Who Is Ann Quin?

Born in Bristol in 1936, Ann Quin became one the the most promising British authors since Virginia Woolf. Her work tended to push the boundaries of fiction (she experimented in the nouveau roman, influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet). But similar to Virginia Woolf, her life ended early when she swam out into the ocean off Brighton and was never seen again.

Ann Quin only published four novels in her short life (all in print):

  • Berg
  • Three
  • Passages
  • Tripticks

Quin was not a part of the angry, working-class novelists of her time:  her publisher grouped her with more European voices:  Beckett,  Sarraute, Duras, Pinget, Burroughs. How could such a promising author just disappear from literary memory?  I first learned of Ann Quin from a reference by Kathy Acker. I must admit that since Acker was involved, I figured Quin was actually more outré than she is, but it was a very pleasant surprise. You can purchase several of Quin’s works now from Dalkey Archive Press in the United States.

Berg, Quin’s best known novel,  presents the reader with what is arguably one of the best opening lines of any novel:

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

From such a start, the author creates a dark, esoteric, disturbing narrative, saturated with detail and minutiae. Lee Rourke writes in The Independent:

‘Berg’ is a wintry seaside novel that is Freudian, Oedipal and steeped in Greek tragedy, but also a heady mix of the postmodern, grotesque and the macabre, in which a ventriloquist’s dummy is brutally mutilated and the British novel is subtly unravelled and put back together again amid an ethereal tale of loss and displacement.

I have often thought that the modern novel wastes far too much time crafting a reality it can never attain. Even the new wave of realist novels which cleverly mess around and turn inside out the same reality they desperately cling to often stall, and create nothing new as a result. ‘Berg’ simply eschews the superfluous dilly-dallying of our established humanistic tradition and cuts straight to place, movement and time, creating a mode of fiction that slices into its readers’ psyche like a scalpel into the heart.

The prose of Berg is intense, off-key and sometimes odd, but also effortless and free of baggage. It takes the reader to places most novelists could only dream of – both quicker and with surgeon-like precision to boot. I truly feel that it’s one of the great British novels, eerily depicting a seamier side of Brighton – Quin lived and died there, swimming out to sea and never coming back in 1973 – that can still be felt today, especially on cold, dark wintry nights, the sea crashing onto the pebbles just below the ageing esplanade.

How can you pass this one up? I found Berg mesmerizing and intend to read Ann Quin’s three other novels right away.

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