A bit of interesting context …

Reading Ann Quin’s Berg
Giles Gordon


Brighton, on the south coast and one hour by train from London, is the most raffish, louche and exciting of British seaside towns. Graham Greene’s technicolour thriller,Brighton Rock, is set there, Aubrey Beardsley was born and grew up there. Laurence Olivier lived there. Peter Ackroyd’s father lives there, as does my twenty-six-year-old daughter, educated at Sussex University nearby.

Ann Quin was born there in 1936, and swam out to sea there, in 1973, drowning herself in the process. She came from a working-class Celtic family, and published Berg, her first and most widely acclaimed novel, in 1964. Three more were to follow: Three (1966),Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972).

The English novel, as much as English theatre, had been languishing in self-satisfied gentility for quite some years, novels about adultery in Hampstead being to the taste of many writers as well as to readers. Novelists tended to have private incomes and a somewhat dilettante approach to both life and literature.

All this changed in the 1950s. John Wain published Hurry on Down in 1953, Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim in 1954, John Braine Room at the Top in 1957, Alan Sillitoe Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1958 and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner the following year, Stan Barstow A Kind of Loving in 1960. And in the theatre the Royal Court mounted John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 and, with Laurence Olivier, The Entertainer the following year.

Some of us, concerned about the novel as an art form (which the British had been rather good at in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), were not especially enamoured of this working class vernacular posing as social realism, insisting that the novel for the times (the 1950s, the 1960s) should, in effect, be manufactured by tape recorder, a verbal equivalent of cinema verite.

James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were long since dead, both in 1941 (the latter, like Quin, by drowning). Samuel Beckett was in Paris. Those of us growing up in the UK who were serious about new fiction tended to admire Angus Wilson, William Golding (The Lord of the Flies, 1954), the prolific Iris Murdoch (Under the Net, her first novel, 1954 also) and Doris Lessing.

The British literary establishment was much turned on, after the Second World War and Churchillian patriotism, by the irreverence and anti-intellectualism of the Angry Young Men. There was a smug rejoicing that Kingsley Amis should in Lucky Jim have a character refer to “beastly Mozart.”

To those of us resenting this parochialism, the publications of John Calder were a breath of fresh air. He introduced us to Beckett, Burroughs, Creeley, Duras, Claude Mauriac, Henry Miller, Pinget, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and the important Scottish novelist, Alexander Trocchi. We felt fiction mattered again. Calder, and his partner Marion Boyars, published only a few British novelists, and thus when Berg was published it was something to be read. Here was a working-class voice from England quite unlike any other, which had absorbed the theatrical influences of John Osborne and employed the technical advances of the nouveau roman. Berg, to use shorthand, is a Graham Greene thriller as if reworked by a somewhat romantic Burroughs.

Berg was decently received by reviewers in Britain and elsewhere, being published in the States, France and Germany. In 1965 Quin received the Harkness Fellowship, which took her to the USA for a year, and also a D. H. Lawrence fellowship. In the late 1960s, she spent further time in the States, which gave her material for her novel Tripticks. (As will be obvious, she was intrigued by the number three and its implications, not least in Berg.)

First sentences are—and I intend no tautology—fundamental to novels. The best first sentence of them all is surely that of Pride and Prejudice (though that of Moby-Dick isn’t bad): it exudes a confidence, style, narrative tone. I’ve always relished Joyce Carol Oates’s opening to Expensive People: “I was a child murderer,” with its double entendre. Likewise, though more Oedipal, the first sentence of Ann Quin’s Berg, which really tells you all you need to know about the book by way of plot: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . . .”

You will have to read the book to find out whether he succeeded. But Oedipal, Freudian too, the novel is. Edith is Aly Berg’s mother, and his father, Nathaniel—Nathy to his peripatetic mistress, Judith (Jocasta as Aly Berg become Greb sleeps with her)—deserted his wife and baby soon after the latter was born:

      . . . such an absurd, fantastic idea: To take his father’s corpse back home to Edith—the trophy of his triumphant love for her! In a Greek play they’d have thought nothing of it, considered to have been a duty, the final act of what the gods expected from their chosen hero.

There are elements of Jacobean drama in the novel: in addition to what happens to Nathy Berg, his pet budgerigar suffers death (twice, it seems), Judith’s cat dies horribly and a crucial ventriloquist’s dummy is hideously mutilated. There are also the Eumenides in the form of a kind of chorus of old tramps in the out of season seaside resort, clearly Brighton although unnamed, where the action takes place.

Before becoming a writer, Quin aspired to work in the theatre. She was granted an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but had such nerves that she couldn’t go through with it. Berg mentions, en passant, the eighteenth-century English actor and playwright David Garrick, who has an entry in the current edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, as do all the British novelists I’ve mentioned above with the exception of Ann Quin. There is though a reference to James Quin (1693-1766): “He was the last of the old school of actors, which gave place to that of Garrick. Smollet introduces him in Humphrey Clinker.” As the English satirical magazine Private Eyemight say, “Are they by any chance related?”

Berg is short but you have to concentrate. The prose is intense, linguistically precise. The language and references are sophisticated, except in the quotes from the letters of the parents. Edith refers to having provided Aly with an education, and whether the point of view is his, an omniscient narrator’s or the author’s—and it changes constantly, kaleidoscopically—it deliberately fails to pin down an objective reality.

One of the most influential books in the British Isles in the 1960s was the Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, published in 1960 and reprinted as a Penguin paperback in 1962. It is hard not to believe that Quin had read it and been influenced by it, both as a person and as a writer. Put crudely, Laing argued that those who think themselves sane are mad, and those society deems to be mad are sane.

Although Ann Quin was educated at a convent, her characters, with the exception of Edith, do not have a religious belief, nor is there much “morality” about. Aly says: “But I don’t believe in God, and how boring heaven must be just looking at His face, wouldn’t hell be more fun?”

And this recalls Edith: “Oh my child, my child there’s nothing more beautiful nothing more wonderful than looking upon God’s face you will see. You will come to understand.”

Here autobiography intrudes. In 1965 I was writing a weekly pseudonymous column on books and authors for Scotland’s national newspaper, Scotsman. I had recently left my native Edinburgh to work for Secker & Warburg, another distinguished publishing house in London. I suggested to the literary editor, William Watson, later a successful novelist (under a pseudonym) in his own right, that I do a series of interviews with a species of writer that at the time wasn’t particularly recognised, although it certainly had been in the previous century: female authors. My ten chosen included Christine Brooke-Rose, Stevie Smith, the biographer Elizabeth Longford, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Mortimer, Brigid Brophy and Ann Quin.

I quoted Quin as saying “Form interests me, and the merging of content and form. I want to get away from the traditional form. . . . I write straight onto my typewriter, one thousand words an hour but half will in the end be cut out. When I write the first creating parts of my book I can go on for three hours without a stop. When revising I can work up to seven hours, with breaks.”

She survived on a pittance. “If I had more money I’d buy books and clothes and I’d have a nice place to live in. I’d like a tower, facing the sea. I’m never so happy as when by the sea. . . . I sleep a lot. Jeanne Moreau has said she sleeps a lot between love affairs. There’s a man through the wall there, in the next room, and he wakes me up in the morning vomiting, coughing and so on.” Echoes of Berg there, to say the least.

In 1973 the leading British “experimental” novelist (I put the adjective in quotes because, to me, experimental in the context implies unsuccessful) B. S. Johnson published a collection of short fictions, Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? It was prefaced with a wonderfully polemical and didactic introduction, arguing for a new seriousness and honesty in fiction. He concluded by listing the writers “who are writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter”: Samuel Beckett, John Berger, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Angela Carter, Eva Figes, Giles Gordon, Wilson Harris, Rayner Heppenstall, Robert Nye, Ann Quin, Penelope Shuttle, Alan Sillitoe (“for his last book only, Raw Material indeed”) and Stefan Themerson. How many of these writers are known at all in the States? How many of them are read a quarter of a century later in their native land?

Karl Miller, at the time the UK’s most influential literary editor and later a professor of English Literature, put together for Penguin Writing in England Today (1968). Essentially it eulogised fiction (nonfiction and poetry too) as a division of journalism, of deadening social realism. B. S. Johnson and I—who at the time were published by Hutchinson—easily persuaded our publisher Charles Clark to let us edit an anthology which would serve, almost, as an antidote to Miller’s. Horrifically, Bryan Johnson slit his wrists, Roman-fashion, and died in the bath (the same year Ann Quin also had a watery death) a few days before we were due to sign the contract.

I dedicated Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction (1975) to the memory of both Johnson and Quin. The anthology contained new and previously unpublished work by Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Elspeth Davie, Eva Figes, Giles Gordon, B. S. Johnson, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Nye, David Plante (American but resident in Britain), Ann Quin and Maggie Ross. Quin’s contribution was an extract from her unfinished novel, The Unmapped Country. Beyond the Words, which is now a collector’s item for the few who want to read it, was ferociously attacked when published, notably by Christopher Ricks and a very young but spluttering Martin Amis with a reputation still to make.

A final word. When I first read Ulysses and Four Quartets I found them thrilling but “difficult.” Now they yield up their meaning easily, but not I hope all their meaning. Similarly, when I first read Berg in 1964 I found it exciting, although somewhat hard to comprehend, like Pinter’s early plays when they were first performed. Reading Berg again in the new century, it seems straightforward and rather lyrical, almost traditional.


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