Berg

Review of Berg by Ann Quin. The Irish Times, 9 March 2019, p. 32.

Berg, Ann Quin’s gloriously twisted debut, is the kind of novel Patrick Hamilton or Graham Greene might have composed had they been French existentialists — on acid.

Though couched in a style more reminiscent of Joyce than Sillitoe — one that alchemises the demotic into the poetic — the squalid setting would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers. An angry young man pacing the “narrow strip of carpet between wardrobe and bed” in dingy dodgy lodgings had, by 1964, become a shorthand for kitchen-sink drama. The author, who turned to writing after being struck dumb during her Rada audition, never lost her passion for theatricality. Here, she adds Oedipus, Faust, and King Hamlet’s ghost to her repertoire, placing the performance of language centre-stage.

At times — the party where the potted plants seem to come to life, or the Bonfire Night bacchanalia — her prose enters a fugue state that simply takes your breath away. The evocation of what appears to be a near-drowning episode, in the antepenultimate chapter, has at once the hyperreal clarity and baffling opacity of a dream. Such flights of fancy often coincide with the protagonist’s hallucinations, visited by all manner of mythical monsters and even a giant eyeless face that gobbles everything up, including himself: “The sun exploded between his eyes”. The extent to which these apocalyptic visions were connected to Quin’s own bouts of mental illness — prompting her to take her own life by swimming out to sea at the age of 37 — is anyone’s guess.

Setting off a chain reaction of inversions, culminating in the closing coup de théâtre, Alistair Berg changes his name to Greb and moves to Brighton for the sole purpose of killing his absentee father (Nathaniel), who currently resides — with his latest mistress (Judith) — in the adjacent room. The flimsy partition separating them seems almost sentient, swaying and shuddering under the effect of his father’s vigorous lovemaking. It becomes an instantiation of the “shadow screen” (one of two allusions to Plato’s cave) behind which the anti-hero feels trapped, preventing him from bringing anything to fruition.

Berg, who is literally sterile, can never accomplish what he calls the “complete formation,” only “shadows of shapes, half tones thrown on a cinnamon wall”. This sense of alienation is reinforced by the one-sided dialogue: the other characters address him in the first person, but his reactions are always relayed in the third. Berg’s plan to bring down the Matrix through parricide ends in farce as the corpse he thought he had concealed in a rug turns out to be Nathaniel’s ventriloquist’s dummy. (The absence of inverted commas and constant abrupt shifts in point of view give the impression that the novel itself is ventriloquising the different voices — which of course it is.) Breaking the fourth wall will thus only occur in parodic mode, when the protagonist eventually tears down the partition to escape an angry mob at his door.

“If I could only make things bow before the majesty of complete omnipotence”: Berg is the archetypal nerd longing to be an Übermensch. As a child he was a “silly cissy” with masochistic tendencies and castration fantasies, who was sexually abused by his uncle. As an adult he is an inveterate onanist, who swings both ways, and remains a mummy’s boy. He even entertains the idea of offering his father’s corpse to his mother as “the trophy of his triumphant love for her”. “In a Greek play,” he deadpans, “they’d have thought nothing of it.”

He also exacts revenge on Nathaniel by becoming Judith’s lover. This Freudian nightmare climaxes when Berg, wearing Judith’s clothes, is almost raped by his drunken progenitor, who mistakes him for their mistress.

The anti-hero’s delusions of grandeur are symbolised by the hair tonic he sells, which supposedly transforms the user into a “new man”. Berg is a “Pirandello hero” in search of a “play of his own making” in which he would be the “central character” and no longer a mere “understudy”.

“If I wish to create then I must first annihilate,” he argues, sounding every inch like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov. Fancying himself as a “white-robed” alter deus, Berg must “eradicate the past,” and hence his father, in order to forge a new self and universe out of his solipsism.

For Berg, pain “over-rules everything” until it becomes an “inanimate object” to be contemplated. I wonder if that object, for Quin, was this book — a triumph of post-war literature. A classic of social surrealism.

The Unmapped Country

My review of The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin. The Guardian (Review), 13 January 2018, p. 10.

Reduced to an anomalous footnote in British literary history — a female, working-class, avant-garde author — Ann Quin is all too often taken as read. Yet her work is as open-ended as those sentences she regularly produced that trail off into silence, casting a spell instead of spelling out; floating away on their reserve of potentiality. As open-ended, indeed, as her life, which she took at the age of 37, swimming out to sea off Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973. She left behind four novels — including her celebrated debut, Berg (1964) — along with scores of short-form pieces, some which now appear in a thrilling new collection of miscellanea.

Spanning the author’s entire career, The Unmapped Country, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, builds up a portrait of the artist as a restless spirit, forever adventuring into the unknown. In an autobiographical skit, Quin mocks her reputation as an experimental author, attributing the Arts Council’s rejection of her grant application to their having read her last book. The diversity on display is impressive, however, as she studiously avoids getting trapped in any one style or genre. “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, with its enchanting evocation of childhood and unflinching depiction of the decrepitude of old age, is a technically accomplished but surprisingly conventional short story.

“A Double Room” is kitchen sink drama set in Patrick Hamilton territory, while “Tripticks”, which developed into the novel of the same name, recalls Donald Barthelme at his quirkiest. “Living in the Present” (1968), a Burroughsian exercise in cut-ups conducted with the American poet Robert Sward (her then lover) seems to pave the way for JG Ballard’s media-saturated The Atrocity Exhibition.

Some pieces are straightforward memoir; others are clearly fiction, but there is a great deal of overlapping between the two (from this perspective, the author could be considered as a pioneer of autofiction). Quin frequently displays an ambivalent attitude towards mothers in general, and her own in particular, mirrored by a love-hate relationship with a dreary postwar England, where vegetables were still served up “as though chewed already”.

She resolved to become a writer after being “struck dumb” during her RADA audition, and her work always retained a strong theatrical quality. Several stories here are monologues. The two pieces written in the early 60s for pop artist Billy Apple (another lover) give voice to the ludic, transatlantic idiom of the emerging counterculture. Inevitably, considering her recurring bouts of depression and the electroconvulsive therapy she endured, mental illness looms large. The eponymous novella offers a devastating — albeit often hilarious — critique of psychiatry. Sudden shifts in perspective are common, as one character points out during a train journey: “Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” And then there is the encroachment of the sea. A girl envisions her bedridden grandmother’s legs as sticks with “barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging”. In “Nude and Seascape”, which channels the affectlessness of Camus, a woman’s corpse becomes an object in a gruesome still life composition: “Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time”.

This struggle between order and chaos runs through Quin’s work. The husband in “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails” wants to impose a tight schedule on his handyman to curtail the “impression he gives of unlimited time”. Sandra’s descent into madness, in “The Unmapped Country” (1973), takes the form of a hermeneutic disease, whereby everything — even birdsong or “the placing of twigs and leaves” in a park — is construed as a cosmic message. This is, of course, an eminently literary malady: “It takes me a long time to read now, a paragraph holds so much significance, and everything links up.” After being sectioned, she attempts in vain to piece together her hallucinatory journey: “Last events came first, the beginning at the end, or suddenly reversed, or slid into panels mid-way.” The grand narrative eludes her, leaving only “vague notes for the basis of a shape”. A subtle parallel is drawn between the signals Sandra picks up – the broadcasts she tunes into – at the height of her delirium, and the analyst’s Freudian worldview. In her journal, she scoffs at his “stupidity in listening and believing in the radio he switches on” at the beginning of each session.

Although the novella remains unfinished, an alternative to the absolutist, patriarchal vision of art depicted in “Nude and Seascape” seems to emerge when Sandra dismisses her boyfriend’s pursuit of posterity through painting: “How much better to create like the Navajo Indians, beginning at sunrise in the desert, a sand painting that would be rubbed out by sundown.” Having burned her latest contribution to the hospital’s weekly art session, she elects to make “paintings with her footprints in the snow”. The temptation to go beyond the confines of the canvas or page finds its natural expression in Quin’s penchant for juxtapositions and lists. This vagabond style is the perfect vehicle for the ecstatic urge to “go over” and “live beyond” oneself. To keep on walking through the snow, like Sandra, with unlimited time on your hands.