Ann Quin - A member of a group of British avant-garde writers, Quin is one of the best kept secrets of British contemporary experimental writing: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father...."


 Ann Quin, Berg, Dalkey Archive Press, 2001. [1964.]

"A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father...."
So begins Ann Quin's first novel, which has been compared to the fiction of Samuel Beckett and Nathalie Sarraute. Against the backdrop of this gritty seaside town, an absurd and brutal plot develops involving three characters -- Alistair Berg, his father, and their mutual mistress. In his attempt to kill his father, Berg mutilates a ventriloquist's dummy, almost falls victim to his father's mistaken sexual advances, and is relentlessly taunted by a group of tramps. Disturbing and at times startlingly comic, Berg chronicles the interrelations among these three characters as they circle one another in an escalating spiral of violence.
A member of a group of British avant-garde writers that included B. S. Johnson and Eva Figes, Ann Quin is one of the best kept secrets of British contemporary experimental writing. She published four novels before her death at the age of 37.


I first came to read Ann Quin's mesmerising 'Berg' by accident in 2001. I was browsing a favourite bookshop in Brighton, looking for rare editions of Blaise Cendrars. When I asked the bookseller if he stocked anything by Cendrars he simply shook his head and held up a Calder edition of Quin's 'Berg'. "Have you ever read Ann Quin?" he asked me. "No, who's Ann Quin?" I answered.
I only had to read the first line to become hooked: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father." I took the book home with me that night, and by the end of the month I had read everything Ann Quin had written, which in those days was quite a difficult task as Calder editions were hard to find.
'Berg' (1964) is one of Quin's four novels; the others are 'Three' (1966), 'Passages' (1969) and 'Tripticks' (1972). I like all of them but I guess it's 'Berg' that has had the longest-lasting influence on me as a writer. 'Berg' is a sumptuous novel that cuts to the heart of things. It's a debut that still feels as modern as anything published today, and although it's clearly Quin's own paean to the Nouveau Roman novelists she loved and admired, it still manages to contain its own unique and quintessentially British voice that is both recognisable and hauntingly peculiar.
'Berg' is a wintry seaside novel that is Freudian, Oedipal and steeped in Greek tragedy, but also a heady mix of the postmodern, grotesque and the macabre, in which a ventriloquist's dummy is brutally mutilated and the British novel is subtly unravelled and put back together again amid an ethereal tale of loss and displacement.
I have often thought that the modern novel wastes far too much time crafting a reality it can never attain. Even the new wave of realist novels which cleverly mess around and turn inside out the same reality they desperately cling to often stall, and create nothing new as a result. 'Berg' simply eschews the superfluous dilly-dallying of our established humanistic tradition and cuts straight to place, movement and time, creating a mode of fiction that slices into its readers' psyche like a scalpel into the heart.
The prose of Berg is intense, off-key and sometimes odd, but also effortless and free of baggage. It takes the reader to places most novelists could only dream of – both quicker and with surgeon-like precision to boot. I truly feel that it's one of the great British novels, eerily depicting a seamier side of Brighton - Quin lived and died there, swimming out to sea and never coming back in 1973 - that can still be felt today, especially on cold, dark wintry nights, the sea crashing onto the pebbles just below the ageing esplanade.
'Berg' should be read by everyone, if only to give us a glimpse of what the contemporary British novel could be like. - Lee Rourke
Too little has been written about Brightonian novelist Ann Quin since her death in August 1973. Most of what has been has highlighted the striking opening sentence of her first novel, Berg, originally published by John Calder in 1964 and later reissued by Dalkey Archive Press:
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father …’
Robert Buckeye’s Re: Quin, also published by Dalkey and described as an "unabashedly personal and partisan critical biography" of "one of the best and most neglected" British "experimental" writers of the 1960s, breaks with convention by opening with a quote from contemporary author-artist Stewart Home about "The body of a dead princess" serving "as a metaphor for literature". Buckeye then moves onto a Malcolm X speech from 1964, using it to illustrate his point that radical times need radical culture, before placing Quin into a post-war avant-garde with William S. Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, B. S. Johnson and others.
Buckeye’s first chapter cites the basics of Quin’s life as the inspiration for her four novels, Berg, Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972). Quin was born in Brighton in March 1936, on the fringes of the working class and the petit bourgeoisie, and then abandoned by her father, raised by her mother and sent to a convent school. When she was 14, she fell in love with her half-brother, who died five years later; towards the end, she endured electro-shock treatment for mental health problems and had a breakdown. While in hospital, she sublet her flat to a tenant who didn’t pay the rent, whereupon the estate agent cleared it out and dumped all of her possessions, including two unpublished novels, before she drowned herself near Brighton’s Palace Pier, aged 36.
Dividing his study into themes rather than individual works, Buckeye describes Quin’s writing as a "rupture of middle class pieties" and a "catalog of sexual practices", reflecting a typically Sixties interest in psychoanalysis and sexology, but springing from her traumatic childhood. Buckeye’s biography is quite deterministic: "death was always near", he writes, in a life punctuated by silence, notably at an ICA reading where Quin wouldn’t say a word, which Alan Burns said was her usual approach, and then after her breakdown left her unable to speak for some time. The only constant, Buckeye emphasises, was writing.
Berg remains Quin’s best known novel, having been filmed as Killing Dad in 1989. Combining the influence of Virginia Woolf with the nouveau roman authors, particularly Nathalie Sarraute, Berg was her most plotted work, and the one which deviated the most from her own life. Quin was dissatisfied with Berg, believing it too conventional – a disappointment often felt by her post-war Modernist contemporaries about their own output. However, Berg remains most critically acclaimed for its imaginative take on the alienated male, lost within Brighton’s tawdry seaside-resort culture, and for its dark humour. Berg turns Freud’s Oedipus complex into high farce: Berg has a relationship with his father’s mistress, and, after disguising himself as a woman, is nearly raped by the patriarch. It's a narrative that Buckeye summarises as "surreal, always interior, associative, fragmentary", often leaving the reader to determine what is real, and what happens only in the protagonist’s mind. He is most interested in its ending, where Berg is asked to settle for a normal, middle class home life, and is as horrified by this as the deaths he witnesses throughout, but Buckeye writes relatively little on Berg, perhaps taking Quin’s assessment at face value.
Triangulated relationships were Quin’s major theme. This was stripped to its essentials in Three, which opens with the death of a young woman, known as "S". Leonard and Ruth, a middle-class couple, reflect on the time S spent at their summer house, and how they both became romantically attached to her, shifting between their bitter arguments and the diaries, tapes and films that S left. Buckeye devotes more time to Three, striking his most successful balance between biography and criticism: praising the way that Quin "turns the lamp away from S and onto those who question her", he shows how Quin used both the form and content of her writing to jolt her readers out of complacency, whether it be through the absurd twists of Berg or the subtle, sad, stream-of-consciousness of Three.
Buckeye gives most space to Passages, "the most personal of [Quin’s] works" and the one she considered "most important". Of her novels, Passages is the one which most rejects plot. Shifting from first to third person as it follows an unnamed woman searching for her lost brother on a Greek island, some of its fragments achieve real strength through their sparseness – the "Notebook of a Depressive" which includes "Making love coldly / clinically" and "wanting / demanding / reassurance", all but forces readers to interrogate their own behaviour – but Quin’s refusal of both the narrative punch of Berg and the sensitive characterisation of Three makes Passages less appealing to pursue to its end.
Buckeye writes well on Quin’s tactical use of elliptical writing, and how she developed her style, but less so on how successfully it is applied in each work. After his close reading of Passages, more is needed on Tripticks – "a savage assault on an America obsessed by commerce, advertising and media, a road novel from hell, written as if it is the frenzy of one last gasp" – and how far it returns to slightly more traditional structure, but it only gets a couple of pages during a discussion of Quin’s final days.
This points towards the main problem: Buckeye doesn’t have enough space to unpack the complex relationships between Quin’s life and work, leaning too far towards biography. What he provides is often intelligent and insightful, but 52 pages are simply too few, especially as Buckeye’s poetic approach means that, for example, three are devoted to ruminations on the figure of the traveller, where Quin is not mentioned. Buckeye laments the lack of attention paid to Quin before her death, and particularly that one of her few high-profile interviews, with The Guardian’s John Hall in April 1972, was so "nasty, patronizing and dismissive". This book is a welcome counterpoint, but should form a start rather than an end: Buckeye documents the struggles that she faced not just to write but also to be published, but with all of her novels back in print, Re: Quin signifies that the time for a more extensive critical reappraisal has arrived. - Juliet Jacques

Brighton, on the south coast and one hour by train from London, is the most raffish, louche and exciting of British seaside towns. Graham Greene’s technicolour thriller,Brighton Rock, is set there, Aubrey Beardsley was born and grew up there. Laurence Olivier lived there. Peter Ackroyd’s father lives there, as does my twenty-six-year-old daughter, educated at Sussex University nearby.
Ann Quin was born there in 1936, and swam out to sea there, in 1973, drowning herself in the process. She came from a working-class Celtic family, and published Berg, her first and most widely acclaimed novel, in 1964. Three more were to follow: Three (1966),Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972).
The English novel, as much as English theatre, had been languishing in self-satisfied gentility for quite some years, novels about adultery in Hampstead being to the taste of many writers as well as to readers. Novelists tended to have private incomes and a somewhat dilettante approach to both life and literature.
All this changed in the 1950s. John Wain published Hurry on Down in 1953, Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim in 1954, John Braine Room at the Top in 1957, Alan Sillitoe Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1958 and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner the following year, Stan Barstow A Kind of Loving in 1960. And in the theatre the Royal Court mounted John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 and, with Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer the following year.
Some of us, concerned about the novel as an art form (which the British had been rather good at in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), were not especially enamoured of this working class vernacular posing as social realism, insisting that the novel for the times (the 1950s, the 1960s) should, in effect, be manufactured by tape recorder, a verbal equivalent of cinema verite.
James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were long since dead, both in 1941 (the latter, like Quin, by drowning). Samuel Beckett was in Paris. Those of us growing up in the UK who were serious about new fiction tended to admire Angus Wilson, William Golding (The Lord of the Flies, 1954), the prolific Iris Murdoch (Under the Net, her first novel, 1954 also) and Doris Lessing.
The British literary establishment was much turned on, after the Second World War and Churchillian patriotism, by the irreverence and anti-intellectualism of the Angry Young Men. There was a smug rejoicing that Kingsley Amis should in Lucky Jim have a character refer to “beastly Mozart.”
To those of us resenting this parochialism, the publications of John Calder were a breath of fresh air. He introduced us to Beckett, Burroughs, Creeley, Duras, Claude Mauriac, Henry Miller, Pinget, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and the important Scottish novelist, Alexander Trocchi. We felt fiction mattered again. Calder, and his partner Marion Boyars, published only a few British novelists, and thus when Berg was published it was something to be read. Here was a working-class voice from England quite unlike any other, which had absorbed the theatrical influences of John Osborne and employed the technical advances of the nouveau roman. Berg, to use shorthand, is a Graham Greene thriller as if reworked by a somewhat romantic Burroughs.
Berg was decently received by reviewers in Britain and elsewhere, being published in the States, France and Germany. In 1965 Quin received the Harkness Fellowship, which took her to the USA for a year, and also a D. H. Lawrence fellowship. In the late 1960s, she spent further time in the States, which gave her material for her novel Tripticks. (As will be obvious, she was intrigued by the number three and its implications, not least in Berg.)
First sentences are—and I intend no tautology—fundamental to novels. The best first sentence of them all is surely that of Pride and Prejudice (though that of Moby-Dick isn’t bad): it exudes a confidence, style, narrative tone. I’ve always relished Joyce Carol Oates’s opening to Expensive People: “I was a child murderer,” with its double entendre. Likewise, though more Oedipal, the first sentence of Ann Quin’s Berg, which really tells you all you need to know about the book by way of plot: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . . .”
You will have to read the book to find out whether he succeeded. But Oedipal, Freudian too, the novel is. Edith is Aly Berg’s mother, and his father, Nathaniel—Nathy to his peripatetic mistress, Judith (Jocasta as Aly Berg become Greb sleeps with her)—deserted his wife and baby soon after the latter was born:
. . . such an absurd, fantastic idea: To take his father’s corpse back home to Edith—the trophy of his triumphant love for her! In a Greek play they’d have thought nothing of it, considered to have been a duty, the final act of what the gods expected from their chosen hero.
There are elements of Jacobean drama in the novel: in addition to what happens to Nathy Berg, his pet budgerigar suffers death (twice, it seems), Judith’s cat dies horribly and a crucial ventriloquist’s dummy is hideously mutilated. There are also the Eumenides in the form of a kind of chorus of old tramps in the out of season seaside resort, clearly Brighton although unnamed, where the action takes place.
Before becoming a writer, Quin aspired to work in the theatre. She was granted an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but had such nerves that she couldn’t go through with it. Berg mentions, en passant, the eighteenth-century English actor and playwright David Garrick, who has an entry in the current edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, as do all the British novelists I’ve mentioned above with the exception of Ann Quin. There is though a reference to James Quin (1693-1766): “He was the last of the old school of actors, which gave place to that of Garrick. Smollet introduces him in Humphrey Clinker.” As the English satirical magazine Private Eyemight say, “Are they by any chance related?”
Berg is short but you have to concentrate. The prose is intense, linguistically precise. The language and references are sophisticated, except in the quotes from the letters of the parents. Edith refers to having provided Aly with an education, and whether the point of view is his, an omniscient narrator’s or the author’s—and it changes constantly, kaleidoscopically—it deliberately fails to pin down an objective reality.
One of the most influential books in the British Isles in the 1960s was the Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, published in 1960 and reprinted as a Penguin paperback in 1962. It is hard not to believe that Quin had read it and been influenced by it, both as a person and as a writer. Put crudely, Laing argued that those who think themselves sane are mad, and those society deems to be mad are sane.
Although Ann Quin was educated at a convent, her characters, with the exception of Edith, do not have a religious belief, nor is there much “morality” about. Aly says: “But I don’t believe in God, and how boring heaven must be just looking at His face, wouldn’t hell be more fun?”
And this recalls Edith: “Oh my child, my child there’s nothing more beautiful nothing more wonderful than looking upon God’s face you will see. You will come to understand.”
Here autobiography intrudes. In 1965 I was writing a weekly pseudonymous column on books and authors for Scotland’s national newspaper, Scotsman. I had recently left my native Edinburgh to work for Secker & Warburg, another distinguished publishing house in London. I suggested to the literary editor, William Watson, later a successful novelist (under a pseudonym) in his own right, that I do a series of interviews with a species of writer that at the time wasn’t particularly recognised, although it certainly had been in the previous century: female authors. My ten chosen included Christine Brooke-Rose, Stevie Smith, the biographer Elizabeth Longford, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Mortimer, Brigid Brophy and Ann Quin.
I quoted Quin as saying “Form interests me, and the merging of content and form. I want to get away from the traditional form. . . . I write straight onto my typewriter, one thousand words an hour but half will in the end be cut out. When I write the first creating parts of my book I can go on for three hours without a stop. When revising I can work up to seven hours, with breaks.”
She survived on a pittance. “If I had more money I’d buy books and clothes and I’d have a nice place to live in. I’d like a tower, facing the sea. I’m never so happy as when by the sea. . . . I sleep a lot. Jeanne Moreau has said she sleeps a lot between love affairs. There’s a man through the wall there, in the next room, and he wakes me up in the morning vomiting, coughing and so on.” Echoes of Berg there, to say the least.
In 1973 the leading British “experimental” novelist (I put the adjective in quotes because, to me, experimental in the context implies unsuccessful) B. S. Johnson published a collection of short fictions, Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? It was prefaced with a wonderfully polemical and didactic introduction, arguing for a new seriousness and honesty in fiction. He concluded by listing the writers “who are writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter”: Samuel Beckett, John Berger, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Angela Carter, Eva Figes, Giles Gordon, Wilson Harris, Rayner Heppenstall, Robert Nye, Ann Quin, Penelope Shuttle, Alan Sillitoe (“for his last book only, Raw Material indeed”) and Stefan Themerson. How many of these writers are known at all in the States? How many of them are read a quarter of a century later in their native land?
Karl Miller, at the time the UK’s most influential literary editor and later a professor of English Literature, put together for Penguin Writing in England Today (1968). Essentially it eulogised fiction (nonfiction and poetry too) as a division of journalism, of deadening social realism. B. S. Johnson and I—who at the time were published by Hutchinson—easily persuaded our publisher Charles Clark to let us edit an anthology which would serve, almost, as an antidote to Miller’s. Horrifically, Bryan Johnson slit his wrists, Roman-fashion, and died in the bath (the same year Ann Quin also had a watery death) a few days before we were due to sign the contract.
I dedicated Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction (1975) to the memory of both Johnson and Quin. The anthology contained new and previously unpublished work by Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Elspeth Davie, Eva Figes, Giles Gordon, B. S. Johnson, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Nye, David Plante (American but resident in Britain), Ann Quin and Maggie Ross. Quin’s contribution was an extract from her unfinished novel, The Unmapped Country. Beyond the Words, which is now a collector’s item for the few who want to read it, was ferociously attacked when published, notably by Christopher Ricks and a very young but spluttering Martin Amis with a reputation still to make.
A final word. When I first read Ulysses and Four Quartets I found them thrilling but “difficult.” Now they yield up their meaning easily, but not I hope all their meaning. Similarly, when I first read Berg in 1964 I found it exciting, although somewhat hard to comprehend, like Pinter’s early plays when they were first performed. Reading Berg again in the new century, it seems straightforward and rather lyrical, almost traditional. - Giles Gordon

Ann Quin, TripticksDalkey Archive Press, 2002. [1972.]


As innovative and abrasive as the very best of William Burroughs, Ann Quin's Tripticks offers a scattered account of the narrator's flight across a surreal American landscape, pursued by his "No. 1 X-wife" and her new lover. This masterpiece of pre-punk aesthetics critiques the hypocrisy and consumerism of modern culture while spoofing the "typical" maladjusted family, which in this case includes a father who made his money in ballpoint pens and a mother whose life revolves around her overpampered, all-demanding poodle. Stylistically, this is Quin's most daring work, prefiguring the formal inventiveness of Kathy Acker.


Ann Quin, Three. Dalkey Archive Press, 2001. [1966.]

Three opens with the death of a young woman, identified only as S, possibly a suicide. Following her death, Ruth and Leonard -- a middle-aged British couple whose marriage has devolved into pithy and bitter conversations -- review the time S spent at their summer house.
In a lyrical prose style likened to that of such diverse writers as Virginia Woolf and William Burroughs, Ann Quin presents the enigmatic intricacies of the relationship between these three people by blending the conversations and flashbacks of Ruth and Leonard with the diary, audiotapes and movies S left behind.
A combination of laconic dialogue and poetic impressions, Three is an incisive exploration of the emotional and sexual undercurrents of British middle-class life., Three.

Ann Quin, PassagesDalkey Archive Press, 2003. [1969.]

A poetic book of voices, landscapes and the passing of time, Ann Quin's finely wrought novel reflects the multiple meanings of the very word "passages." Two characters move through the book -- a woman in search of her brother, and her lover (a masculine reflection of herself) in search of himself. The form of the novel, reflecting the schizophrenia of the characters, is split into two sections -- a narrative, and a diary annotated with those thoughts that provoked the entries.

A schizophrenic woman wanders beaches and hotels, delusions and detention camps, searching for her brother; her schizophrenic lover finds violent mythology as he searches his fantasies for himself. Both navigate poetic dreamscapes of obsession and orgiastic sadism as they traverse Europe by train, increasingly distant from each other as they near what they seek. The woman's fluid, impressionistic narrative contrasts schizophrenically with her lover's cryptic, annotated journal entries, but both describe the metamorphosis of mental illness and especially the passage of time. As with other antinovels emphasizing perception of mental states and passage of time over plot and linear narrative, this book uses carefully crafted imagery to stimulate the reader's subconscious. Given that this particular antinovel is also an exploration of the chaotic subconscious of two schizophrenics, its sensate sex-and-violence imagery becomes doubly significant: a stream of subconsciousness that describes waking dreams while feeling like one. It will interest fans of avant-garde fiction and students of the aesthetic side of mental illness alike. - Brendan Driscoll



Ann Quin’s Tripticks follows a man through cheap hotel rooms, encounters with ex-wives, numerous high-speed chases, fights with pencil tycoons, and many other surreal events. To call it stream of consciousness would be a disservice — Quin’s sentences are well constructed, acoustically balanced, and strangely efficient. The narrator often lapses into advertising lingo, and he fetishizes clothing and products in exhaustive lists. Released in the 70′s, the book’s structure (short sections that veer wildly in time and space) creates a kinetic, varied experience that stands apart from the British realism that followed.
I liked Tripticks enough that I bought Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg. It opens with the line, “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…” The story spools out from there. It’s a more controlled work than Tripticks, and has a comparatively small cast of characters. However, Quin’s skill with detail is evident, and the seaside town is clear and vivid. An excerpt: “Cafe lights tinselled round the windows, inside red bulbs were hearts cut out against a perspiring ceiling — a whale’s stomach about to expand, appeared to tremble as Berg entered.” A blurb from the Daily Telegraph refers to her “untamed talent,” but her talent isn’t the issue. In Tripticks you see the same sort of skill, just untethered — the concept of talent is, in both instances, irrelevant. - William VanDenBerg

For a time I was a regular presence in the slender Q-sections of my local bookstores. It was the first sentence of Ann Quin’s novel Berg that brought me there: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . .” I don’t remember where or why I read it, but I remember the ensuing search well. It lasted months. The bindings of those few Qs privileged enough to recur with any regularity—de Quincy, Queneau, Quindlen, Quinn—became familiar figures, an alliterative clique of book-backs attending to the baffling absence of any Ann Quin. I was patient, that alluring first sentence circling in my head till I knew every word, while I struggled to comprehend how a book with such a first sentence, such a seemingly iconic opening, could be so hard to find in New York City.
When I finally got my hands on a copy of Berg, Quin’s absence became a little more comprehensible—albeit much more unjustifiable—as I read the next two sentences:
Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room—dimensions rarely touched by the sun—Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dancehall opposite.
For this clearly went beyond the iconographic. This was the unpredictable churning of water, sentences uncurling their words like the jagged and fragmenting blocks of a misaligned Jacob’s ladder. I suppose I had assumed the first sentence of Berg was so strong that it needed to linger in the rest of the work, overtly implying not only the plot—which, to be fair, it does—but the tone, the rhythm, the type of sentence that could follow, like the “Once upon a time” of a fairytale. Instead, Quin’s first sentence arises only to be swallowed up in the brevity of a sharp fragment, a blip of an image that is nevertheless stylistically weighty enough to govern anything that could follow—one might expect a montage of shards. But the third sentence doesn’t follow the second. Instead it rakes this living, graceless prose over the thorny sprockets of a human presence. To read Quin, I soon learned, is to be perpetually engaged, or to be lost, a little like reading philosophy but demanding an almost opposite faculty of intelligence—to continually let go of what has been read, to let conflicting tenses and perspectives, styles and rhythms meld into the pothole texture of a raw experience, to become one with the paper-thin partition that divides Alistair’s boarding room from the room where his father sleeps: “a boat without sails, anchored to a rock, yet revolving outside its own circumference.” It’s a bumpy ride. And it doesn’t get any smoother in the novels that follow.
In Three, Ruth and Leon, middle-aged wife and husband, reckon with the aftermath of the recent suicide of their temporary boarder, a younger woman denoted only by the letter S. In the dialog-dense passages with which the novel opens, Quin has stripped the prose—not just of quotation marks and conventional paragraph breaks to differentiate speakers but, most unnervingly, all punctuation within each monad of speech:
The shadows of statues on the lawns stretched to the cliff edge. What shall we do Ruth it is our last day here fancy going out for a while? You’re so restless. Just thought you might like a walk even if only around the garden down to the swimming-pool say or—or by the sea whatever you feel like? How can you suggest that? But the dead can’t dominate like that besides she loved the sea you know that. Well I don’t why do you think I went through all the bother of getting the pool? I wanted it too love. Yes Leon to have your theatre in during the winter.
As in Leon’s ersatz theater—the couple’s empty swimming pool, where Leon, Ruth, and S perform pantomimes—Quin has staged her spectacle in a deserted playhouse. And just as the spectator of a pantomime must actively imagine the objects the mimes suggest, Quin’s reader must compensate for the lack of conventional cues in the prose. Whether Ruth and Leon speak staccato, run-on sentences, or mutter quiet lies and imprecations under cover of domestic dullness, depends largely on our own capacity to read punctuation into the dialogue. Through this absence of authorial intervention, Quin highlights the necessarily reciprocal nature of reading, and makes strange this process wherein depthless symbols assume the magisterial dimension of a theater. But even as she reminds us that reading is a relationship, Quin’s writing suggests dissatisfaction with this union, as though it could only be an infertile affair, a lasting type of quiet violence where power dynamics go unquestioned, where reader and writer remain unchanged, a marriage much like Ruth and Leon’s, as it appears reflected in the pages of S’s diary:
Narrow dimensions of theirs catch me up into an appalling lethargy, when anything would be welcome as a release. They swing each other against walls that bounce them back into themselves.
Between the monotonous monogamy of writer and reader, Quin introduces an adulterous third party, mirrored in the narrative by S’s presence. This intrusion, and the triangular relation it entails, reinstates the original tumultuous elements—insatiable lust, jealousy, uncertainty—that might have first spawned the monogamous romance, but now only overwhelm it. In the wake of S’s suicide, the emotional shrapnel cannot be reintegrated into Ruth and Leon’s life as a couple. Instead of adapting, they seek easy resolutions, scouring the records S left behind. In her journal and voice recordings, evidence more confounding than evincing, they encounter their own names, but curtailed and abstracted like hers: R and L—the right and left-hand side of some mystifying equation, like the strategies formulated in S’s recordings:
A plan is devised. For our amusement. With masks.
Situation
insoluble.
Three points A B and C on a rigid line. When
the points A and C being given B is chosen such that the sum
of distances
AB and BC is as short as possible.
Suggestion A walks past B and C. A might turn. Stop. Shrug.
Walk on. B and C watch. Perhaps follow A. Or separate. Pos-
sibly disappear together. Variations endless.
Three, like all of Quin’s works, is an insoluble situation. It doesn’t lend itself well to processes of easy digestion. Even this recurring preoccupation with the number three, interwoven into the narrative and textual construction of all four books, only superficially unites them. It is a structural model around which the author, like S, imagines and unfolds endless variations.
Another variation, maybe the most indigestible: Passages alternates between the perspectives of two unnamed passengers, lovers as incompatible as a pair of dreams, as they sweep through desolate Mediterranean towns and arid countryside. A woman in search of her brother records her experience in a fractured diary, shifting from first- to third-person, only to disappear entirely into splintered glimpses through her senses:
Dips of black, quarter whiteness. Patches of water along the coast. Rain walked designing its own shadow. Winds condensed on summits, the straight sides of mountains. The sea cut swift movements of clouds.
Chunks of text break abruptly, often opening disorienting impasses between sentences, sentences that might resume in the next paragraph, but might not:
A pool of light splashed on the marble. That part I entered, where I return. Again behind glass I saw
         what did I see, for when the scene reappears it merges with a dream, fallen back into slowly, connected yet not connected in parts.
In the alternating passages we find the notes of the other passenger, the first narrator’s lover and travel companion. His notes, situated in time and aphoristic in style, are only slightly less obscure than hers. But the reader’s relief to find firmer fictional ground is instantly shaken by marginal notes appearing to the left-hand side of the text:

These marginal notes only sometimes clearly relate to the right-hand column; more often they connect abstractly—poetic descriptions of paintings on Greek amphorae, Talmudic excerpts, fragments of the other traveller’s conversation. But before the reader can even begin to consider connecting the two columns, we must first choose which to read first, when to stop reading this column to take up that one, how to determine which is marginal, which primary. Clearly, nothing seems supplementary. Our attention must remain divided, and not merely between the two columns within his passages but between his passages and hers, as they weave together without melding, briefly touch in half-recognizable instants, to depart irrevocably along the sightlines of antithetical experiences, existences which, while entirely contingent upon one another, must remain forever asunder and split. As he surmises:
The problem is to discover whether I can live with this woman’s demons without forfeiting my own.
Though Passages is possessed by an impossible cohabitation, Quin’s delicate architecture does not collapse. But neither can it withstand reduction nor abbreviation. Like a house of cards, nothing can be removed, nothing excerpted. It’s not the passages that matter but the passages between them.
An almost as inscrutable passage divides Quin’s third from her fourth book. Tripticks, published between treatments of electroshock therapy and Quin’s suicide in 1973, could hardly differ more from the spacious sparseness of Passages. A darkly comic novel with a relatively direct satirical slant, Tripticks brims with orgiastic excess:
If you come filled with dreams it may happen that your dream changes about every 15 minutes. The most is yet to come. 3,000 miles of strawberry ice cream. Lips are frenchfries teasing cole slaw fingers. My belly a Golden Poppy and the Motto is I Have Yet To Find It.
Our narrator is a weak-kneed sort of antichrist, a rapist and murderer if he only had the guts. Hunted by his “No. 1 X-wife” and her “schoolboy gigolo,” he pursues a reckless, seemingly drug-affected, or at least severely psychotic path across an American landscape distorted to schizophrenic proportions. In between paranoiac fantasies and freak-outs, the narrator recalls incidents from his various lives with his three successive X-wives. Eventually, the narrator’s manic ramblings are sliced through the center by a long series of hysterical and brutally castigating letters from a long cast of past phantoms:
It’s always a relief to have not heard from you for a long time it means that there was no crisis and I will survive another week.
Love Mother
No responses from the narrator separate these letters. They fall one after the other, each one implicating our narrator more firmly in cage of undisputed villainy.
Seen at some distance you loom like a tower of onyx robed in slashed summer clouds. Peer closer and you become a full-lipped flower bitten by the sun, bleeding pollen. I think I’m going to have an operation that will blot out my memory.
Your X-wife
Amid these cavernous admonitions, one senses the author’s own exasperation, a lethal frustration with a skewed sense of authorial self. As a writer with three books behind her, Quin seems as eager as the No 1. X-wife to blot out the memory of her previous cohort. As much as literary tradition implements artistic confines, it’s Quin herself—the Quin responsible for Berg, Three, and Passages—against whom the author of Tripticks must escape in order to write freely. In order to evade imprisonment of artistic consistency, Quin not only flees stylistically, but turns to confront her first three novels with a mocking smile and menacing snarl, acknowledging, along with her narrator as he performs an abrupt U-turn to steer his car towards the incensed trio of castrating X-wives:
This is the sin of sins against an awkward power structure. The refusal really to take the situation seriously.
And this perhaps, as frayed as it is, is the common thread that most interlaces Quin’s wandering works and embraces her erratic patterns. As serious as so many of her passages are, every book escapes, one way or another, from the existential weightiness toward which it tends. Quin seems perfectly capable of delivering the literary achievement of the century. Like Alistair Berg, she is near enough to kill the symbolic father, to assume his lofted position in literary tradition. And yet, at the precipice of implementing her authorial omnipotence, of reducing her works to a recognizable achievement, a radically experimental opus that could be then by subsumed under a larger literary history, Quin, like Alistair, falters:
If I could only make things bow before the majesty of complete omnipotence, draw a halo around all desires. Why does power always escape as soon as it is touched?
Quin isn’t after the kind of power that can be touched. She seeks something subtler, a power that can be approached but never possessed, one ultimately destined to one of two failures: either Alistair is discovered before killing his father or he succeeds. In either case he loses everything he has gained. Success and failure are irrelevant to Quin. Her power, like Alistair’s, stems not from some Oedipal act, but from the deadly serious practice of child-like play:
Oh yes you were singing green in a golden age, dancing by the waters’ edge, under a mosaic sky; feather-crowned, grass-patterned thighs, and seven-leagued boots, petrified mud, magenta amazed.
Perhaps Ann Quin will never claim the presence she deserves in the Q-sections of our bookstores. Maybe she doesn’t need to. The subversive joy is there regardless, intermixed but never diluted in the monolithic violence that cannot overtake it:
Cells tighter than shells, you spinning into spirals, quick-silver, thrashing the water, making stars scatter. - Jesse Kohn

Lost Classics 7: Berg by Ann Quin...

CultureCritic |
The mid-century writer Ann Quin never convinced the old guard of British literature, despite this wonderfully surreal Oedipal revenge novel. Finding poetry in dreary Brighton, Berg deserves a wider readership, argues Simon Arthur... 

Born in Brighton in 1936, Ann Quin completed just four novels before tragically cutting her own life short at the age of 37. Some critics hailed the arrival of a bold new female voice in British fiction after the publication of Berg in 1964 and Quin was bestowed the DH Lawrence award in the same year, yet she achieved only minor recognition during her lifetime, and remains canonically overlooked and critically undervalued to this day. 
This oversight can perhaps be put down to the conservative nature of the literary establishment of the 1960s. Quin was writing at a pivotal point in British literary history; a time when many believed that, to quote John Barth, ‘narrative literature ... [had] shot its bolt.' Quin, along with a coterie of avant-garde writers, attempted to carve out a new kind of literature in Britain, abandoning traditional conventions relating to plot and character development and experimenting with new approaches to narrative composition. The shock of the new was too much for the old guard of the literary establishment, who couldn't be persuaded and Quin remained in the shadows.
One of Quin's contemporaries, BS Johnson (who, incidentally, killed himself the same year as Quin, in 1973), fought the same uphill battle for recognition. Thanks to support from the likes of Jonathan Coe and Picador's re-publication of his back catalogue, there has recently been a surge of interest in him. Unfortunately, despite writer Lee Rourke's noble efforts in the same direction and a 1989 film adaption of Berg (starring Richard E Grant and unambiguously entitled Killing Dad) Quin has yet to receive the same level of posthumous appreciation.
Berg was Quin's first novel, distributed by British publishing maverick John Calder (the first to publish William Burroughs' Naked Lunch in the UK). A surreal Oedipal revenge story, the plot revolves around hair-tonic salesman and mummy's boy Alistair Berg who leaves for Brighton hell bent on murdering his runaway father. All of which is outlined in perhaps one of the best, most direct opening lines:
‘A man called Berg, changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father....'
With that the story plunges into a kaleidoscopic journey of increasingly absurd and often grotesque events: a ventriloquist dummy is mutilated; a cat is violently murdered and Berg, dressed in high heels, very nearly shags his own father. The way that Berg, as if abruptly woken from a daydream, is as shocked as we are to find himself in such situations (stunned, with cat in hand, mid-swing), the runaway progression of events as if out of his control, and Quin's dark humour are reminiscent of the absurdist writings of Daniil Kharms or Franz Kafka.
A lineal successor to Joyce and Beckett, Quin upholds the modernist stream-of-consciousness mode, delving into the psyche of her unstable central character. Yet, perhaps more identifiable an influence on her prose is French avant-garde writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose microscopic attention to detail and astute description of place is employed to great effect throughout Berg, as Quin dissects the minutiae of Berg's bedsit or the gloomy coastal-town:
‘Berg could watch the illuminated palace across the road lighting up the solid Victorian blocks, surrounded by parked vehicles.'
However unlike pared-down Robbe-Grillet, Quin permits herself intensely poetic flights of playfulness and experimentation: ‘Youths nonchalantly leaned from windows, behind them twisting shapes of couples could be seen, and as from a umbilical cord Berg strung himself through their weaving arms and legs'. She's a deft hand with simile as well: ‘Buses that trailed like heavy robes through the streets'. If this persisted throughout it may tire, but Quin reins it in, offsetting the poetic and profound with quotidian details and observations.
This fusion of styles is captivating yet was one of the main criticisms levelled at Berg after its initial publication. Referring to Quin's adoption of the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, critics rebuked the book for being too derivative. Her influences are certainly clear, but rather than plagiarism it is an act of reappropriation; contemporising the psychologically driven tradition, relocating it to a wet, gloomy Brighton and fusing it with her own charged, poetic idiom. It's a strange combination.
Quin's writing is exhilarating. It represents the intensity of consciousness, proves the efficacy of experimentation and is a great example of literature as art. Hopefully the recent enthusiasm for BS Johnson will spark off interest in this forgotten British aesthete.- Simon Arthur


Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking: A Story by Ann Quin
 

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