Berg

Having read Ice, I could not resist following it with Ann Quin’s Berg, another ‘experimental’ novel of the sixties. Whereas Ice flaunts its abstract otherworldliness, Berg distils a distinctive essence of England with its seaside town setting and travelling salesman protagonist: it’s a novel of details, assaulting all the senses. (We are particularly encouraged to smell the rooms of the shabby boarding house which Berg inhabits, a reek of “stale tobacco, drink, cooking and perfume”). Its premise is summarised in its famous opening sentence:

“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town to kill his father.”

Berg’s father, Nathaniel, deserted the family years before; he no longer recognises his son, who now lives in the same boarding house, with his father (and lover, Judith) only a partition away:

“If only he could make a hole in the partition, just large enough for his eye.”

He imagines “the clean blade of a knife slicing up the partition that divides me from them.” The conscious intention is to spy on his father, but there is a suggestion of an unconscious longing for closeness:

“…he lay down and pressed himself against the partition, listening to the sea hissing in the distance.”

Though Berg frequently thinks about killing his father (“kick the door down, with two shoves the old man would be through the window”) he delays, apparently relishing his forthcoming revenge:

“But like a love affair it seemed too easy, therefore, the preliminaries must be prolonged; flirt a little with the opportunities.”

In true Freudian style, he also considers sleeping with Judith to make his revenge complete:

“Making love to her prior to really getting rid of the old man would surely bring greater satisfaction.”

Ironically, as he waits for his moment, he develops a relationship with his father for the first time, helping him when he comes home drunk – undressing him and putting him to bed – to the point that, when Judith throws him out, he asks Berg to collect his few possessions. When Berg finds him in the bath he considers electrocuting him, but ends up scrubbing his back. About halfway through, however, Berg believes himself successful:

“At last I can rest in peace amen. Accomplished. There he is down there, beside the bed, rolled up in the rug, with the eiderdown spread over him.”

The events which follow (including a slapstick moment when Judith falls onto the rug-covered body) display a typically English strand of dark humour at work, with some moments which would not be out of place in a television comedy.

Influenced by the French nouveau roman, the narrative presents Berg’s viewpoint but always in the moment; childhood memories interrupt the present but ‘as live’ with little contextualisation. We hear other voices, but only as Berg hears them. Those from the past, such as that of his mother, appear in separate paragraphs in smaller font; in the present they merge into the narrative. Though we learn something of Berg’s background, his actions are never explained: we have a preview of this when he kills Judith’s cat:

“He stretched his hand out, the creature snarled, yellow fangs bared, and still crouching started backing away. Suddenly it sprang, hanging sloth-like on Berg’s arm. He caught hold of its tail and began swinging the cat out, hardly aware of the thud the creature made as it hit the wall.”

Lee Rourke has described the novel as “creating a mode of fiction that slices straight into its reader’s psyche like a scalpel into the heart.” Quin does not flatten her prose to achieve this effect but peppers it with pungent phrases: men’s faces are “a row of rotten apples”; Judith is “not unlike a display dummy, really, the one that’s left in the window at the end of a sale”; the eyes he feels watching him at the station are “hundreds and hundreds of small round beads with no hope of being restrung.”

Berg manages to be both of its time in its evocation of the England of the early sixties (probably closer to how we envisage the fifties) and as vibrant and incisive as if it were published yesterday. Quin belongs to a fiercely artistic (not ‘experimental’) tradition in British fiction which is frequently excised from its literary history, one that, as she says, wants “to get away from the traditional form.” She deserves to be read.

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8 Responses to “Berg”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    I have just reread Ice and have lined up Three by Ann Quin to read next month. Nice to see her work getting some recognition. Berg sounds really interesting. Thanks!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve never heard of this one before, Grant – neither book nor author – but it does sound very dark and of its time. I’ll keep an eye out!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I loved this. That extraordinary mix of seaside burlesque, Freudianism and literary technique. I’ve read her second as well, Three, which is excellent but very different. Reviews of both here: https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/?s=ann+quin

    Andotherstories just released a collection of her short stories, and she has two more novels (both increasingly experimental, the last apparently actually quite difficult. You do remind me to go back to them.

    • 1streading Says:

      As soon as I finished this I ordered Three, and one reason I read it (having had it for a while) was because of The Unmapped Country – it seemed crazy that I might read a collection of her unpublished work first! It’s great to see renewed interest in her work (though obviously you were there first!)

  4. Three | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] January I read Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg, soon to appear in a new edition from And Other Stories whose Quin revival began the collection The […]

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