Well, this is a rather painfully depressing read.
Life, End of was Christine Brooke-Rose’s final novel, one written in her eighties about the pains, horrors and inevitability of ageing. It’s not really about death per se, more about physical decline, about mental decline, about separation from ones friends, colleagues and prior life, about the emptiness of retirement, about the loss of independence and the separate loss, even more tragically, of ones own body.
Christine Brooke-Rose (for those who haven’t heard of her) was a British post-modern novelist and literary critic writing from the mid-1950s until Life, End of, in 2006. She won lots of awards early in her career and was a significant figure of literary experimentalism just before B. S. Johnson*, yet Life, End of, her final work, is published only in a flimsy and quite-expensive copy by a small, independent publisher. Now, don’t misinterpret me here, I’m not sneering at the literary publisher, I’m sneering at the British literary establishment that allowed someone who once possessed such a high level of gravitas and importance to become sidelined as little more than a novel (as in rare) experimentalist curiosity. This, in my opinion, is unfair. (At least her importance is still recognised somewhere is the more balanced/realistic view.)
Life, End of is an autobiographical novel about being over eighty. About each part of your body gently becoming harder to control. It is about illness and disability, about intellect and about friendship, about self-absorption and about loneliness. It is about living alone and suddenly becoming unable to get upstairs, about choosing which objects from the now-unreachable rooms you want moved close to hand. It is about the shame in needing to use a zimmer frame and the embarrassed relief at the physical ease that results when offered, instead, a wheelchair. It’s also about the construction of fiction, about the use of narrative voice and perspective and how this changed during the course of Brooke-Rose’s career. It’s about her comparing herself to friends who are slightly older, or slightly younger, than she is, working out in which ways she’s ageing better than them and in which ways they have the upper hand on her.
Brooke-Rose’s narrator (who, she writes in detail, is both not her and very fucking obviously, sometimes, no one but her) is physically unable to stand upright in order to cook, or to wash. There are so many activities she enjoyed that are cut off from her, and many are lost over the course of the novel, the time-scale of which is difficult to place. (Perhaps about six months, maybe nine, from a Spring or Summer through to the next Winter, I think.) Brooke-Rose the narrator starts discussing the writing that she has been doing about a third of the way through the text. Obviously, as the writing she is discussing is the four or five chapters the reader has already read, the reader is aware that she is writing. But once this becomes discussed in the text, and it becomes clear that the ability to write and read and concentrate are no longer things that she can rely on, this becomes a severe note of tragedy within the novel. Brooke-Rose has few things left to her in her life that give her pleasure. She enumerates these, at one point, as “reading, writing, independence”. Life, End of is, alas, a document charting the slow dissolution of each of these.
One doesn’t feel like Brooke-Rose has written here everything she had to write, or perhaps even everything she wanted to write, but she has written everything that she, physically, could. Over the last few chapters she describes the slow loss of her sight, the ever-more-difficult ability to hold a pen and to type at the speed she once could. She is losing, finally, her independence, and her reading, but not before she loses the ability to write. At least, that is the case within the novel, though one can’t help feel that this was, perhaps, the way she would have liked to have seen herself, writing until the very end. But, outside of the novel, she didn’t: she lived for another six years after the publication of her final book.
How is a reader expected to respond to this? And this is a fair question to ask, because Life, End of is incredibly concerned with methods of narrative construction, with responses to fiction both from critics and from general readers. I read the book as a tragic evocation of the reality of the end of life, of the physical pains that rot the body from the inside out until it is an abandoned shell. I read it as a sad and tragic exploration of one intelligent and talented woman’s decline into the helplessness and dependence of old age. It is about a “getting worse”, not about a decline from health to illness, just a slow indication that the only way ones health can ultimately go is worse.
It is a sobering and, in some places, depressing text. But it is also one that makes clear that the joys within life should be enjoyed, because they will not be joyful forever. Brooke-Rose doesn’t look on her life with regret; she does at one point lament her childlessness, but then counters it with criticisms of her failed marriages and the pleasure she has always taken from friendships. It isn’t a bleak novel, necessarily, but it is certainly open and deeply engaged with the ideas of what happens to the body in the years before death. Brooke-Rose is there, alive, attentive, intelligent and sharp, but she is struggling to get her thoughts onto paper not because the thoughts are lacking, but because the pressure on her neck and her fingers and her back when using a pen/pencil/keyboard are becoming overwhelming.
Overwhelming, actually, is a good word to describe the novel. One is overwhelmed by the narrator’s frailty, the dichotomy between her physical fragility and the energy and wit with which she is able to express herself and her ideas. It is tragic, I suppose, but it is life. It is life’s end, more accurately, and life’s end will be a pleasure for no one.
Losing the things that makes one happy will always be unpleasant, that, I suppose, is Brooke-Rose’s moral, and (alas) something that will inevitably happen to each of us in some way at some point in our lives.
A moving and serious novel about something lots of people close their eyes to and deny. Though it is in places quite droll, lots of word play, a few icy comments about the outside world. It’s not bleak, to reiterate, it’s just honest.Absolutely my kind of thing.
* Secret hero of these