the separating of yourself
from a world that no longer revolved round you,
the awareness of becoming part of,
merging into something else, no longer
dependent upon anyone,
a freedom that found its own reality..
from BERG (1964)
Few know her name, locally, beyond the residual core of ardent readers, literary historians, personal friends and specialist book shops. Few amongst those would describe her work as feminist.
In the mid-sixties Brighton author Ann Quin was acclaimed as a major new talent amongst the young experimental writers of the day. Her early death, in 1973, was described by the Times obituarist as 'a sad loss to the literary scene'.
Current obscurity seems at odds with past celebrity, especially considering the vibrant and diverse appetite for literature in Brighton, Quin's home town, and throughout Sussex as a whole. Yet paradox is a positive and revealing aspect of this writer's reputation, as well as the style and content of her work.
And the trail of paradox leads to an issue at the centre of both
1960's existentialism and contemporary feminism : the possibility of personal
expression in relative freedom.
Ann Quin was born in Brighton and lived in the town for most of her life, ultimately with her mother in Lewes Crescent. Educated at the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament, she trained as a shorthand typist and worked in a solicitor's office, then at a publishing company when she moved to Soho and began writing novels.
The first to be published was BERG, in London by Calder and Boyars in 1964 and by Scribner, New York in 1966. Ann Quin was instantly acclaimed as a major new talent amongst the young writers in English of the day. The experimental character of her work - British social realism meets French Nouvelle Vague - secured her reputation as a writer of contemporary fiction with cult appeal.
In addition, there was the unique style of her writing, a fusion of prose into dialogue or dialogue into prose which is deployed to utmost effect, at specific points in the narrative. These innovative aspects ensured that Ann Quin received awards as well as accolades from the literary establishment - a D.H.Lawrence Award, which allowed her to travel and study in South America; a Harkness Fellowship proposed by Henry Williamson and Robert Creeley (amongst others), and Arts Council bursaries.
But the esoteric appeal of her work also ensured that, despite being published on both sides of the Atlantic, she never strayed far from the bread line. (Posthumously, a film version of BERG was released in 1989 under the title KILLING DAD, starring Denholm Elliott, Julie Walters, Anna Massey and Richard E Grant).
When THREE was published in 1966, critics generally agreed that the promise of BERG had been fulfilled, even exceeded. The reviewer in The Scotsman proclaimed her the 'most naturally and delicately gifted novelist of her generation', while THREE 'is a brilliant book' and 'exquisitely written from the first page to the last. If you don't read it then you're not interested in the present and possible future of the English novel'.
Similarly, when PASSAGES appeared in 1969, Harper's Bazaar exclaimed 'Miss Quin has great felicity with words' and 'she writes better and better'. TRIPTICKS is the fourth and final novel published (in 1972) and based on Ann Quin's recent experience of the United States. This novel is distinctively postmodern, an intense satire on the 'zapp whokk thudd bam zowie' (page 66) of contemporary American culture, visually endorsed by the ubiquitous graphics by Carol Annand, and a cut-and-paste style of pastiche using extracts from Time, Life, from TV commercials and pulp crime fiction. John Hall in The Guardian found TRIPTICKS a 'dazzling construction of welded prose, which confirms one's suspicion that there is very little Miss Quin can't manage when she turns her word to it'.
Just over a year later, Ann Quin was dead.
Although the praise of her work was neither universal nor uniform, it is obvious that for the well-placed critics who did respond favourably, her work was seen as a unique and important contribution to the development of the novel as a modern form of writing.
Yet TRIPTICKS is no longer in print. The University of Sussex library contains none of her books (or didn't, the last time I looked), just a few critical works which make only passing reference to her work. And despite the belief that she herself destroyed several papers before her death, there are short stories, articles and essays by Ann Quin which survive in diverse publications yet remain uncollected.
Can it be that, in keeping with the conservative academic tradition, the appraisal of her work has been partial rather than comprehensive, limited to matters of technique, style or form - omitting any appropriate regard for the content - and that her writing has been dismissed as transient and disposable, along with other 'fashionable' products of nineteen sixties experimentalism?
Certainly, the critics of 'content' were dismissive. Amongst them Robert Nye, who in The Guardian in 1972 reviewed Ann Quin's career, and accounted for what he saw as the failure of her early promise in terms of a lack of integrity. Nye found superficiality, plagiarism and a lamentable absence of genuine contribution from the author.
Nye found BERG to be 'chiefly remarkable for its evocation of Brighton in the seedy off-season' which, along with its particular type of 'emotional intensity', rooted the book in the English/male tradition, 'nearer the early work of Graham Greene than the fashionable French new-wavers its author had obviously read in her own publisher's translations and imagined she was imitating'.
Berg is the name of the central character, a man who, the prologue states, ' changed his name to Greb' and 'came to a seaside town intending to kill his father..'. A sense of Brighton does emerge, although it is frequently shrouded in fog or seen obliquely through smudges of rain; details of cafes and boarding houses are equally atmospheric, more than verifiable, and could suggest any English seaside resort off season.
Quin's strikingly accurate description is saved for the Palace Pier, for the sea shore next to it, the wash of the sea around it and back to the beach, snaking the sand between pebbles. The Pier acquires symbolic resonance in relation to Berg's attempts to murder his father, which are undermined by his creeping realization that he will not kill but merely become his father, step into his life, take up with his lover.. Whereas to swim in the sea, to 'be given to the sliding of the water' is tempting to Berg, teasing him with the possibility of abandoning barbed and oppressive adult relationships, and resuming instead the childhood 'sensation of weightlessness', of being 'moon-controlled', of merging 'into something else, no longer dependent on anyone, a freedom that found its own reality'.
It is impossible to see BERG as Ann Quin's copy of Graham Greene's precedent. Where Quin uses minimal geography as the basis of powerful metaphor, Greene's BRIGHTON ROCK (1938) uses the actual names and locations of Brighton hotels, of sea-front amusements and other landmarks to documentary effect. The almost authentic map of the town as an interwar pleasure resort provides a realistic backdrop against which to visualize the sudden spurts of Pinkie's casual viciousness.
Berg on the other hand is a character for whom external reality triggers a vast imaginative landscape both more and less real than either objective reality, or the straightforward execution of a violent act. With wit and verve, Quin engages the reader in an intriguing, often surreal and hair-raising process of finding out where the one ends and the other begins; involves the reader, that is, in the quest at the centre of Sartre's existentialism - the quest for authenticity, the defeat of bad faith..
Can it be that Robert Nye attributed to Ann Quin as an author the lack of authenticity she was in fact defining on the page as the basis of her character's adventure, and misadventure? In Quin's novel the objective is to bring about change and release, the obstruction to which is entanglement with precedent. The beleaguered Berg sets out to defeat pre-destination but his first act shows his pre-occupation with mere surfaces; he reverses his name, from Berg to Greb, and with it his fortune.
In THREE Quin's intense and vivid poetry introduces concepts and images
which are gradually unpacked and contextualized throughout the subsequent
prose. When the 'S' character enters the
story, it is not with dialogue but stream- of- consciousness poetry, which breaks up the lines of text on the page :
Hours become hands. Impressions stain. Spread. Recollections. Angles
caught in a mirror. Space between clouds
Tide marks. Never rubbed out (p.17)
Although the words take the attention, their meaning is developed gradually, more detail being added to the residual connection of time, memory, sky, physicality and sea:
then. Sand integument. Grains blown into navel. Stone-studded
between toes. Laughter. Swallowed by waves
slow moving (p.19)
Later, these images recur in a memory of sexual experience, recorded by 'S' in prose as an entry in her Diary:
In the morning easing ourselves onto each other, half asleep. Feelers. Tongues found nests, shells..Early light dipped between..A world could be as small as the navel. Armpit. Crevices equally explored, marvelled at. Expression of a dance that takes its own course. Strung in space, other spaces acquired, as grains of sand shifted only by incoming tides..Hairs in the mouth - strands of seaweed. Spray on skin. Fingertips. Touched down, settled between rocks, only air and warmth waited for, to dry us. (p 72)
The other two characters are portrayed more conventionally, through their conversations, although their voices are distanced, rendered oblique by Quin's sustained and extremely skilful use of the prose-dialogue fusion. To read, THREE is often difficult of access and always rewarding.
The circumstance is the triangular experience of Ruth and Leonard, a
middle class suffocated and suffocating married couple approaching middle
age, and 'S', a young poetic girl who comes to live with them after working
for Leonard as his secretary, and after having an abortion. Yet the events
are told unevenly, from the three different perspectives, from diaries,
tape recordings and newspaper reports, and at different points in time,
so that truth - anything confirmed by more than one character - lies buried
beneath layers of comment which may or may not be reliable. At stake
is the discovery of what has happened to 'S', who has taken a boat out
to sea on the neap tide and has disappeared - either by persuasion, accident
In his 1972 account of Ann Quin's career, Nye acknowledged that THREE is 'worthy of attention, being exquisitely written, with a fine attention to the shape of conversations and a kind of deliberately muted lyricism in its account of the thoughts and feelings of a young girl used by a married couple'. Again, Nye attributes to Quin as author the 'deliberately muted lyricism' which in her novel is gradually developed as the haunting, provocative presence of 'S', and the evidence of everything the superficially respectable couple have sacrificed.
After the disappearance of 'S', Ruth puts her hair in plaits:
What have you done to your hair Ruth? Why what's wrong with it? Plaits love for you ah no I mean.Keeps it tidy - oh do go and make the tea darling so thirsty. She yawned.. (p.77)
Later, Ruth abandons her own nightwear and puts on a nightie belonging
to 'S', in the hope of seducing Leonard into satisfying her sexually.
He rapes her, brutally, then makes tea and helps his wife to bathe her
bruises. 'S' on the other hand remains like the being she envies, a person
on a train 'going somewhere, or coming back. Held in that timeless are
between one point and the next' (p 136).
PASSAGES was for Nye the book where 'Miss Quin' lost her way, delving into 'private masochistic fantasies too rigorously informed by her study of J.E.Harrison's ''Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion'' (choice bits of which float about undigested in her text) ..'. Again, Nye seems to have missed the point of how these extracts link to the content.
The familiar fragmentation of narrative and diffusion of shared experience is accompanied, in PASSAGES, by a visual differentiation of the text for the commentaries from the central characters - a woman searching South America for her brother (possibly a political prisoner) and the man who is her lover. The woman's account is given in long sections of intensely poetic prose, often free of punctuation and frequently portraying Quin's reference to the sea as a metaphor of potential and escape.
It is in the male account of events that the 'choice bits' from PROLEGOMENA.. occur, as margin notes next to diary entries. And the male character - it has to be said! - is a successful academic and writer who attempts to record himself objectively, and to draw objective comparisons with characters and events from classical Greek mythology. He even records his own paranoia with directness and detached precision - 'Terror in the merely schematic', he notes.
In the woman's account the quest for her brother intersects with the occasional scrutiny of her travelling companion, and as her thought and her experience intermingle, the possibility is imagined of her lover becoming the brother she has lost. However, her lover is unable to follow her, imaginatively. Instead, he makes notes, about how she 'risks all..She risks with her body, her imagination (her heart/mind?)'. He wants to reach out to her, because she 'has her own lucidity in fantasies, sometimes shared' which he has 'a Nyed to follow'. He also notes his own Nyed to share his fantasies with her and thereby experience them in like manner, vicariously. But when he does reach out to her, it is only in physical reality: he knocks over a coffee cup (p. 29,49-50).
Eventually the male character wonders 'Is it her body I hold in my arms or the sea?'
Quin's writing remained 'depressing' for Nye even in the 'up-to-dateness' of TRIPTICKS, mainly because of the intellectual nature of the content. Two of the three elements of the novel are described, with conspicuous self-referentiality, on page 163 of the text as a 'lecture in existential psychoanalysis' and a 'rumination on the frayed bootstraps of mankind'; for Nye these were dispensable. He dismissed them both in one easy sentence as 'categories' for which 'this author has no gift'.
There was however one remaining shred of interest. If you looked hard enough, along with Robert Nye, you could just see the 'deposit of seriousness in the text', left by Quin's 'rare capacity' for writing (guess what?) a 'love story'. But glimpses of 'Miss Quin's talent' were difficult to obtain, since it was not often allowed to show through. It seems to me more likely that Mr Nye missed her talent completely.
Especially in TRIPTICKS, since he was looking for a love story which, it is implied, should be attractive and soothing. Instead he found the 'general outline' to be 'disfigured' by 'a species of frenetic satire which will allow little to occur to the narrator..without grimaces on the part of the author'. But then, in TRIPTICKS the narrator is 'a man on the run from the women in his life'.
Nye's kind of criticism - and there was plenty of it - is a problem if it persuades new-comers to Quin's novels that they themselves - as against traditional male academic appraisals of them - lack imaginative authenticity to the extent that they are not worth reading. Nye concluded 'It can still be hoped that Miss Quin will chuck the box of tricks away and sit down one day to write a whole book in which observation of the heart's affections is permitted to predominate and inform. At the moment..she seems to me to be engaged in a process of avoiding the implications of her own imagination'.
It is extremely difficult to avoid the characters following the implications
of imagination who populate Quin's novels. It is equally difficult
to miss the philosophy associated with the extension of imagination.
Fusion is a concept of major significance in the style and content of Ann Quin's four novels, especially the first three. Whereas Nye founded his 1972 evaluation on the traditional separation of intellect from emotion, Ann Quin was stating, also in The Guardian, and at around the same time, how fascinating she found their fusion, particularly via sexual experience. During her discussion with John Hall on the search for identity in her work, and the attempts to define it, a parallel was drawn with 'discovering the different layers of male and female sexuality'.
Quin's illustration of this point reflects a candid sophistication which would have no place in Nye's 'heart's affections' stories. She remarked :
'I think everyone is bisexual, and people ought to explore the fact a bit more..The fantasy about being in bed with two men I have yet to realise: I like to think that I've explored most of my fantasies, but this is one that I haven't yet. Anyway, I did fantasise a lot about being in bed with a man and a woman, and I introduced a boy friend of mine to a girl friend of mine and they both knew it was one of my fantasies, so we explored it together. It was important to my writing in that it extended the fantasy.. this actual experience was so far beyond the fantasy that I found it very, well, you could say enlarging..Very much like a dance. Everybody fantasises about making love with a stranger, and when you're in bed with two people you know, at the same time, you don't know whose hand it is, or whose mouth, and this is extraordinarily exciting. God help me, my mother's going to read this.'
And this illustrates the point about fusion as an aspect of Quin's aesthetic: by defining experiential realities and fantasies which mingle, merge and separate, it is possible to indicate the space between, to open up what is gained - the extra dimension - and signal that sensual lacuna of existence where the self is felt rather than identified, present rather than revealed and therefore where the self is a possibility as well as an absence.
A place that becomes
another place. Defeats time. Contradicts
gives dimensions. As on a hill
the very field only the day before
to be a vast jungle. Irony. They do not comprehend in
Since the sea is the most recurrent metaphor for the realization of this sense of self in Quin's novels, her art provides a way of comprehending her death.
Emerging from the sea, I stepped on a dead gull, wings stretched out,
but looking as if capable of suddenly flying off. I picked it up, carried
over to a sandy part between some rocks, and put it there. Wings spanned
the rocks on either side. There was no sign of blood. So white. Smooth.
THREE (p. 140)
The notion of extending the self by the exploration of this fantasy can at least offset the common (Freudian) interpretation of her death at sea as suicide, induced mainly by her sexual adventurousness and Catholic guilt.
For a biographical account of Ann Quin's life and death which includes
psychoanalytic reference, see the article by Nigel Jones, 'Too Far Out'
in THE PRINTER'S DEVIL (Summer 1996).
Local press reports state that during the hot Bank Holiday weekend of August 1973 a man named Albert Fox, from Rochester, was fishing on the beach east of Palace Pier when he saw a woman walk into the sea, apparently for a swim. When she did not return, he searched the growing darkness by torch light, then expressed his concern to the police.
The next day a yachtsman found the body floating in the sea, off the eastern arm of Shoreham Harbour. An appeal for help was launched in the Argus before the body was identified as belonging to Ann Quin.
The Argus report, headed 'Inquest riddle of novelist in sea', described how the evidence was given to the coroner of 'an excitable and temperamental woman', and of her medical treatment for depression and nervous breakdown.
Yet the Coroner, Mr. Mark Calvert-Lee, recorded an Open Verdict, having found 'no evidence to say how she got lost or died at sea'.
Idea and image juxtapositioned, spinning between myth and rationality,
the odd years spent at a right angle:
if I over-reach, can I be sure of reclaiming a formula
outside habitual movement?
Ann Quin's work deserves re-appraisal.
If you have any information, memories or suggestions in regard to Ann Quin and/or her work, please contact:
Back to main page.