There is something generational about the recent revival of interest in the novelist Ann Quin. After scarcely even maintaining a cult reputation among writers in the years since her death, she’s reappeared like a revenant who’d been lurking in dark corners, and now everybody’s writing about her. Since the rediscovery of B.S. Johnson (if that’s what it was) that followed Jonathan Coe’s biography a few years ago there’s been a wave of enthusiasm for ‘experimental fiction’. A new crop of writers such as Claire-Louise Bennett, Kevin Davey, Will Eaves, Eimear McBride and Eley Williams, all published by independent presses, started to attract attention, and there was a flurry of excitement about writing that departed in some way from the conventions of realism which still dominate the English novel. Heralded by commendatory quotes from Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke on the cover of this new gathering of previously uncollected or unpublished writings, Ann Quin now seems to be emerging as their best ancestor.
She has all the biographical qualifications for the job of precursor, as well as being famously and gratifyingly unpredictable, or reluctant to do what was expected of her. In an interview with Nell Dunn, conducted in 1964, between the publication of her first and second novels, she was asked if she knew the difference between right and wrong. ‘No. Nothing is ever black or white to me, at all.’ After which Dunn asks: ‘But do you have any kind of definite moral code? Like for instance you shouldn’t sleep with married men?’ ‘Not at all, no,’ Quin replies. ‘I feel that if you feel this complete recognition, then I don’t think that any moral code should enter at all.’ ‘Do you find you are aware of people’s class?’ Dunn continues, but Quin again answers: ‘No. Class has never bothered me, only inasmuch that I get sick to death of it being – well, ever since the novel in England has been concerned with class, Osborne and so on, and Wesker.’
Ann Quin was born to a single mother in Brighton in 1936. A wartime childhood and a convent education gave her a strong desire to explore ‘the whole sinful world that lay before me’ when she left school. Her first enthusiasm was for the theatre. After she left school, at 17, she worked in a repertory company as an assistant stage manager, then went for an audition at Rada but ‘was struck dumb, and rushed out, silently screaming down Gower Street’. It was a decisive moment. Instead of acting, she wrote later, ‘I would be a writer. A poet. Where what I had to express, say, would be my own interpretation, my own vision and be accepted by an unseen audience.’ She took a secretarial course and worked in a newspaper office until the editor hanged himself in a cupboard, after which she returned to Brighton for two years, started painting as well as writing, returned to London, worked for a publisher, rented a room in Soho, wrote a novel, had it rejected, started another one, worked in a Cornish hotel, had a breakdown, escaped to Paris, came back, worked part-time as a secretary at the Royal College of Art, finished a second novel, had it rejected, wrote a third novel, Berg, and this time had it accepted. It was published by Calder in 1964. ‘Reading what I had written,’ she wrote, ‘seemed like someone else’s dream. A kind of involuntary commitment.’
‘Commitment’ is an interesting word to use about the process of writing, with its associations of delegation and entrusting, consignment and detention, as well as committing a crime, or committing to memory or to writing. And ‘to commit’ could also once have the sense of exposing or compromising oneself. Then there’s the existentialist sense of engagement with the world or to a course of action. All of these resonate with Berg, which is a strange piece of work, recursive and mythic as the much quoted epigraph suggests: ‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father’– though in the end he only succeeded in killing his father’s ventriloquist’s dummy. A mixture of the surreal, the whimsical and the macabre, with touches of the English music-hall tradition, its overdetermined atmosphere of seedy blowsiness is vaguely reminiscent of Archie Rice in Tony Richardson’s film of The Entertainer as well as early Graham Greene. The style is distinctive in the way it wanders in and out of interiority, with private thought and public speech undifferentiated by punctuation or mise-en-page. The central character, the focalising consciousness of the novel, is the eponymous young man, but the overwhelming sense is of a slipperiness, a difficulty in finding your bearings or keeping your footing in the story. It circles repetitively around its receding purpose, as much Hamlet as Oedipus, but it’s even less hopeful than either and much more absurd than both. It is funny and profound, and intensely of its time. It remains her best-known work, perhaps because of its setting, perhaps because it’s the only one of her books to deal with parents and children. In fact, the writer she sometimes puts me in mind of, for all their obvious differences, is Ivy Compton-Burnett.
The first sentence of Jennifer Hodgson’s elegant and incisive introduction to this welcome new collection states the case for her in unequivocal terms: ‘Ann Quin was a rare breed in British writing: radically experimental, working-class and a woman.’ This is right and important, but in my tetchy way I paused over ‘radically experimental’: she certainly tries plenty of ways of writing – her novels are very different from one another – but I think it’s more that the late 1960s and early 1970s were a time when a commitment to change and innovation were genuinely widespread, to the extent of requiring the term ‘counterculture’ to account for them, and Quin’s writing participates in a more generally shared experimentalism. The staidness and conventionality of much mainstream British culture in the 1950s and early 1960s had encouraged an islanded and unadventurous mentality which tended to turn its back on the achievements of modernism, especially when they were foreign (and therefore un-English). Discovering the scope and ambition of modernist artists from Europe and America was an important task in Quin’s cultural world.
The other implication of ‘experimental’ is that the writing is hard to read, or at least less than straightforward. Quin’s novels don’t make concessions to her readers, it’s true, and in this she is following a tradition that runs from Djuna Barnes and Joyce, say, through Henry Green and Beckett and Robbe-Grillet to Burroughs and Christine Brooke-Rose. The dust jacket flaps of novels published by Calder and Boyars between 1966 and 1972 list their books under the varying heads of ‘Contemporary Fiction’, ‘Fiction’, ‘Modern Fiction’; unusually, on the jacket flap of Quin’s Tripticks (1972) the list is divided between ‘Some Experimental Fiction’ (all European) and ‘Modern American Fiction’ (a list that includes Burroughs, Creeley, Henry Miller and Hubert Selby Jr), but that seems to be the only time Quin’s novels were formally categorised as experimental. Paddy Kitchen was right when she wrote (in a piece in the London Magazine in 1979) that Quin ‘was not one of those authors who self-consciously strove to be an innovator, rather she had to seek a different form for each theme which occupied her mind’.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was first reading her novels, the people I knew who liked that kind of thing were mostly poets. The most interesting sorts of poetry being written then, as now, were broadly speaking modernist, with a vision of poetry that was opposed to the limited horizons of the Movement poets like Larkin and Amis and their followers, open to the influence of Europeans, especially the Surrealists and Paul Celan, and to the work of Americans such as Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Jack Spicer or Frank O’Hara and the New York poets. When I look back on it now, it’s clear that Quin’s writing sits more easily alongside this internationalist milieu. She was always critical of English narrowness and its ‘safe comfortable rituals, the monotony that keeps the fantasies moving’, things she explored, anatomised and dramatised in her first two novels. You can feel that hatred of monotony throughout her work, a restlessness, an unsatisfied feeling, both in the characters and in the work itself.
Impulsive and impatient, unable to settle anywhere, she seems to have had an affinity with the movement of the sea, the presence of which is variously but intensely felt in her first three novels, and in some of the stories in this new collection. (A diary entry in her second novel, Three, simply reads: ‘Is it her body I hold in my arms or the sea?’) It can be menacing or welcoming but it’s never inert, always inhabited by something, whether by crabs or a dead seagull, a starfish, seaweed or fishes. A decade before her death in 1973 she had quoted with approval Sartre’s claim that ‘Death reunites us with ourselves.’ There are so many occasions when somebody dives into the water in her writing that it’s hard to think of her drowning herself off Brighton pier at the age of 37 without feeling a sense of déjà vu. In that interview with Nell Dunn, she’d talked about ‘that self-destruction thing’ in people and Dunn had asked whether she had it herself. ‘Yes. I think it’s a matter of making much more of that choice,’ she replied,
making that freedom that one can either choose to exist or not exist and I think that if one feels that one has lost one’s grip on oneself, then one does get depressed and moody but it passes and life then becomes a miracle inasmuch as even to walk down the street and see a child smile and I mean 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.
That ‘complete sort of void’ is continually present in her fiction. ‘No’ and ‘nothing’ echo through her writing. What sounds like zeitgeisty existentialism in the interview takes on an imaginative substantiality and provides a typically uncertain ground for her narratives. It creates an almost tangible evasion of choice by her characters as they drift through a world of unexplained contingencies, unable to make decisive choices. Or, if they seem to do so – by committing suicide, say, as in Three – there is no conclusive evidence that this is what has actually happened.
Both Three and her third novel, Passages, assemble their narrative from different points of view, which intensifies the uncertainty. Three uses diaries and tape recordings (as well as glimpses of home cine film) to complicate the texture of the events described or reconstructed in the novel and to cast doubt on any authoritative account. In Passages the diary extracts are annotated with marginal references to their stimulus or parallels in Greek myth or artefacts. But the most striking departure from conventional fiction writing is Quin’s use of quotation, which becomes a major, if invisible strand in Tripticks but appears first in Three when S writes, ‘All afternoon surrounded, exchanging newspapers. I came across the following …’ and follows it with two pages of almost verbatim quotation from a 1966 article about the Auschwitz trials by Sybille Bedford. The character makes no comment on the extract, but the pattern of emotional disengagement Bedford reports has clear resonances within the novel, which is built round the need for the young convalescent character S to mean something to her hosts, an older married couple.
Tripticks, her fourth novel, marked a departure in her writing. She had spent some years in the United States on scholarships, living for a while with Robert Creeley, later with the poet Robert Sward, associating with poets, attending the famous 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference where she would have heard Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg, among many others. She thought of herself, I think, as a poet almost as much as a novelist. When she came to use the landscape and culture of the US in Tripticks, she drew on her own experiences and the techniques of the poets and of writers like Burroughs to create a fast-moving, jump-cutting, semi-absurd, road-trip quest narrative in which text from newspapers and magazine advertisements are folded in throughout (there’s one for body-building courses, taken from a magazine called World of Wheels).
The book is also profusely illustrated with Pop Art-style images and vignettes by Carol Annand, which create their own complementary current of commentary. Current events, Superman comics, ads for erotic underwear appear alongside the words of Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, sometimes on their own terms, sometimes as words spoken by characters. A typical instance of the latter occurs when the narrator has been summoned to speak to his soon-to-be ex-father-in-law. ‘He was all for reconciliations, and while slicing through a neatly tiered 3-layer cake – more like a marble cake full of unexpected whorls and inseparable blendings – he exclaimed: “I do not think that those men who are out there fighting for us tonight think we should enjoy the luxury of fighting each other back home.”’ The words he speaks come from a speech Johnson made in Chicago in 1966. A later Johnson speech was given to him on the page before. There are quotations on the surrounding pages from Life, Newsweek, Time and a host of other magazines, all of which contribute to the ‘inseparable blendings’ through which the novel creates its fevered satirical vision. It’s reminiscent, in different ways, of Richard Brautigan and of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, as well as of Burroughs, but it seems not to have been a way of writing she wanted to continue with.
One of the strengths of the new collection is that it contains the unfinished draft of the novel Quin was writing when she died, The Unmapped Country. Only fifty pages, but more than enough to make you wish she’d carried on with it: it’s forceful, direct and straightforward in style, and depicts a woman in a psychiatric ward in conflict with her doctor, nurses and herself. Although she uses elements of detective stories and thrillers in her earlier novels, Quin is not interested in narrative for its own sake; indeed she delights in failing to supply the kind of closure such genres conventionally require. What she likes is the scope they provide for paranoia, or a continually unanswered questioning and self-questioning. ‘They couldn’t bear it a minute longer. They knew they were being followed’; ‘She feels we are being watched.’ Paranoid states of mind are present to some extent in all her books, but in this last one she is beginning to address the matter directly, perhaps to come to terms with it, perhaps to be carried away by it. She was seriously knowledgeable about psychoanalysis: Berg and Passages are attempts to rethink the myths of psychoanalysis and the psychoanalysis of myths through the figures of Oedipus and Antigone, giving the interpersonal a social and political resonance, and it may be that the contemporary relevance of that project accounts for part of the timeliness of Quin’s reappearance.
The other writings collected in The Unmapped Country cover, as far as can be told, something over ten years, and some are more interesting than others. The autobiographical ‘Leaving School’ shows how good she was at narrative selection, and at creating or at least presenting a coherent sense of her own incoherence. ‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’ seems autobiographical too, in a different mode. About a girl living with aunts and a grandmother being finally visited by her errant father, it constructs an extraordinary evocation of the incommensurable fantasies of the adults and the child, and of their fears and consolations. ‘Nude and Seascape’, though it may nod towards stories like John Fowles’s ‘The Collector’ in its macabre subject matter, raises important questions about the relation between life and art, movement and stasis. ‘A Double Room’ is another story that makes the reader experience discomfort, this time for the clumsy, awkward pointlessness of a loveless hotel tryst between a shifty man and a younger woman. Some of the pieces are more obviously experiments, collaborative in some cases, and they seem dated, though they are the only ones that do. The draft of what became the first fifty pages of Tripticks provides revealing sidelights on where that novel began and what was added to it in the later workings. Some of the materials here have been published before in more or less ephemeral publications: to have them all gathered together in one place is to see new aspects of Quin’s extraordinary ability.
In another timely intervention, the Nell Dunn book of interviews I mentioned, Talking to Women, has just been republished by the new feminist publisher Silver Press.A new generation of readers discovering their literary ancestors must be a good thing, so long as it serves the demands of the present rather than answering to a nostalgia for a future that belongs to the past. Writing like Quin’s is part of the modernist tradition, a continuing dialogue and development, a way of creating art that needs to be constantly remade, a springboard, not just something to be reclaimed.