Desperately seeking Brigid Brophy

Ce qui m’etonnait c’etait qu’it was my French that disintegrated first. In Transit (1970)

Finding Brigid Brophy books is near impossible. Bookstores and second-handers won’t have them. Libraries may or may not have a single copy of each of her titles, and under a lock somewhere, requiring the placing of a special request and in-library usage. You friends won’t have BB. Your online contacts won’t even have heard of her. But you’ll keep finding the odd reference to her work in some of the coolest written pieces you’ve ever read. You’ll also find out that she and Iris Murdoch had an affair, and maintained a very close friendship. When BB’s husband, an art-historian and a former head of the National Gallery in London, died a few years back, you’ll have read in the papers what kind of ‘unconventional’ their unconventional marriage was.

I spent the afternoon searching through the databases for any writing on BB, and discovered that the last special issue of a lit journal on the topic of “BB-unfairly, outrageously forgotten! Let’s all get our act together!” was in the mid-1990s. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 n.3 (Fall 1995) was an issue dedicated to BB and has a number of goodies. London Review of Books online archives will have some of BB’s reviews as well as the essays by other people on BB. Nota bene John Bayley’s (a.k.a. Mr Iris Murdoch) review of Baroque ‘n’ Roll (1987) under the title ‘In Praise of Brigid Brophy’:

We read therefore we are. The idea is suggested to me by Brigid Brophy’s essays, which constitute one of the strongest proofs of personal identity I have ever come across. If a real person is not here, where is a person to be found? She writes therefore she is, and to receive such an impression, so clearly, is very uncommon indeed. […] With their amiable curlicue pun for a title, the linked essays on baroque which conclude her book are as fascinating as they are informed, and every sentence creates the author, on the one hand, while illuminating the spirit of baroque, on the other. The combination is rare, in every sense, and reveals what all its most devoted clients know by instinct: that art is both communal and personal; that it tells us we are individuals at the same time that it transcends individuality.

In my search I also came across a rare lengthy interview, one of the few that BB left behind: in Contemporary Literature Vol. 17, n2 (Spring 1976), conducted by Leslie Dock.

And that is it. For anything else, you will have to engage private investigators.

But it will be worth it. I am about to send a search party for these works: In Transit (in which the narrator lingers at the airport and misses flights while struggling to determine whether they’re female or male), Baroque n Roll (for baroque, obviously, but also for the personal essays, one of which relates how the MS affected her self-understanding), Mozart the Dramatist (I think I tried reading this ages ago, and can’t remember why it didn’t take; possibly I was a grad student clinched between several other mandatory reads), the other couple of works in which she uses the Don Giovanni plot to enhance or complicate the narration. First and most of all, however: The King of a Rainy Country.

I wish I could do lengthy summary of Patricia Juliana Smith article ‘Desperately seeking Susan[na]: closeted quests and Mozartean gender bending in Brigid Brophy’s ‘The King of a Rainy Country from the above mentioned issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. The book starts with a seemingly regular hetero pair who are living together but keep slipping out of their prescribed normal sexualities. The two leave the city and head to Venice to follow an old finishing-school crush of Susan’s (Cynthia, who is now an actor of some renown) where they also meet Cynthia’s companion, the opera star Helena Buchan. The plot from Le nozze di Figaro seizes all the characters, and Susan takes off with Helena (the Countess) to Padova. After Susan declines the invitation to follow the soprano on her travels, the women part but remain forever tied in other ways. (The lad decides he’s into Cynthia and takes over that line of admiration from Susan, therefore becoming a well-functioning lesbian himself.) Says Smith:

…I would argue that with the critical hindsight of nearly four decades we can readily perceive The King of a Rainy Country as an example of […] a metafiction that tries on and discards a variety of conventional generic plots which, because of their deeply ingrained heterosexual narrative ideologies, offer no viable solutions or means of closure to the protagonists. Ultimately, Brophy indicates, when all other plots fail, there is always opera. And opera, not coincidentally, has long been one of the few “respectable” art forms in which women en travesti can switch their gender and make love to other women with impunity.