‘In 1964 the British novelist Ann Quin gave an extended interview about work, sex, relationships, men, and patriarchy to playwright and fellow Brit Nell Dunn for Dunn’s collection of interviews, Talking to Women. Quin and Dunn were in their late 20s and were struggling with the stodginess of respectable society. Dunn, who was married with children, admitted to wishing she lived like Quin, saying, “I feel a sort of envy for your freedom, this freedom of having a place and having time and space.” To which Quin, who lived alone in a lodging house, replied, “But is it freedom?”
‘Quin said she regretted nothing on her journey to becoming a writer but found it difficult to live outside the conservative social norms of mid-20th-century England. She even confessed to feeling self-destructive at times. Whenever this happened, a child’s smile on a street corner could save her. “What we all want is some contact to make us feel that we do exist, because beyond that, there is a complete sort of void,” she said. Despite living a free life, Quin, who died by suicide in 1973, said she often felt she was living in that void.
‘Published in 1964 and now rereleased by And Other Stories, Quin’s first novel, Berg, blends tropes and techniques of crime fiction, vaudeville, and modernist literature to explore the weight of this void. Her protagonist, Alistair Berg, lives a lonely life without meaningful human contact and feels related to “the dismembered trees, half-broken walls, roofs with slates ready to fall off.” Wanting to change this, Alistair believes he “must first annihilate,” or in other words, the world as he knows it must be destroyed for some undefined new one to come. But what happens when, for whatever reason, annihilation cannot be achieved? What happens when you cannot escape respectable society, the social structures of patriarchy that you were born into? The remainder of Berg dramatizes this problem in dense, lyrical prose.
‘And it is this prose that makes Quin’s novel so dazzling 55 years later. The language of her book lurches in unexpected directions, fishtailing wildly from the dark to the erotic to the violent to the insanely funny. It feels barely in control, but willfully so. In insisting on this dicey means of narrative movement for the majority of the novel, she can make even simple actions feel berserk: “Crossing the park: a subterranean world surreptitiously risen; here a million star-fish pinned on the forelocks of a hundred unicorns driven by furious witches.” In describing what should be quotidian, she instead confronts the reader with a moment of demonic weirdness. And just as the psychedelia of her prose sets in, the narrative skates along, leaving behind one chaotic situation for another. Reading Quin is a marvelously frustrating experience that works according to diffraction. The light of the novel comes into contact with some interference and then creates new patterns that bump against other interferences to create new patterns.
‘One sees this already in the first three sentences of the book. While the first sentence tackles the problem of fathers and ridding oneself of patriarchy quite clearly—“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father”—the following two create a kaleidoscopic portrait of Alistair and the setting:
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 web toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dance hall opposite.
‘Here and elsewhere, Quin works with dashes, giving just enough information to work affectively. Even when she takes the opposite approach and creates a baroque monument out of the infinitely small, the effect is the same. Everything feels frayed, dangerous—but also exciting. More than anything, her prose feels like an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s assessment in the essay “Craftsmanship” that the task of the writer is “to see what we can do with the English language as it is.” Or, as Alistair’s mother puts it in the novel, “It’s not the material but the manner in which the article’s sold that counts.”’ — Shane Anderson
Who cares about Ann Quin?
Welcome reissue of Ann Quin’s gloriously twisted debut Berg
The Comic Tragedy of a Narrator with No Sense of Self
The Quin thing
Her Body or the Sea
Sixties secretary turned avant-gardist
Narcissist or Voyeur: On Ann Quin
Ann Quin’s Berg by Dan Shurley
Ann Quin by Brian Evenson & Joanna Howard
ann quin: a peculiar fish without fins (blurring, filth, and smut. or, what ann quin means to me)
Book Of A Lifetime: Berg, By Ann Quin
“Settle For Nothing Less”: On Ann Quin By The Authors She Has Influenced
An avant-garde seaside farce: Berg by Ann Quin
ANN QUIN AND ME: AN APPRECIATION BY DEBORAH LEVY
‘The foremost female novelist of her generation’: Ann Quin remembered
The Voice as an Object of Desire in the Work of Ann Quin
Ann Quin’s experimental debut novel has a runaway, off-kilter style all of its own
Sinister Shapes Emerge
‘Berg’, by Andrew Gallix
Pay It Forward: Ann Quin
Stewart Home & Chloe Aridjis On Ann Quin
Scott Manley Hadley visits the death sites of Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf, Ann Quin and BS Johnson
Manuscripts & Mail
from The Quietus
The cult author Ann Quin still seems scandalously under-read and underloved, considering her unique voice as a working class, female, British, radical experimental writer. She lived with mental health problems and committed suicide in 1973 by walking into the sea by Brighton Palace Pier. She was only 37 and had published four books at that point (Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972) yet has still managed to leave behind an underground legacy of modern, anti-patriarchal, anti-bourgeois, proto-queer, peripatetic, progressive writing.
Jennifer Hodgson, who edited and introduced The Unmapped Country, which covers pretty much Quin’s entire career, is currently researching a new book about Ann Quin’s life, and spent most of July in New Mexico, to follow the Ann Quin trail and begin making some notes. Claire Sawers caught up with her, during and briefly after her trip, to let her explain a bit more about what she wanted to get out of the semi-pilgrimage.
What’s the trip about?
Ha – good question. I have no idea how to write a biography. I mean, I’m not even sure what one is, but I know that one way that people go at it is to follow in their subject’s wake, to go to the places they went and through that try to commune with them in some way. Now, I have to admit, I find all of that a bit suspect. Whenever I’m in a place some eminent person, or a person I admire, has been, for sure I get a little charged feeling of proximity, but it’s a proximity that’s all about distance, about the impossibility of collapsing time and overlaying the scene with you in it with the scene with them in it. When I go to places with blue plaques, which I don’t very often, I find myself sort of morbidly more interested in what’s left of the person’s body than in traces of their consciousness, more interested in who the dust and the greasy smudges belong to.
Writing (and reading, and thinking, and being, for that matter) are such private, self-enclosed acts, I’m not sure how you extrude “real” flesh-and-blood people and places from any of them, and vice versa. But I think that might be what’s most interesting about the project. Quin was so concerned with trying to lay herself bare, trying to struggle out of her own skin and find a way to communicate directly, with all the difficulties of knowing other people and yourself – and any book about her life and work should reflect this most of all, I think.
So I came to New Mexico not so much to try to commune with Quin, but to commune with the same things she did. Her connection with this place has always amazed me, the idea that mid-way through the sixties she jacked in the secretary-ing and the London bedsits and upped sticks to reinvent herself as an American poet and maraud around the States. She rented a little house in the village of Placitas, nearish to Albuquerque for several years, but she travelled around a lot: to New York, San Francisco, Iowa, Maine, the Bahamas.
I visited the house the other day, I was in a kind of trespass-y mood, full of bravado, but there was an electric fence and two Dobermans guarding it – probably not for its blue plaque status. It’s a tiny little adobe bungalow. Adobe doesn’t look solid, somehow, like it’s been poured out rather than built, it’s like royal icing. Anyway, it’s a wreck now, there’s no roof and no windows and these shrubs crawling up the insides and through the windows and teeming out of the hole where the roof was. The plot is flytipped to shit, full of old sofas, fridges, chests of drawers.
I had no sense of what New Mexico actually was – I’d seen a single episode of Breaking Bad and had to switch it off part-way because I found it unbearably bleak. So I decided I’d come and see. She doesn’t write about New Mexico directly very much, but you can feel it in more oblique ways: in her attraction to merciless landscapes and arid climates and the sense of self-exile and alienation. Somehow those things have always done it for me too. I like the almost-but-not-quite intolerable heat here, it makes the air around you seem somehow solid, like you’re sort of gently encased. If you were looking for a place to escape your own skin and turn vaporous, I can see why you’d choose here.
In more practical terms, a few of her old pals and peers from that time are still around, still writing. Larry and Lenore Goodell, friends of Quin’s and very much the custodians of that scene, live just up the road from Quin’s old place. I wanted to meet them, and get a sense, in person, of what it was like to know Quin and to be here during that time.
I was quite adamant that this thing wasn’t going to have any of me in it, that after all these years it didn’t feel right to insert my own fairly unremarkable disconsolateness into this story – but I’m coming to realise, kind of reluctantly, now what a daft notion that was.
Do you have a route you’re following?
Well, I don’t drive, never learned, so this trip is kind of an exercise in constraint. Public transport is kind of minimal, and Uber often doesn’t reach out here, and if there are pavements at all, they’re often ornamental. So, I’ve found myself spending hours and hours walking along highways – friends I’ve met here think this is quite crazy, but I have to admit I rather enjoy it. I knew I wanted to spend time in Placitas, and I knew I had in the end to make it up to Santa Cruz, in Northern California, to interview Quin’s friend, the poet Robert Sward, who lives up there. I also wanted to go to Taos, where Quin stayed in the Lawrence Ranch when she was D.H. Lawrence fellow. I didn’t manage this last bit – first the area was closed because of forest fires and then the two Uber drivers who work the Taos beat seemed to be indisposed and it was a seven hour walk, and even I am not as dogged as all that.
In between those two points it’s been a bit, well, freeform. I went to Santa Fe, because it seemed like a kind of regional cultural centre, but when I got there, my impression of it was that it is the place where New Mexico shills a genteel version of itself to tourists – Pendleton blankets and misshaped linen mumus and extremely expensive cowboy boots, so I sacked that off and went to a sauna in the mountains (I’m sure I’m doing Santa Fe an incredible disservice here). I went to Las Vegas too, absolutely nothing whatever to do with Quin (I mean, probably), but I was an overnight bus ride away and I wanted to see it, since I was there.
What are you hoping for?
Just enough of a perspective shift to mess with me a bit, but not enough that I totally lose it, I think.
Ann Quin Berg
And Other Stories
‘‘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 madcap frolic with sinister undertones, a debut ‘so staggeringly superior to most you’ll never forget it’ (The Guardian). Alistair Berg hears where his father, who has been absent from his life since his infancy, is living. Without revealing his identity, Berg takes a room next to the one where his father and father’s mistress are lodging and he starts to plot his father’s elimination. Seduction and violence follow, though not quite as Berg intends, with Quin lending the proceedings a delightful absurdist humour.
‘Anarchic, heady, dark, Berg is Quin’s masterpiece, a classic of post-war avant-garde British writing, and now finally back in print after much demand.’ — AOS
p.s. Hey. ** JM, Hey, bud. How does freedom feel? And thank you! ** David Ehrenstein, Still images (or GIFs) only, otherwise … ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ was one of my mom’s favorite movies. ** _Black_Acrylic, I … think it’s possible that Paul McCarthy wasn’t in there, strangely enough. But I made it, what, five years ago, so he might be there somewhere and my memory is the problem. Quite an intriguing sounding story you’ve written there, Ben. I love that you’re on a roll. ** Bill, Cool, I’ll hit that site and see. The international restriction thing on film streaming is pretty common though. I did see ‘Deerskin’, yes, but for some reason I don’t remember what it was, just that I saw it and, I’m pretty sure, liked it. Seen it yet? I understand Santa porn, I just don’t … feel it. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Yeah, it’s weird what not doing much exercise and having no routine does to one’s sleeping patterns, or that’s my diagnosis. I almost never remember my dreams. Sometimes I remember them for about half a second when I wake up, but then they self-erase. Don’t know why. But when I do remember them, they’re always about me trying to get away from someone or something that’s trying to kill me. Strange. Do you remember yours? It’s so, so great: your decision, your acting upon it, how good and positive you sound! You’re seriously role model stuff, my friend. It was raining last evening, and I want to walk to the Chipotle, so I delayed my burrito dinner until this evening, and the sky is cloudless blue, so I think that’ll work. But I am stupidly excited about that. I looked up Joulupukki, He looks fucking weird, I like him! Love like the huge amount of Euros you would have if you found a previously unknown Vermeer painting in your grandma’s attic and auctioned it at Sotheby’s, Dennis ** Jeff J, Thanks, man. I kind of liked it too. Nice color and movement combos. Well, Santa Claus is a character in my novel, but to explain that further would require filling a week’s worth of p.s.es, I fear. No release date yet other than probably late next year. Yes, ideally that should make Jeremy highly employable by a highly craveble boss. Let’s hope. I did put together a Daniel Schmid Day yesterday, but I’m sufficiently far ahead in my post making that it won’t appear here until mid-June, so try to hang on to whatever degree of interest you have in him until then? ** Okay. I surprised myself by realising I hadn’t spotlit this great book by the great Ann Quin so I rectified that situation. She’s amazing, and so is it. See you tomorrow.