowing what a bore it can be to get stuck with someone and unable to shake them off for hours at a party, I shuffle the books around now and again. I’m sure that Mrs Dalloway would approve.
Given this somewhat eccentric means of arrangement, which would, no doubt, be the bane of any librarian’s well-ordered system, I was delighted to read Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose, a novel about just this sort of literary party.
Thousands of characters from literature converge upon the San Francisco Hilton to pray for their continued survival in the minds of readers. Everyone is here – from Odysseus to David Copperfield, Emma Woodhouse to Emma Bovary, Mrs Dalloway to Gibreel Farishta (who causes no end of trouble). How thrilling to see them all meet one another, form friendships and enjoy each other’s company. On a group excursion, for instance, here are some of the encounters that take place:
What a strange country America is, says Becky Sharp to her neighbour Friday, who grins and says island, very big.
Lazarillo, Oliver Twist, Gavroche, Mowgli, Janek Kowalksi and Huck Finn are scrambling up and down the rocks, having hilarious and noisy fun.
Lotte looks as ever for Goethe but finds herself instead with a Dublin Jew called Leopold Bloom, who talks a great deal but of things quite beyond her ken, except when he describes the preparation and eating of fried kidneys. Ugh!
It’s too brilliant!
Many might be put off by the huge knowledge of literature that Brooke-Rose assumes of her reader. I doubt whether even the most erudite of literary professors would recognise absolutely every character mentioned in Textermination. Worry not, for Brooke-Rose gives us a character – Kelly, a helper at the convention – who shares our neurosis:
She barely has time to glance at the cards, and to her horror she doesn’t recognise every name … Who was Charlotte Kestner, for instance, out of Thomas Mann? Who was the handsome young Indian labelled Aziz? Or a splendid Arab king of Granada labelled Aben-Hamet, or even Philip II out of she didn’t see who? Those at least she should have known. She feels ashamed and rattled. Gaps, so many gaps in her reading, she’ll never catch up.
‘So many gaps….’ This worry of never managing to catch up is the reader’s perennial complaint. It is only made worse by the fact that the more you read, the more you discover there is still to read. The huge crowds at this convention at the San Francisco Hilton suggest the impossibility of being able to read everything – it’s too overwhelming, you will never catch up.
Brooke-Rose matches our complaint with the complaint of the characters: we worry about not reading enough, and they angst over not being read enough. We might worry about not being able to remember quite what happens in a book, or which books to give to the charity shop when we run out of space on our shelves, but they worry about how long they’ll manage to stay on those shelves – how long before they get thrown out, or a publisher sentences them to going out-of-print. Now I’ve read Textermination, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get rid of a novel again. (Although I’ve never been particularly good at that.)
It stands to reason that as the characters are all in books and attending a literary convention, they might want to discuss this common ground, not just the ‘preparation and eating of fried kidneys’. We see some of them in a café discussing ‘I-narrators’. Henry James’s Strether accuses the narrator of The Aspern Papers of being ‘an unmitigated scoundrel’ and then, on being accused of being a third-person narrator, gives a nice one-liner about James Wood’s free indirect speech:
I believe it comes to the same thing you know, says Strether, it is my viewpoint throughout.
At the end of this meeting, rather ominously, ‘Humbert, Humbert, who hasn’t said a word, takes Maisie by the hand.’
As you might suspect, the convention does not run smoothly, and there are various challenges to it which the fictional characters struggle to overcome. One takes the form of an invasion by screen characters, leading to a massive fight between characters from written narrative fiction and those from film and television. Dante’s Virgil tells Jude (the Obscure) and Dorothea that it’s ‘nothing compared to the Inferno’. Still, the convention must resort to tear gas in order to end the commotion. Then they begin to debate. JR from Dallas says:
Serials come off the air and sometimes return. But more often they do not. Dallas, for instance, which ran for two decades or more, has been axed. And then we’re deader in the short public memory than anyone in a book.
It is a comical and dramatic way of staging a good question: which characters are more real – those on television or those in a book? It is just one of many pert questions about literature and the value of it that Brooke-Rose asks, masked in her riotously imaginative set-up. You can perhaps imagine the confusion when film adaptations of characters meet their literary originals.
Textermination reminded me of the reader’s responsibility to read widely and to read well. Brooke-Rose conjures a great deal of pathos for her characters, all neurotically shuffling around the Hilton praying for their survival. Only we – the readers – can grant this to them. We think, therefore they are. ‘So many gaps’, thinks the reader, but this book should encourage us to keep on trying to fill those gaps, to continue to explore all these brilliant books, to not be cowed but inspired by the wealth of literature that lies ahead of us. Textermination serves both as a welcome reminder of some of our favourites and a tantalising introduction to the literary treasures that we’ve yet to read.
In adopting all these characters from other novels, Brooke-Rose deliberately draws attention to herself as a reader as well as a writer. We should be inspired by her example and use our own readerly powers to keep the characters alive. As well as overcoming all the obstacles and challenges which the convention comes up against – from terrorist attack to blazing inferno – the characters have all survived their authors. Sadly, Christine Brooke-Rose passed away last year, making her the second author (at least) that most of these characters have outlived. Perhaps they are kind enough to pass a little of their immortality on to their writers. Certainly the characters in Textermination conjure a woman of brilliant intelligence, with a wonderfully mischievous imagination, who was also a voracious reader. Inspiration for us all.