:: Article

Ann Quin: a Peculiar Fish Without Fins (Blurring, Filth, and Smut. Or, What Ann Quin Means To Me)

By Lee Rourke.

1.

‘Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room—dimensions rarely touched by the sun—Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dancehall opposite.’
(Ann Quin, Berg)

Ann Quin has haunted me for the past nineteen or so years, intermittently it seems, sputtering in fits, highs and lows, present and real, always mysterious and elusive, shimmering in the background of my life. I’ve not always looked to her for inspiration — there are many, many others – but she has always been there if needed. She hasn’t taught me to write, I haven’t imitated her style (I have no style), but she has been some kind of beacon for me, an icon if you will, galvanising in me a sense of hope: that writing can, and should always search out an alternative route.

Writing as deviation.

Perversion.

Ann Quin, the working-class writer of four novels who went out to swim one morning and never came back. The working-class writer who was ignored by already established reading tastes, who herself ignored the normality of these bourgeois expectations thrown her way, who left these shores to explore and experiment. The working-class writer who left many perplexed, indifferent, and unaware. The working-class writer who taught me never to write what is expected of me as a working-class writer.

The working-class writer who looked outside the burry window. Who was ultimately modern. Who understood our fractured selves and disjointed world.

A working-class writer who is now, after a long time in the darkness, emerging into the light of popular literary interest. A new collection of stories and fragments, The Unmapped Country, expertly curated and edited by Quin scholar Jennifer Hogdson, is causing much delight, curiosity, and excitement.

But what happens to Ann Quin when all of this becomes sullied by grime again, when our view of her work is once again smeared with loam?

Who is Ann Quin to us then, now, and always?

Like Alistair Berg, our working-class “fish without fins”: constantly unsure, worrying, determined and resolute, an imposter, incognito in a strange world, a world governed by ‘them’, constantly fighting to tread water, awkward, irregular, fitting in spasms of words, eking each out onto a bare, blank page, each syllable spiked, convulsed, staccato, yet as comforting as any bed on a cold, wintry night.

Sea spray smeared across the window panes of our life, blurring clarity, form and perception.

Constantly wiping the shit away.

2.

‘Catholicism is a ritualistic culture that gave me a conscience. A death wish and a sense of sin. Also a great lust to find out, experience, what evil really was.’
(Ann Quin in: Mackrell, Judith. Ann Quin, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14: British Novelists Since 1960. Ed. Jay Halio. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. 608-13.)

I think of Ann Quin (which is quite often these days) as I do Franz Kafka. They are unconnected, of course, but linked all the same in my mind: both as writers cursed by work. Kafka to both the Assicurazioni Generali/Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (the most notable) and his writing, and Ann Quin to the toil of work as a secretary (something that haunted her for the rest of her life), working all day long at the Royal College of Art, London, then, fatigued and bored, travelling home to Notting Hill to write through the night. Like Kafka, this is how Ann Quin lived while writing Berg, her debut novel (and most celebrated of the four novels she wrote in her short life). It’s her most ‘experimental’ novel, too (something I’ll dwell upon later): the repetitive everyday formulae: work/write, work/write, work/write fostered something akin to distain within her, so she produced in Berg, a work which strives to work things out, working out some kind of direction away from the work/horror of her everyday life, and (more importantly) the stagnant trappings of contemporary ‘literary’ fiction.

But what of this strong abstract noun ‘evil’? What does Quin mean?

Evil, for Quin, is simply freedom. There’s nothing worse than this type of freedom in the socio-political eyes of elite mind-sets that are in control – Quin’s urge was to remove herself from prying eyes, to be unshackled from the constraints of a working-class, catholic life: to escape the “corridor room” of seemingly no escape. It’s no coincidence that it’s the writers who are less comfortable with the world around them who produce the more challenging, fragmented, ‘experimental’ works.

By the way: Ann Quin wasn’t a Catholic.

There’s no sense of guilt.

3.

‘Feeling Beckett is too obvious a point of reference, I detour instead to Ann Quin. Despite ongoing rumours of a B. S. Johnson revival, I feel our attention could be more usefully directed towards Ann Quin.’
(Stewart Home, 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess)

I’d bought a copy of Berg some years before I’d read Stewart Home. After flicking through it, and marvelling at its oddness (is there anything odder than finding a Calder original you’ve never read before?), for some reason I cast it aside, leaving it on my to-be-read shelf, abandoned, ignored much like Quin’s work has been up until The Unmapped Country was recently published, gathering dust with the other oddities I’d collected along the way. Some time later, in 2002, I distinctly remember opening Home’s 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess in a café along the laines in Brighton where I was living at the time. Home’s opening words hit me (openings of novels have always interested me more than endings):

‘A man who no longer called himself Callum came to Aberdeen intent on ending his life.’

It hit me. It’s Berg I whispered to myself, remembering Quin’s opening line:

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

That evening I returned to my to-be-read shelf and picked up my copy of Berg. I read both books in tandem (I’ve never been a faithful-to-one-novel-at-a-time-kind-of-reader anyway). The connections and intertextualities of 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, entwining itself with Berg thrilled me. It was my skeleton key to something secret, some form of code existing under the nose of everyday life. Not only did Stewart Home affirm my good taste, he injected confidence in my judgement. He breathed life into the – as then unknown – void in my life: Ann Quin.

My approach to reading in general — and reading works like Berg in particular – has always been intertextual. I naturally look for fissures in the tissues of texts, seeking out rips and tears that may reveal what’s lying underneath, so to read both Quin and Home in tandem was joy, they both morphed into the same book, riffing into one another, becoming the same work. Home echoed this sentiment much later in one of his anti-essays on Quin’s oeuvre:

‘By the time of Tripticks (1972), her fourth and last published novel, she had completed her transition from late modernist to postmodern writer. In-between came Three (1966) and Passages (1969). These two books by Quin tend to merge in my mind, to blur into one, but that’s cool because often it is more productive to read an author’s entire output as a single work rather than treating individual novels as discrete entities.’ (Stewart Home, ‘Ann Quinn at the Lost and Found’)

Like Berg, Home’s 69 Things To Do With a Dead Princess works to excavate not only what lies underneath the work in its own creation, but also what lies beneath the readers’ own conceits. In other words, Quin/Home challenge conventional ideas about what a novel is, and what it is to be as individuals, as writers of fiction, both governed by ordered authenticity, and then seek to destroy them. In “Does Aberdeen Exist? An Essay Review of Stewart Home’s 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess“, Kevin O’Neill states:

‘Home constructs high and low text types within the novel 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess. [. . .] The effects of this annihilate certitude. It is difficult to specify Home’s intentions, apart from that he undermines most of what he does. I will prove this through a study of his style. Schizophrenic ventriloquism. He adopts voices to destabilise narrative voice, annihilate certitude, destroy the novel. Proves the fallacy of the Quin motif as uncomplicated influence on his style.’

If two words serve to unite both Quin and Home it’s: “schizophrenic ventriloquism”. There is a deliberate and flagrant use of multiple voices in both works, each serving to unstable reading pleasure, and more importantly, re-tangle common sense ideas and notions associated with authenticity in the novel. The contemporary novel should be a work of confusion, something which seeks to destroy order and plain, clear cut ideas. The contemporary novel – much like real life – should be messy and confusing.

But above all, if none of this sticks, the contemporary novel should be destroyed for good.

4.

‘Language is her governing material: descriptive and representational, it is also bodily and erotic, despite it dealing with the seeming neutrality of objects and spaces.’
Alice Butler, Ann Quin’s Night-Time Ink: A Postscript.

Ann Quin doesn’t moddy-coddle the reader (to paraphrase one of her influences Alain Robbe-Grillet: her work doesn’t do the reading for us), multiple linguistic agitations are apparent from the very first paragraph of Berg. The language is sharp, it judders, flickering on image to image, overlapping, morphing, disguising itself, moving on, deliberately ruining our view, always moving on.

To repeat:

‘Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white scaled, bound by corridor room – dimension rarely touched by the sun – Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dancehall apposite.’ (Ann Quin, Berg)

Blurring from the outset, an image smudged, purposely made unclear: un/recognisable, in/visible, just like a Gerhard Richter photo-painting (‘I blur to make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant’, Gerhard Richter). The blur is used to interfere with our vision, to confuse and agitate. As the novelist Tom McCarthy said of this technique in his appraisal of Richter’s work (he could very well be talking about Quin, it doesn’t matter):

‘What is a blur? It’s a corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity, one that turns transparent lenses into opaque shower curtains, gauzy veils [. . .] Beyond reflecting his own situation, the blur serves as a perfect general metaphor for memory, its degradation, for the Ozymandian corrosion wrought by time.’ (Tom McCarthy, ‘Blurred visionary: Gerhard Richter’s Photo-Paintings’, The Guardian)

What is a blur? Can a blur be colossal and awe-inspiring? Can grime equate to more than the sum of its parts? We are faced with the image of a blurred window. A window frames what we look at, through it, it serves as a lens to the world outside, we see what it allows us to see, but when this lens is blurred, smudged with grime, what do we see? The grime? Or what we imagine – through experience or memory – what’s on the other side? Quin’s window stands before us from the outset, before anything, obscuring our view.

In smothering her subjects and themes this way, Quin’s corrosion serves to magnify her intentions.

Berg is dirty. Quin is dirty. Her writing is smeared with filth.

5.

‘Triangulated relationships were Quin’s major theme.’
Juliet Jacques (New Statesman)

But before we sift through some filth, let’s explore this idea of triangulation further. There is an obsession with triumvirate strands that spans Quin’s entire oeuvre, From Berg through to Tripticks. It is a form of ventriloquism in itself; a masterclass in structure and voice, each triadic list working with and enmeshing other influences into the mix. For example, the very crux of Berg’s intended plot-line: the moment Berg/Greb/Aly is finally given the chance to kill his father, turns into some farcical, tragi-comic, pulp fiction fest/homage; where the rug is pulled from under the whole scene, through the fumbling actions of Berg/Greb/Aly, cut through with other interpolations of narrative and genre:

‘Now’s the time, your chance, follow him; the perfect alibi – anything could happen; trampled on by the crowd outside, pushed accidentally into a fire, cause for suicide – balance of the mind disturbed, there were witnesses, Judith would testify. Anything could happen in such a state at such a time. Judith’s hands encircled Berg’s neck. What a state to get in, honestly Nathy’s quite mad, still why should we care Aly, why should we bother about him. Aly kiss me, kiss me now, oh kiss me here. I’ve been dying for you darling, oh Christ how I want you . . . He struggled away, tried walking in a straight line towards the door. He heard Judith laugh, calling him back. He went on, from side to side, clutching at banisters. MY God what had she put in that drink – something lethal.’ (Ann Quin, Berg)

There’s something happening in Quin’s comically dramatic, out of tune:

‘Aly kiss me, kiss me now, oh kiss me here. I’ve been dying for you darling, oh Christ how I want you . . .’

Something smutty; quintessentially bawdy, it’s archetypal British seaside smut, and it’s put in there by Quin to disrupt things, to destroy the illusion, to pull the rug from under death – but more importantly: the readers’ expectations.

Kiss me quick!

Let’s explore some more (before we look at Three). Concentrating on Berg alone, it systematically and structurally flips within a series of triangulations on just about every level imaginable. We have Berg/Greb/Aly enmeshed with the father/son/mistress, not forgetting the father/son/ventriloquist’s dummy, the omniscient/interior/exterior narrative voice, the three main classical influences: Oedipus/Freud/Laing, and those main genre influences: thriller/spy caper/trashy pulp fiction, all juxtaposed with Quin’s serious theoretical influences: Modernism/Postmodernism/ Nouveau Roman, and her obsessions with the stage/Shakespeare/theatrical masks. It makes for a heady mix. The whole of Berg is made up of a swirling, repeating, looping, conjoining triumvirate of these tensions. Each pulling against each other, bending the novel out of shape, into unchartered territory and dead ends and blank spaces. Yet, despite all of this tomfoolery, the points of narration always remain central: to Berg/Greb/Aly himself. And in spite of conflicting third-person objective/internal subjective, hovering node, camera-eye observations/voices set in either the present, past or future tense which may lead us to feel that we’ve been systematically assaulted by myriad voices, each of these deviations from the norm remains close to Berg/Greb/Aly’s own actions.

Is it, then, Berg/Greb/Aly himself who blurs reality?

Yes and no, I would argue.

Fiction is schizophrenic ventriloquism after all.

6.

‘But the sense of touch, fantasies re-explored. Pretend I’m tied to the bed. And his tongue whipped over, across, under. Have you tried it with three? Have you? Be three now… When will you fuck me next? I’ll fuck you any time you want. Out of the window. In a boat. An aeroplane.’ (Ann Quin, Three)

Quin leaves behind the bawdy, seaside smut of Berg in her second novel Three. The blurring still remains, though. This time it’s a different type of blurring: a form of suffocation through desire (and to be precise, it’s heteronormative desire that Quin finds so suffocating). Recorded, transcribed and relayed.

Looped.

It’s the suffocating normality of everyday desire that haunts Quin, it swirls all around her each day, every day, slowly killing her, slowly pushing her away, sucking the life out of her. She sees it, hears it, feels it everywhere she goes, replayed over and over and over whenever she switches on the radio, turns on the TV, opens a book, steps into a theatre, wherever she turns, recorded in past, present, and future interactions and iterations, recorded to be played back, to be examined, a form of everyday haunting she’s unable to escape.

She makes a good attempt with her triangulations. Her only way out:

‘Be three now.’ (Ann Quin, Three)

Exploring this dynamic in overlaps of fragmented reality.

Spool.

Spooooooool.

It comes in spools.

Transactional.

Desire found and relayed trough recordings on magnetic tape, transcripts, journals, lists, letters, articles, etc. This stuff to which desire sticks. Beckett knew this:

‘I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
(Pause. Krapp’s lips move. No sound.)
 Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.’ (Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape)

Nothing else exists.

Everything else is silence.

Desire lurks beneath.

‘With all this darkness round me I feel less alone. In a way. I love to get up and move about in it, then back here to . . . (hesitates) . . . me.’ (Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape)

I’ve always admired this direct connection between Ann Quin and Samuel Beckett, and their overlapping of reality with recorded reality. Both sifting through the shit (Just like Quin, and all of her characters, Beckett/Krapp is wiping away the crap after all, removing the smudge, wiping away the blur, searching for that one pristine bone: desire). I naturally allowed their influence to permeate through my own work, which is littered with the same shit, these same overlaps and loops (albeit now digitised mutations).

Desire.

It’s all about desire.

What? Did you think I was going to write about the ins and outs of fucking?

Quin’s fucking?

That doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is Quin’s deep-rooted desire . . . for life, love, the intimacy of another, space, language, things, good things, good feelings, so many fucking things. Whenever I read Quin it’s all in there (if we choose to look, and we must). These parallels with Beckett are strong, they run through her work: beneath the blur, the grit, grime, and filth, the comedy of everyday life and human existence, everything is desire. In the same way that Beckett (through Krapp) works through the grimy blurring of technology to finally reveal the desire that lurks within it:

‘Here I end this reel. Box — (pause) — three, spool — (pause) — five. (Pause). Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness.’ (Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape)

Quin (through all her work, but especially in the domestic scenes recorded and relayed in her novel Three) dredges through the grimy blurring of reality (technology/fractured relationships and potatoes are the same thing, right?) to reveal the same common denominator:

‘More potatoes darling? Don’t mind. Yes or no? She stood beside him, over him. He leaned back, twisted his neck. If there are some left thanks no no more that’s plenty. How can you watch that programme just don’t know I don’t think it’s funny one bit. He pronged a potato, held halfway, and laughed until his eyes watered. She looked at the cat, made noises, clicked, sucked, her nose wriggled. Make the coffee Leon. When this is over ohhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhh oh that’s
Good.’
(Ann Quin, Three)

Desire, right?

7.

‘The word “experimental” kept her nicely in her place. All the same, I understand that being described as an “experimental writer” was more dignifying for a woman than some of the rancid versions of femininity available to her.’ (Deborah Levy, ‘Ann Quin and Me: An Appreciation’, Music & Literature No 7)

Deborah Levy displays a deeper understanding of Quin’s style than most. This dignifying label suits Quin because it is the lesser of many evils. I guess, it points us towards just what it is that forces critics to label Quin thus. It forces us to look at Quin as a woman, perhaps Quin’s most valuable theme: the interior of herself as a woman.

While reading about Quin some time ago I stumbled upon Jennifer Komorowski’s remarkable thesis on the internet (The Voice as an Object of Desire in the Work of Ann Quin, The University of Western Ontario), in which she charts this thing called desire, but more importantly, desire through the role of Ann Quin as a woman writer. There is a quotation used by Komorowski to explain Quin’s own style, it’s taken from Hélène Cixous and it’s simply fascinating:

‘Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word “silence,” the one that, aiming for the impossible, stops short before the word “impossible” and writes it as “the end”.’ (Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’)

Has Quin’s own invention of an ‘impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes’ given critics – until now – no label to use other than ‘experimental’? Is it because, as critics, they’ve looked no further than language itself? Ignoring Quin’s place in the world as a woman through the very same language they try to master and tame? That often repeated, age-old patriarchal/bourgeois need which puts me in mind of Martin Heidegger:

‘Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.’ (Building, Dwelling, Thinking)

I don’t know if Quin ever read Heidegger, but she intrinsically understands this premise and painstakingly works towards subverting it in her work. Is this why she’s been largely ignored until quite recently? Because her work shows patriarchal/bourgeois expectations for what they really are: futile power/control games? Are times finally changing? Has time finally caught up with Quin’s place in the world?

I can’t begin to explain the influence Ann Quin has had on my writing, it is all of the above and so much more, yet I am unable to articulate this correctly, it’s always been this way, which in a strange way seems apt and not a failing on my part (which, it most definitely is). There is so much to learn from reading her work, too much to convey in this fragmented rant, I am indeed incapable, words fail me. Everything is obscured, rich in textures too complicated to reveal here, best read her, read her work, read Quin. Read Ann Quin. Everything is blurred. Ann Quin has arrived.

So, to repeat:

‘Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white scaled, bound by corridor room – dimension rarely touched by the sun – Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dancehall opposite.’ (Ann Quin, Berg)

Our blurry, dirty, smudged, fish without fins has landed.

Exceptionally difficult to pin down.

Until now sadly bound by a narrow corridor of opinion.

Blurring perception.

A figure rarely touched by critics’ warm light.

Until now.

And now.

Finally.

We must take Ann Quin for what she is.

A writer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Rourke is the author of the short-story collection Everyday, the novel The Canal (winner of the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2010) and the poetry collection Varroa Destructor. His latest novel Vulgar Things is published in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US by 4th Estate, Harper Collins. His debut novel The Canal is being adapted to film by Storyhouse Productions, summer 2018.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 5th, 2018.