Posts Tagged ‘Ann Quin’


January 12, 2019

Last 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 Unmapped Country. It may have taken twelve months, but I began this year with her second novel, Three, from 1966 (as she only wrote four novels before committing suicide in 1973 there is no rush). Three, unsurprisingly, is the story of three characters, middle-aged couple Leon and Ruth, and their lodger, a young woman known only as S. As the novel begins, S is already dead, having set out to sea in a small boat alone and never returned, the suggestion being that she has killed herself:

“I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch.”

The scenes between Leon and Ruth, which make up much of the narrative, are presented mainly in dialogue in which each speaker’s contribution is largely unpunctuated and, though paragraphed, is not regularly paragraphed between speakers. This choice suggest the suffocating proximity of their relationship where each must devise their own escapes, conversation that is close-packed and claustrophobic, though superficially civil.

Quin captures the domestic tensions of the couple without any need for melodrama. Much of it is played out through the cat, Bobo, “the cat R adores, L ignores” according to S, whose journals and recordings also feature in the novel as Leon and Ruth experience them. This is evident from the beginning when Leon insists the cat is smelling and Ruth retorts it is probably his shoes. While Ruth constantly pets the cat, Leon does not hide his dislike:

“The cat brushed against his legs, he pushed him away, picked the hairs off his trousers… Fucking stinking animal she never liked you really either.”

We can only assume the ‘she’ is S, and it is frequently hinted that Leon and S were much closer than S and Ruth:

“How I hated it when you both went off on those so-called long tramps nearly driven crazy here all alone…”

This influences Leon and Ruth’s differing views of S: whereas Leon sees her as “less inhibited” for swimming naked in the sea, Ruth comments, “she was a bit of an exhibitionist,” and says of her dancing:

“I thought she looked obscene really the way her legs spread out.”

We also know from S’s observations that Ruth is prone to jealousy:

“If L should stray in any one direction for too long she asks for a cigarette, refuses all offers except his.”

And Ruth admits, “Didn’t I then immediately feel a kind of relief when she was dead.” It is perhaps this that makes her ask Leon, “Do you think she was in love with you?” Meanwhile she finds Leon’s sexual approaches irritating, complaining that, “You always have to get sexy in the bath,” and later:

“Ah don’t darling you’re hurting you’re bruising me you know how tender I am. She pulled back.”

These constant rejections might make one feel sympathy for Leon were it not that Ruth sees his advances as entirely selfish:

“He is concerned only with achieving his own orgasm and I refuse absolutely to be exploited in that way.”

This is demonstrated later when he rapes her, also raising further questions about how he may have treated S. In her journal S describes nights spent at a hotel with a man, “nights spent in shared fantasies”, who could, of course, be Leon, who we learn knew S before she came to live with them. Could he even be the father of the child she had to have aborted? This would certainly go some way to answering Ruth’s question, “What did she want of us?” and explaining S’s comment:

“Three months now of living with two people and not any nearer – nearer. Tactics flounder before even begun. There seems no answer.”

Reading Three, however, is not about solving this mystery. It provides a forensic examination of Leon and Ruth’s marriage which, though far from extraordinary, instils the reader with horror by the end of the novel. Some of the most acute observations of their relationship come from S, who describes it as “Existence bound by habit” and outlines their sparring with this wonderful image:

“Emotions handled, shifted about, dropped, picked up, but always attached as a child’s pair of gloves.”

Three is a disturbing, uncomfortable novel, not only in Ruth and Leon’s present, but in the broken prose and fractured memories of S’s journals. Sex is a powerful force, both enticing and dangerous; families hide their true faces just as the three characters do behind masks in the empty swimming pool they use as a theatre; distrust is everywhere in the air. It is another reminder of what an important writer we lost, one that is long due recognition in her own country.


January 4, 2018

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.