Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of articles with international concerns. Today’s article, “My Certainty Shall Be Their Confusion,” by James Ley, was originally published by the SRB on September 20, 2021.
Ann Quin was born in 1936 in Brighton, England. She died there in 1973. The circumstances of her death are inconclusive, but it is commonly accepted that she committed suicide. She stripped naked and walked into the sea.
She left behind four novels: Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972). An unfinished novel and a smattering of short fiction, including an early version of Tripticks, have been collected in The Unmapped Country as part of a recent reissue of her work. The manuscripts of two other novels were lost when Quin was evicted from her London flat in the early 1970s. She was away at the time and the real-estate agent threw them in the bin.
The details of Quin’s life are sketchy; the secondary literature is slight. There is no full-length biography, though the Dictionary of Literary Biography has published two serviceable accounts of her life and work. There are some reviews, a handful of academic articles, and a few essays in biographical criticism, notably a meticulous but rather dry overview of her novels by Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard, which appeared in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 2003, and Robert Buckeye’s monograph Re: Quin, published in 2013. The only interviews I was able to find were in Nell Dunn’s Talking with Women from 1965 and a patronizing Guardian article by John Hall from 1972. Jennifer Hodgson, who edited The Unmapped Country, is working on a critical study of Quin’s fiction.
In her introduction to The Unmapped Country, Hodgson observes that Quin was “a rare breed in British writing: radically experimental, working class and a woman.” For her part, Quin was adamant that she wanted nothing to do with the kitchen-sink realism that was the signature mode of working-class British writers in the early 1960s. This was clearly more than an aesthetic preference. The bare facts of Quin’s life and the unorthodox nature of her work speak of a deep-seated restlessness, a perpetual flight from determination and social constraint.
She was raised by her mother, her father having abandoned them when she was small. Though she was not Catholic, she was educated at the local convent in the hope that she might acquire a little refinement: “the Sussex accent I had picked up from the village school in my belly-rubbing days,” Quin writes in an autobiographical essay collected in The Unmapped Country, “had to be eliminated by How Now Brown Cow, if I wanted to make my way in the world. According to Mother.” Her religious education did not have the intended effect. “There’s nothing like a Catholic upbringing for a sense of sin,” she told John Hall: “if you have that you enjoy sin so much more when you get to it.”
Initially, at least, Quin did what a young woman of her station in life was supposed to do: she learned to type and got a job as a secretary. The flirtation with respectability was short-lived. Quin was drawn to the bohemian spirit of the times and its liberating possibilities. Her early ambition to pursue an acting career was scuttled by a paralyzing attack of stage fright at an audition. Writing would become her ticket out. The publication of Berg – an audacious novel that takes its thematic cues from Hamlet, Dostoevsky, and Freud, but pitches itself as a squalid seaside farce – earned her comparisons to the likes of B. S. Johnson and Nathalie Sarraute. It also opened the door to the kinds of peripatetic adventures that tend to be denied denizens of the lower orders, women in particular, and she seized the opportunity with enthusiasm. She would exasperate her publisher John Calder by immediately squandering any grant money she received on travel and general revelry. A trip to Dublin was spent whooping it up in the city’s famous pubs. In Sweden, Quin got herself arrested when she was caught rolling naked in a snowdrift. A period of residency in the United States, funded by two writing fellowships, provided a chance for her to acquaint herself with the burgeoning hippie culture; which is to say, she seems to have spent a good deal of her time there fucking and getting stoned.
Quin’s exuberance had its dark side. Her adult life was marred by a series of mental breakdowns, beginning in her early twenties, which resulted in periods of institutionalization and, on at least one occasion, electroconvulsive therapy. The last and most severe episode, which occurred in Switzerland, left her unable to speak for a month. She was transferred to a London psychiatric hospital, before returning home to her mother in Brighton. Judith Mackrell, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, suggests that Quin may have been suffering from some form of schizophrenia; Calder, no more qualified than Mackrell to pronounce on such matters, diagnoses Quin as manic-depressive and reports that towards the end of her life she had been prescribed lithium.
Whatever the case may be, her writing was never less than cogent and purposeful, even at its most angular. The vague terms “experimental” and “avant garde,” which are routinely applied to Quin, convey something of her striking originality, but not the depth and perspicacity of her work. The development of her technique across her four novels, each of which has its own distinct atmosphere, can be interpreted as a search for expressive forms adequate to their underlying psychological tensions. Quin faces down madness with method, salvages a paradoxical artistic coherence from a fragmented reality, her attitude encapsulated in the quote from Albert Camus that concludes her autobiographical essay in The Unmapped Country:
There is in me an anarchy, a frightful disorder. Creating costs me a thousand deaths, for it involves order and my whole being rebels against order. But without it I should die scattered.
Quin was self-conscious and perhaps a little defensive about her humble background and lack of formal education. In the interview with Nell Dunn, there is the following exchange:
Dunn: … when I was about seventeen and I began to meet working-class people … I had no idea how to talk to them, get through to them or they to me.
Quin: I hate this sort of thing setting up working-class people and so on I really do. People are people to me.
The interview is not all that revealing from a literary perspective. Dunn displays little interest in the formal innovations and intellectual substance of Quin’s writing, preferring to ask personal questions about her philosophy of life, her relationships with men, and the experience of having an abortion. And yes, Dunn really does claim that she did not meet or speak to a working-class person until she was seventeen.
Quin does, however, refer to Three, the novel she was writing at the time about an ill-fated relationship between a married couple and a younger woman, and her brief description suggests an element of class consciousness was informing her work:
two people who have always had money and have always known a certain side of life and never gone beyond and the girl has never known a family life and she’s very intrigued by it … although she hates it, she’s also intrigued.
The mien of Quin’s novels is that of the perceptive outsider. She has the eye for pretense and the instinct for subversion that are acute in those who have felt themselves patronized or excluded. In Berg and Three, in particular, there is a pervasive awareness of the essential phoniness of social mores, a sense that characters are role-playing, keeping up appearances, papering over seamy realities in a spirit of quiet desperation. Berg – the funniest and most accessible of Quin’s novels – mocks the English class obsession with mischievous glee. The eponymous Alistair Berg is a travelling hair-tonic salesman, who has been told by his mother Edith that he is a “natural aristocrat,” just like the father he never knew. But when he tracks down his father in a dreary resort town, with the intention of killing him in revenge for having been abandoned as a child, he discovers that Berg père is in fact an out of work music-hall performer, who lives in a shabby boarding house with his mistress, the buxom and blowsy Judith. Nathaniel Berg merely affects a faux-aristocratic accent and the air of a temporarily embarrassed gentleman of means in an absurd attempt to conceal the obvious fact that he is a hopeless drunk and a scrounger.
The bare facts of Ann Quin’s life and the unorthodox nature of her work speak of a deep-seated restlessness, a perpetual flight from determination and social constraint.
Three is a less comical work, but the satire is no less scalding. The novel opens in the home of Leonard and Ruth, a respectable middle-class couple. They are discussing a newspaper report of a man falling from a sixth-floor window – suicide, they presume. This prompts them to reflect on the recent death of their former houseguest, a young woman referred to throughout as S, who has apparently taken a boat out to sea and drowned herself. With a somber air of detachment, they set about absolving themselves:
predictable her sort of temperament … We’re not to blame remember that no one is responsible for another’s actions – any tea left by the way?
They casually malign their erstwhile companion, who was rather on the short side, a little too plump, dressed inappropriately, and wore too much makeup. Her misfortune is reinterpreted as evidence of their virtue. Is seems the very fact that she knew them at all was to her benefit:
At least we helped her financially in the way of rent food and so on. Compensated for the family life she never knew.
Beyond such acidulous depictions of middle-class pretension and condescension, Quin is interested in the desires and perversities that the veneer of gentility barely conceals. This too is presented in ways that are sometimes amusing, sometimes rather more serious. Berg’s vulgar Freudianism is certainly not offered with a straight face. It contributes to the sordid atmosphere and gives a creepily comical frisson to the novel’s theatrical confusions. When Berg disguises himself in Judith’s clothes and his inebriated father staggers into the room and tries to fuck him, we are well and truly in the realm of black farce, as we are when he seduces Judith and she, in the throes of passion, starts calling him by his father’s name. As a mummy’s boy and a compulsive masturbator who is partial to a bit of a spanking, Berg is a satirical embodiment of a distinctly English form of sexual repression: an offshoot of that unedifying branch of civilization that gave the world cheeky seaside postcards, Carry On films, and the kinds of smutty magazines favored by Philip Larkin. We are in much the same territory in Tripticks – aesthetically if not geographically (the novel is set in the United States) – when Quin has her narrator watch through a keyhole while someone spanks his wife with a kipper. The relationship between the childless couple Leonard and Ruth is similarly characterized by its element of psychosexual weirdness. She infantilizes him, cleaning his face with a handkerchief and feeding him jelly with a spoon, her maternal role spilling over into their erotic play when he begins sucking her breast and she tells him he looks “like a baby,” at which point he is sufficiently aroused to ravish her “like a beast.”
Almost all the commentators on Quin’s work note its peculiar erotic charge. To a significant extent, sex and desire are the prisms through which she interprets the world. Loraine Morley has linked this eroticized quality to Quin’s love of formal experimentation, arguing that her “promiscuous” approach to writing is ultimately seeking “a process of textual and sexual liberation from the aesthetic and cultural conventions of a patriarchal social order.” In Re: Quin, Buckeye proposes, in a similar vein, that Quin’s eroticism is an expression of her countercultural sensibility, a crucial feature of her political rejection of the oppressive institutions of family, religion, and class. “Quin linked a better society to sexual fulfillment,” he argues. “The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake would be the first step to free us from an inherently repressive bourgeois society.”
While it is true that Quin has no time for conventional morality or prudery, this interpretation can be hard to square with the depictions of sex in her novels, where examples of liberating or affirming or even satisfactory sexual relations are conspicuously absent. Her work evinces no trace of naive hippie idealism. To the extent that her social consciousness is entangled with the carnal, it would seem to be fatally entangled. The pursuit of pleasure is always understood to be twinned with the good-old death drive. Quin invariably portrays desire as an uneasy dance between attraction and repulsion, dominance and submission.
Running through her work is a strong current of sexual violence. Towards the end of Three, there is a brutal rape scene where Leonard forces himself on Ruth and she cries out “I hate you – hate hate hate …” In Passages, the male protagonist has a lurid dream where he rapes a paralyzed girl, then an even more lurid dream about his female companion:
he knocked her over, raped her, beat her until the blood covered them both, and finally he strangled her as he had the chickens for his mother at the age of twelve.
In the short story “Nude and Seascape,” Quin gives us a morbid satire on the objectifying male gaze, in which a man drags a woman’s naked corpse around a beach, trying to find the most visually pleasing arrangement. Eventually, he decapitates her.
The blunt misogyny of these examples is not necessarily indicative of Quin’s deeper concerns. She is more often inclined to treat the erotic as a window into the murky complications of the psyche or as an expression of the shifting power dynamics within the triangular relationships that are a noted feature of her work. She is curious, in particular, about the condition of victimhood, the way that submission can sometimes be a desired state, and the need this betrays. In her interview with Dunn, Quin observes that “if one feels one has hurt another person it’s really mutual and that other person has allowed themselves to be hurt, and it comes around to that self-destruction thing in them as much as in you too.” This unsettling idea manifests itself in the fetishized quality of her eroticism, which recognizes the symbiosis between the sadist and the masochist, the exhibitionist and the voyeur. When Berg is walking along the beach and spies a young couple becoming intimately acquainted beneath a pier, he notes the girl’s “slight resistance for the pleasure of the final surrender, the momentary security of the victim.” Quin’s sensitivity to the dangerously ambiguous nature of that longing for security, which contains the realization that the end point of desire is the dissolution of the will, takes her fiction to some dark Dostoevskian places.
The intricacies of this theme are perhaps best represented by the enigmatic S in Three. Among the belongings she has left behind are some tape recordings and journals, in which she gives an impressionistic account of her early life, reveals embarrassing secrets about her married hosts, and alludes to the strange sexualized relationship that had developed between the three of them. Her posthumous presence in the novel exposes the tensions between Leonard and Ruth, but it also provides evidence of her own self-destructive impulses. In an oblique and at times irreverent passage that evokes her Catholic education, with its weekly routine of “inquisitions / punishment / penance,” she implies that her childhood experience of corporal punishment awakened her masochistic tendencies. The conflicted nature of her desire is summed up in an uneasy declension: “Possessed. Be possessed. To possess.” A subsequent passage expresses her longing for the security of the victim:
In a darkened room. Hurt me hurt
me hurt me
These lines are echoed in the brilliant short story “Ghostworm,” in which a woman argues with her dead lover, whose voice has taken up residence in her head. As the mistress of a married man, she had occupied the uncertain position of the interloper, the third wheel, drawn into his world but not fully admitted. Like S, she confesses to violent fantasies about being tied up and raped. “Yes I want you to hurt me,” she thinks, “so I might feel something.” As her ex-lover denigrates and taunts her from beyond the grave, she recalls her complicity in their abusive relationship, the way her longing twisted itself into a perverse impulse towards self-destruction, something that manifested not simply as a passive acceptance of her exploitation, but as a willed embrace of her own victimization:
You’re on the outside looking in. You dragged me in. Yes by the hair and you loved it don’t tell me otherwise. Oh not that violence. He snarled as she lifted her hand. Hands held, head hit, body knocked. Head thrust against the wall. Goddammit I’ll kill you. He shouted. Go ahead kill me then anything anything but … She felt the wall several times as he banged her head against it. The violence at such times amazed her. Wanting that when they made love. Forcing it on him hurt me hurt me. And he tried. Afterward she wanted more.
Quin’s willingness to venture into such disturbing territory is a manifestation of her wider concern with unstable and distorted psychological states. Her characters move through a world that often appears distended and grotesque, full of menacing symbols and portents that seem to reflect their anxieties and neuroses. Their conflicted desires and moments of Dionysian release are always understood to contain a latent violence that can be directed inwardly or outwardly, but not eliminated or resolved. Their motivations are often opaque, even to themselves. “How difficult it is to judge even one’s own actions,” S reflects near the end of Three. “There never appears to be only the one reason.”
The fractured families of Quin’s fiction exacerbate the sense of disquiet. Her wandering characters (Leonard and Ruth are the only Quin protagonists to have a home) are caught in double-binds created by their social estrangement and feelings of incompletion. They are either pursuing or running from personal attachments, and sometimes both. “I don’t belong to anyone,” Berg thinks, “therefore attachment to anything means betrayal, self-banishment, renounce self-continuity, self-transcendence; the ego only there to give significance.” There is, in other words, something paradoxical and self-defeating about his Oedipal desire to assert his independence from a father who has already abandoned him. He is merely reinforcing his isolation and demonstrating his psychological dependence. The underlying anxiety is that he cannot reconcile himself to that elusive word “belong,” which can have the positive connotations of security and acceptance, but which Berg can only understand in negative terms as an impossible choice between possession or submission.
This aspect of Quin’s work was clearly influenced by psychoanalytical ideas that were very much part of the intellectual atmosphere of the times, and which she appropriates in a spirit of ironic self-awareness. In an autobiographical fragment written towards the end of her life, Quin mentions that she has been reading Harry Guntrip’s Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations and the Self (1969) and describes a trip to her local library, where she mingles with the “usual eccentric-looking fraternity gathered around the Psychology section.” She had almost certainly read R.D. Laing, whose bestseller The Divided Self (1960) sought to reconcile the discipline of psychology with the then-fashionable philosophy of existentialism. Laing argues, in essence, that madness should be interpreted as a social and not merely a physiological phenomenon: it is a condition arising from a sense of ontological insecurity that is generated when the need to experience oneself as an autonomous being with a more or less stable identity comes into conflict with the intersubjective nature of social reality.
The Perspective Is the Story
The seemingly irresistible inference is that Quin was seeking, through her writing, to understand her own feelings of maladjustment and her harrowing experiences of mental illness. What is remarkable about her is the way she captures the push and pull of that threatening intersubjectivity. Historically and aesthetically, she stands at the point where modernism begins to mutate into postmodernism. Her work unites the contrary impulses of modern literature towards, on the one hand, the subjective and impressionistic and, on the other, the objectifying modes of symbolism and self-conscious formalism. Her so-called “experimental” techniques are numerous and, in a sense, conventionally avant garde – lists, marginalia, parallel texts, scrambled chronology, unorthodox typography – but the most distinctive and significant is her habit of switching between first-person and third-person narration. This allows her to move freely between exposition, dialogue, and interior monologue. Her fiction is thus always polyphonic, even when it is clear that a particular character is the center of consciousness. The approach might be seen as loosely analogous to cubism, in that it presents us with several perspectives simultaneously, but the effect is to destabilize the very notion of a unified self. Consciousness is always besieged by intrusive voices and random stimuli; it is presented as an inherently social and inherently vulnerable phenomenon.
The technique can claim a distinguished modernist pedigree. James Joyce switches between third-person and first-person in Ulysses to get us inside the head of Leopold Bloom, whose thoughts are revealed to be an amiable jumble of stray memories, songs, advertising slogans, odd bits of trivia, and so forth. Quin is often compared to Virginia Woolf, whom she cited as a formative influence, but the style and temperament of her work more often resembles Joyce, partly because of her raw sensuality and willingness to register the grime of existence, but also because of her oddly arresting syntax and irreverent sense of humor. It is hard to imagine Woolf approving of the Joycean puns that S slips into her recollections of her Catholic education:
Do Ray Me No Farcicality Do … Duck of the school … Hell Mary full of grapes. Our Father who farts in heaven.
In an essay on the subject of Quin’s representations of consciousness, Philip Stevick argues that Quin ultimately resembles neither Joyce nor Woolf, or indeed any other modernist writer, because her characters are burdened with the excess psychic baggage of “unresolved anger, resentment, the badly damaged ego.” (He admits Faulkner as a possible exception to this rule, overlooking the obvious precedent of Dostoevsky, who was also named by Quin as an important influence.) From this arises the radical instability of her fiction, where “the whole of anything threatens always to erode, split, merge into another thing.” The key characteristic of Quin’s literary vision, argues Stevick, is that she does not see the mind as a narrator. Her writing projects mental states onto the page in a way that suggests “the analytical is not merely a property the novelist can dare to jettison. Rather, it is not there.”
This reading, which comes uncomfortably close to pathologizing Quin’s art, is unconvincing. Quin is certainly not interested in what Joyce called “cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” But she is profoundly interested in the question of how the mind orders the world. In this sense, she does not, as Stevick contends, abandon any commitment to story after Berg – though, to be fair, that probably depends on how you define “story.” Running through all of Quin’s work is a preoccupation with form and a corresponding awareness of genre, the latter being one of the characteristics that places her work on the borderline between modernism, with its imperative to “make it new,” and postmodernism’s embrace of pastiche. Quin is concerned not simply with the problem of how to give an objective form to mental states, but the question of what it might mean to impose a form on a chaotic reality, so that reality might better align with one’s desires and fantasies. She is attuned to the way that juxtaposition generates implication. She is concerned to test the ontological validity of form itself, consider the extent to which reordering the great mass of data the world presents may or may not allow a person to assert a degree of control over her fate and counter the threat of dissolution.
Berg strikes a different tone to Quin’s subsequent novels because it approaches this theme in an overtly parodic manner. In addition to being an archetypally repressed Englishman, Alistair Berg is a knowing appropriation of some familiar modernist tropes. His thoughts, like those of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, take the form of an argument with an imaginary accuser. He is seized by periodic fits of existential nausea à la Sartre. He thinks of himself as a Pirandello hero seeking a dramatic form for his psychological condition. At his most grandiose, he lampoons the clichéd notions of the anti-hero and the rebel, scorning “the rest of the country’s cosy mice in their cages of respectability.” His vague plan to murder his father casts him as a low-rent Hamlet and a limey Raskolnikov who believes that only decisive action can overcome the pangs of conscience. Berg maintains that his ability to “decide rather than desire” will allow him to take charge of his identity, elevate him above the common run of humanity. “The tragic sense of destiny is inherent in every man,” he thinks, “but I defy fate, I alone am responsible for every action, every scene; in my nothingness I will create the idea, I shall see what I have imagined, and from that alone will spring my entire actions.”
The novel’s defining joke is that Berg is fated to be a clown, just like his father. The story he inhabits does not at all resemble the story he imagines. His plan merely embroils him in a series of absurd mix-ups involving his father’s life-sized ventriloquist’s dummy. Yet the ironic distance Quin establishes from her hapless protagonist allows her to introduce some of the key themes that she explores in a different register in her subsequent novels. Berg is ill at ease with the “game of human relationships.” The “unsolved puzzle” of the “scattered” seaside town becomes a projection of his fractured identity and the core of insecurity his bravado cannot suppress. His quest is ultimately an investigation into his own state of being, driven by his uncertainty as to whether there is, in fact, a core to his sense of self that is not merely an accumulation of attitudes and poses. “If I could trace a line below the surface of my assumptions,” he wonders, “would there come a point where clarity supersedes the chaos of what has been?”
In Three and Passages, this desire to comprehend oneself, create a symbolic order of one’s own, and thus assert a degree of control over one’s destiny is taken over by Quin’s female protagonists, for whom it has different connotations. Both novels have buried narrative structures. Scattered throughout Three are clues that Leonard has been involved in some shady dealings that are about to catch up with him, and towards the end of the novel, there are hints that the circumstances of S’s death may not be as straightforward as they first seemed. In Passages, a man and a woman travel through an unnamed Mediterranean country that is languishing under a brutal military dictatorship (one infers that it is Greece in the aftermath of the 1967 coup), ostensibly searching for the woman’s missing brother, who has most likely become a victim of the regime, but in fact spending most of their time attending decadent parties and having casual sexual encounters with strangers. Around these sketchy plots, Quin constructs intricate dioramas in which her characters’ anxieties are reflected in complex networks of symbolism.
S emerges from Three as Quin’s representative artist-figure. As Leonard and Ruth examine her tape recordings and diaries, it becomes apparent that S was an unsettling presence in their lives not simply because of the sexual tension she brought into their household, but because she presented them with an inverted image of themselves. Her youth was an unwelcome reminder that theirs is gone for good. Her exhibitionist tendencies (she was fond of swimming in the nude, Ruth notes with disapproval) showed up their staid sense of propriety. She was carefree and desirable, unlike the jealous and vain Ruth, who spends hours in front of the mirror and would prefer to conceal the fact that she has undergone plastic surgery to restore her fading looks. Grim ironies attend the novel’s erotic complications. While Ruth is making appointments at the fertility clinic and considering adoption, S falls pregnant and requires an abortion. At one point, Ruth ventures that S was “a little in love” with Leonard, which he parries with the assertion that S was merely “in love with love” and had a “father complex” – the condescension of the latter claim serving as a reminder that his hobby of making statuettes implies rather strongly that he is living in the shadow of his own father, a sculptor whose life-sized figures loom in the garden.
Yet there is no sense that S is a naive or passive figure. Her oblique confessions reveal her to be clear-eyed about her desires, her social position, and the disquieting effect she has on her hosts. She is a willing participant in the masque-like performances they stage in the garden, which give dramatic form to the unspoken tensions between them. She sees that the older couple “do not comprehend each other.” And she is empowered by the realization that their world is defined by concealment and social pretense, because it means she can create her own orderly space “between waking and dreaming,” where “patterns reshaped in a form already designed shall anticipate all alternatives, become a measure of a certain consistency. The space between is no less significant than the place occupied at the time. My certainty shall be their confusion.” Towards the end of the novel, S admits that she enjoys manipulating her hosts:
But how easy it is to deceive them by my own expressions. And I cannot deny a certain amount of pleasure in adopting an outward aspect, contrary to what my real feelings are.
Quin’s fiction moves towards an inevitable confrontation with the limits of fantasy and creative autonomy. The ultimate fate of S is deeply ambiguous. Unlike Alistair Berg, she realizes her tragic destiny and thus achieves a kind of artistic transcendence, but her demise represents a distinctly perverse triumph. “I have become the victim now,” she declares as she embraces her own death, “and from that there is no turning back.”
Passages comes at the problem from a different angle, but arrives at an equally ambiguous conclusion. The novel alternates between the perspectives of its two unnamed protagonists. The woman’s sections are written in a version of the shifting interior-exterior style that predominates in Quin’s earlier novels; the man’s sections are journal entries that take the form of fragmented observations and reflections. They are a curiously mismatched couple, somewhat listless and distant, caught up in their own private forms of madness, yet they remain dependent on each other, isolated by virtue of that fact that they are travelling together through an alien land, unable either to reconcile or move beyond their flawed relationship, her neediness and passivity feeding his sadistic instincts.
Ann Quin has the eye for pretense and the instinct for subversion that are acute in those who have felt themselves patronized or excluded.
On an intimate level, then, the novel is a study in inertia, but one in which every element, every detail, becomes a surreal reflection of their mutual condition of psychological disquiet, from the broken religious icons and classical sculptures they encounter, to the local inhabitants themselves, who have been left maimed and impoverished by the civil conflict. Passages thus becomes a kind of double-sided mindscape. The man is attempting to piece together some kind of coherent symbolic order from a confusion of portentous symbolism and classical mythology, wanting to be “left in peace with [his] own madness.” The woman, like S in Three, takes refuge in role playing, adapting to social situations by acting the parts of the mature woman, the femme fatale, the mystic, the country girl and, sometimes, a child. But unlike S, she is neither certain of her position, nor confident in her powers of manipulation. She is merely “playing at Antigone.” Though she “has the air of a women who knows her way about,” she is a prisoner of her own fantasies. “The illusion she creates is the most real thing for her,” the man observes. “You have your illusions,” he reiterates later in the novel, “and I’m not going to take those away for what would be left.” What she is seeking is a “metaphor for her condition … for her despair.” Towards the end of the novel there is a snippet of dialogue between the two principal characters that suggests the real reason for her restlessness and fantasizing:
He Are you happy or unhappy?
She That’s not a very important question
He You live with such frenzied intensity
She Because there’s nothing else to do – I would be eaten up by reality.
The doomed S declares in the final line of Three that “nothing will change.” The last page of Passages has Quin’s protagonists embarking on a new journey, sensing that “everything is changing.” Yet on another level it is clear that nothing has been resolved and nothing has really changed: their new journey is merely a continuation of the old one. They are doomed to their perpetual state of wandering, their perpetual homelessness, their disconnection:
There is no compromise now. No country we can return to. She still has her obsession to follow through and her fantasies to live out … I am for the moment committed to this moment.
The complexity of Quin’s writing naturally admits any number of conflicting interpretations. Though there is now something close to a critical consensus that she is a crafter of brilliantly multifaceted fictions, there is no consensus about the intent or the ultimate significance of her distinctive literary vision. Buckeye – who implicitly anoints her Joyce’s heir with the title of Re: Quin, which alludes to Anthony Burgess’ encomium Re: Joyce (1965) – sees Quin’s impatience with literary conventions as evidence of political radicalism, despite the fact that the connection between avant-garde poetics and progressive politics has always been a dubious proposition. He argues that her final novel Tripticks, which Quin admitted to John Hall was influenced by her experience of hallucinogenics, is a “savage assault on an America obsessed by commerce, advertising and media, a road novel from hell, written as if it is the frenzy of one last gasp.” Evenson and Howard, on the other hand, interpret Tripticks as an “exhilarating” work in a carnivalesque mode that stands “on the cusp of postmodernist celebration.” Morley takes a pessimistic and perhaps even fatalistic line, proposing that Quin’s work, for all its energy and originality, represents a paradigmatic postmodern failure. Tripticks’ freewheeling journey through the garish landscape of rampant postwar capitalism, she argues, culminates in a radical loss of faith in the emancipatory potential of both sexuality and language. Morley concludes that Quin’s stance is “politically ambiguous, and hence anti- or at least non-feminist,” and suggests that this may account for the fact that such an extraordinary writer has attracted relatively little in the way of serious critical attention in the decades since her death.
The proposition that Quin failed to achieve some kind of symbolic emancipation through her writing would seem to be more a matter of unrealistic critical expectations than a reasonable assessment of her artistic accomplishment. She is a demonstration of the principle that the power of literature is not its decisiveness but its applied intelligence and insight. She is, above all, a self-aware writer, with an ironic understanding of the limits of symbolic expression, who was nevertheless prepared to test those limits. Buckeye’s assertion that Quin “never learned how writing should be written” is intended as praise for the uniqueness of her innate talent, but it does her a disservice. She knew exactly what she was doing, formally and thematically, and she knew what was at stake.
The clarity and courage with which Quin faced her situation is the ultimate source of the wit and vitality of her work. In a wry fragment published under the title “One Day in the Life of a Writer,” and clearly written near the end of her life, she describes receiving a letter from the Arts Council rejecting her grant application (“cos they read what I did with the last one”). Her reflection concludes with the melancholy observation that they must have known that she was “no longer capable of writing.” Her unfinished final novel does not bear this out. It is devastatingly lucid. Nonia Williams has traced its title to a passage in Daniel Deronda, where George Eliot writes: “There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.” The surviving pages confront us, appropriately, with a diptych. The first section finds Quin’s protagonist Sandra in a psychiatric hospital. She is clearly the smartest, sanest person there – certainly smarter than the resident quacks who can tell her nothing about herself that she does not know already. The second section describes the episode that led to her admission: a harrowing descent into paranoid delusions. Sandra reels through city streets believing herself pursued by Russian agents. Quin’s tragedy is that she was ultimately unable to resolve the contradiction. She was too perceptive not to see the absurdity and falsity of the imposed order, but knew only too well that there was no liberation in madness.
- Robert Buckeye, Re: Quin (Dalkey Archive, 2013).
- John Calder, Pursuit: The Memoirs of John Calder (Alma, 2016).
- Nell Dunn, Talking to Women (Macgibbon & Kee, 1965).
- Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard, “Ann Quin,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol.23, iss.2 (Summer 2003).
- John Hall, “Landscape with three-cornered dances,” The Guardian (29 April 1972).
- Judith Mackrell, “Ann Quin (17 March 1936 – ? August 1973),” Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists since 1960 (Gale, 1983).
- Loraine Morley, “The Love Affair(s) of Ann Quin,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, vol.5, no.2 (1999).
- Philip Stevick, “Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin,” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, edited by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton University Press, 2014).
- Nicolas Tredell, “Ann Quin (17 March 1936 – August 1973),” Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists since 1960, Fourth Series (Gale, 2001).
- Nonia Williams, “About / of madness: Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country,” Textual Practice (2018).