Weaving the web of words

Michele Roberts learns to love a gnomic French guru
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The Independent Culture
Rootprints: memory and life-writing by Helene Cixous, Routledge, pounds 12.99

Who is Helene Cixous? She's perhaps best known to students of literature, who may be asked to decode her philosophical and poetic brand of criticism. Part of the generation that also produced Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and others involved in the establishment of ecriture feminine in France, Cixous has issued a stream of texts, many of which - such as The Laugh of the Medusa - have become classics. She's also written plays and novels, few of which are known here. Our view is skewed by the way she has been taken up in the universities rather than the bookshops.

On the evidence of this autobiographical volume, we need to see her as professor and intellectual, certainly, but also as dreamer, political activist, child, mother, colleague, poet, scribbler in notebooks, family chronicler and memoirist. Cixous demonstrates her thesis that there is no simple, single "I"; there's that everyday self who signs cheques and income-tax forms, and then there are all the others. Faced with this plenitude of selves, Cixous doesn't offer us a conventional autobiography. This collection of pieces includes lengthy interviews between Cixous and her colleague Mireille Calle-Gruber, hommages from such fashionable luminaries as Jacques Derrida, an illustrated essay on family history, an enormous bibliography, copious notes and an afterword by the translator.

It has to be said that many of Cixous' texts defy the reader to find her an easy writer. She speaks an arcane version of the language of theory, a post-Freudian dialect rich in puns and free associations. Faced with one of her baffling word-webs, you can feel tempted to snort with scorn and despair, throw the book across the room, and rush out for a quick fix of a more emollient author.

I think you have to give Cixous' prose plenty of time; then it detonates in your brain. Also, it really helps to imagine the woman speaking to you. I remember once sharing an art history platform with Cixous: her text on a painting by Rembrandt, which she had circulated in advance, seemed imcomprehensible. Yet the moment she began talking, her words on paper sprang to life. She does put the body back into writing; no mean feat, given that it's a messy, chaotic, desiring body.

If you just dip into this book, you do fetch up against some pretty bizarre items. We Brits may not approve of literary conversations that prove how subtly brilliant we are. On the other hand, we French don't assume that "intellectual" is an insult. If you learn philosophy as part of your GCSEs, then you're less fazed by a woman who wants to deconstruct everything you hold dear: the fixed implications of femininity and masculinity, for a start.

Cixous is like Virginia Woolf: seeing that fin passing by in the distant outer deeps, she wants to haul in her net. It's never easy to translate the cries, grunts and pictures of that deep-sea world; at least she tries. Perhaps this makes her a writer's writer; I'd hope this meant she was a reader's writer, too. If you persevere, she gives you a shattering sense of how, under conventional language, there rages something else altogether, which we too could discover if we cherished doubt and uncertainty.

The most accessible and beautiful piece in the volume is Cixous' meditation on her own past, via memories and photographs in her family album. How moving to see the snaps of her Jewish ancestors, so soon to be obliterated, and to hear her recite their names, remember their gestures. The book is well worth buying for this lovely memoir alone, written as a narrative of grace, questioning and loss.