Ann Quin

This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist.

Taken from one of her unfinished novels, The Unmapped Country is the perfect title for a new collection of rare and unpublished writing by Ann Quin – one of the most intriguing and unsettling voices in the postwar English literary avant-garde scene. This group of writers was marginal at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s, but is finally being rediscovered and reappraised.

The first figure to be reassessed was its most prominent: football reporter and sometime TV presenter B. S. Johnson. Best known for his formal assaults on the novel, he cut holes into pages so readers could anticipate a crucial plot development, and presented unbound chapters in a box to be read in any order to represent the randomness of life. Johnson died in 1973, aged 40, and fell from critical favour. The rehabilitation began in 2001 with Philip Tew’s critical study and Paul Tickell’s film of his novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, and continued in 2004 with Jonathan Coe’s biography, Like a Fiery Elephant. What made Coe’s book so good was his engagement not just with Johnson’s work but also with his frustration at the conservatism of postwar British literature. It documents his fitful attempts to co-ordinate a domestic avant-garde circle, who might parallel France’s nouveau roman set.

The nouveau roman was an invention of the French press, grouping together several novelists who discarded conventional chronology and character psychology. Their action was often set within their protagonists’ (unreliably narrated) consciousness. In Britain, the translations of key figures – Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and others – were all published by John Calder, alongside Samuel Beckett’s novels. In his final book, Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs, Johnson featured a list of those “writing ... as though it mattered”: an eclectic mix of older writers, such as Beckett and Rayner Heppenstall, who emerged in the 1930s; and contemporaries like Margaret Drabble, Robert Nye and Ann Quin, whose suicide in August 1973, aged 36, came just a few months before Johnson’s.

For decades, Quin was neglected, having published just four novels in a life punctuated by precarious employment and mental health crises. But she has always had her fans: the author and artist Stewart Home has long argued that attention would be better diverted towards her than Johnson, whilst Lee Rourke, writing in The Guardian in 2007, praised Quin’s rejection of “those angry, realist campus yawns” of Kingsley Amis and others, in favour of “a British working-class voice [that was] artistic, modern and … ultimately European”. Quin grew up in Brighton, on the fringes of the lower middle class. Her debut novel, Berg, was published in 1964 by Calder, the English publisher of Beckett and many of the nouveau roman authors. Its striking opening line remains the best-known in all of Quin’s writing: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.”

As this suggests, Berg challenged not just social realism, but also British holiday culture, bourgeois family values and patriarchal society. Influenced just as much by Virginia Woolf as by the nouveau roman, Berg turned the Modernist trope of the alienated son and Freud’s Oedipus complex into high farce, with Berg’s effort to escape in disguise after seducing his father’s mistress ending in his drunken father coming home early, mistaking him for her and coming on to him. But for all the horror that leads to his attempted patricide, the conclusion – where Berg is expected to settle for a typical middle-class life – is the most terrifying part.

Despite critical acclaim, Quin felt Berg was too conventional. Her next novels, Three (1966) and Passages (1969), developed a fragmentary style, more akin to that of Nathalie Sarraute, whose essay “The Age of Suspicion” argued that authors should embrace the idea that literary characters could never avoid being read as aspects of their writer’s consciousness. Like Sarraute, Quin made plotlines secondary to the workings of a woman’s mind.

Three explored one of Quin’s key themes – triangular relationships – in depth, turning Berg’s Oedipal rage and jagged prose into something softer, subtler and sadder, but no less innovative. Building on Woolf and Dorothy Richardson’s “stream of consciousness” techniques to make links between emotional memories, time and space, Three is a collage-like portrait of a woman known only as S., who lived with a couple, Leonard and Ruth, and became romantically involved with both before drowning. Their attempts to exonerate themselves of guilt, poring over S.’s diaries and tapes, put postwar British society on trial: the passive-aggressive ways in which their mutual frustration at their loveless marriage bubbles up, Leonard’s patronising conviction that S. could not have enjoyed “high” culture without the right upbringing, and his crushing of Ruth’s sexual fantasies show how traditional gender roles and morality perpetuate misery, and the necessity of the late Sixties’ social revolution.

Passages departed even further from convention, shifting from the first person to the third as it followed an unnamed woman searching for her missing brother on a Greek island, its elliptical segments aiming more to capture the realities of depression and force the reader to interrogate their own behaviours than follow a plot. Her final published novel, Tripticks (1972), was more obviously structured around a road trip across the US. Again, it excoriated dysfunctional family relationships, but it focused on the hypocrisy of a country obsessed with advertising, commerce and mass media.

Edited by Jennifer Hodgson, The Unmapped Country provides a different perspective on Quin, by collecting her short stories, autobiographical essays, manifestos and surviving parts of unpublished novels. The book is issued by And Other Stories, one of several publishers set up in recent years to oppose the formal conservatism of British literature. Their list includes plenty of work, old and new, in translation, challenging the parochialism that set in during the 1950s. It also includes contemporary English-language authors (particularly women) taking up the “baton” of innovation that Johnson discussed in Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs.

These texts give more insight into how Quin developed her clipped, condensed prose style, her curt sentences conveying the repression she saw at the heart of everyday life. The extract from The Unmapped Country, a novel unfinished when she died, offers a critique of postwar mental health services to rival The Bell Jar, drawing on her experiences of psychiatric institutions and electro-convulsive therapy. As a whole, the collection confirms Quin’s status as the next exciting rediscovery of the British postwar avant-garde. At a time when activists are looking back at the 1960s and 1970s for political projects that were never fully explored, this is a timely reminder of artistic experiments also sidelined by reactionary ideas – and might belatedly form a basis for a reinvigorated, radical culture.