Gems of Genius

Demons of madness cut short a 1960s author's career, but her experimental novels are gripping.

It was a small ad in the literary journal CONTEXT that caught my eye. Words stood out: "extraordinary," "experimental," "woman writer," "British fiction."

I began searching used bookstores. No one had heard of her. I couldn't wait months for the announced re-issues by Dalkey.

Determined to find two obscure novels published in Britain in the mid-sixties, I ventured deep into the bowels of the university library--a dangerous foray down to basement stacks, the movable kind I'm always sure will crush me while I teeter on a stepladder unsettling dust on books that no one ever reads.

Plain-bound covers without any indication of what plot lay inside, no publisher's blurb detailing story or character or how "extraordinary" this new writer was back in 1964, Quin's two (and, I then thought, only) books came home with me. I ingested her work immediately.

If first sentences are any indication of what's to follow, I was in for a treat: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father...." Thus begins Quin's first sentence of her first novel titled simply Berg. That's all there is to the narrative plot. The real story is among three characters and their triplex of manipulation. Quin has a fascination with the number three and all its implications. Like a code, she called her second book Three, and published it two years after her debut novel. Her subsequent writing explores the interrelationships of characters and storylines via this magic number.

Born in 1936 in Brighton, a seaside town near London, Quin ventured away from a working-class, convent-educated childhood to struggle amidst genius and mental illness throughout her adult life. While trying to juggle writing and working for a pittance, she experienced her first nervous breakdown, confined herself to bed and suffered severe hallucinations. To fight the demons, she exposed them in her writing. In Passages, her third novel published in 1969, a character alludes to the struggle: "What happens when something psychic becomes an exaggeration?" And adds, "It's as if madness is just another trip--like death."

Quin is awash in death. In Berg, the narrator is on a quest to find his father--who doesn't know he even has a son--in order to end his life. In Three, an irritable, middle-aged London couple, summering at the coast, are dead in their marriage. (If they don't kill each other, someone ought to do it for them they're so irritating--all he wants is sex and his newspaper; all she wants is a quiet bath and her beloved cat to curl up with; he pushes, she nags, it's a miserable scenario). Instead, their young houseguest enters and exits the stage, befriending both Ruth and Leonard and then swimming out to sea to drown herself.

And how ironic is it that Ann Quin also swam out to sea in Brighton to drown herself at the age of 37? By that time, she already had four novels published in Britain, with translations in Germany and France and her first two books published in the States. She won the Harkness and D.H. Lawrence fellowships soon after her first book came out, bringing her to the States for several years. She was quickly welcomed into the cadre of writers--British and American and French--who were blasting through conventional literary boundaries (the likes of Burroughs, Beckett, Duras, Miller, Sarraute). She was held aloft in circles of British women writers including Eva Figes and Brigid Brophy and Margaret Drabble.

So why end it in the middle of her fifth novel, The Unmapped Country? Like Virginia Woolf, she suffered the demons of madness. We're lucky to have their gems of genius before they left us.

In a decade of published writing, Quin became more innovative with each novel. Beginning with Berg, story is critical, but non-linear. The work is short and concentrated and taut. But in Three, Quin begins her multi-voice staging; sentences begin and end indeterminately, making the reading a delicious, slow, confounding process. With Passages, she again confuses character and identity. Voice takes over for a developing narrative: a woman searches for her dead brother; her male lover's voice swaps hers; the story weaves between the two as they travel through the Mediterranean. Figuring out who "I" is makes authority suspect. And in Tripticks, Quin offers a barrage of styles and images (actual line drawings by Carol Annand) in telling the story of a man who's pursued by his many ex-wives across America.

In a 1965 interview with Giles Gordon--who anthologized Quin's early work and authors the introduction to this latest re-issue of Berg--Quin muses on her fascination with merging form and content. "I want to get away from the traditional form. I write straight onto my typewriter, 1,000 words an hour but half will be cut out." Reading Quin is like stepping into a good play (she trained in the theater but suffered such stage fright that it quickly ended her acting career): It doesn't matter whether there's a story to follow; what matters is the way the characters enter your reading space and overwhelm you.

Dalkey Archive Press has re-issued Quin's first two novels and will publish her last two later this year--their first U.S. printing. Quin's posthumous voice will remain vibrant a little longer, compelling us to read fiction with new ears.

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