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Thursday, 25 February 2010

In Print(10) . . .

Who cares about Ann Quin?

"A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . ."

For me this is the greatest opening first line of any novel I have ever read. It is from Berg by Ann Quin: a debut novel so staggeringly superior to most you'll never forget it - and by one of our greatest ever novelists too. The thing is, though, no one ever seems to have heard of her. It is something that has rankled within me for a long time now: why, I demand to know, does nobody care about Ann Quin?

Quin was born in 1936 in Brighton, one of our more interesting seaside towns (she died there too in 1973: swimming out to sea one morning by Brighton Pier never to return to our shores again). Four books were published in her lifetime: Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969), and finally Tripticks (1972). Berg is her most famous (and possibly my favourite). It is a paean to the Nouveau Roman of writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, eschewing the literary trends of her day: those angry, realist campus yawns that put the British working-class voice on the literary map. Ann Quin's was a new British working-class voice that had not been heard before: it was artistic, modern, and - dare I say it - ultimately European. It looked beyond the constructs of our society. It was fresh, alarming, and idiosyncratic. It wasn't static; it moved with the times.

It was Calder Books who first published Quin, immediately grouping her with Beckett, Sarraute, Duras, Pinget, Burroughs, Trocchi et al. It won her two fellowships, including the DH Lawrence fellowship, which took her to the US for a year. It's hard to believe now how avant-garde these Calder Books writers were, so engrained are most of them now in literary culture and history today. Ann Quin was up there with them then - just as she should be today.

Which begs the question: why is Ann Quin not published here in the UK? Why is she barely read over here anymore? Why did it take Dalkey Archive Press in Illinois, USA to bring her back to us? Where is the literary biography of Ann Quin? What is it about her we just don't get? BS Johnson, for example, doesn't suffer this contemporary obscurity (interesting to note both writers were of the same epoch; similar in literary and experimental outlook; both choosing to end it all in the same year)? Is it a gender thing?

The news, to be fair, isn't all that bad. Writers such as Kathy Acker and Stewart Home have openly referenced/alluded to Ann Quin in their own work, and if you take time to surf the myriad literary blogs and sites, such as Mark Thwaite's RSB, you'll begin to see that Ann Quin crops up time and time again. But is anyone actually reading her?

Berg is a beautiful novel: it is dark, esoteric, haunting - sometimes disturbing. It is saturated with detail, particulars and minutiae. A novel of voices and voice. The best novel ever set in Brighton in my opinion - forget Patrick Hamilton (as splendid as he is), Ann Quin's Berg is the real deal. It cuts through the superfluous like acid and marvels in the seamier mystery all our seaside towns, and especially Brighton, keep hidden. For an insight into what British literary fiction could have been if we'd only have listened, I'd start with Berg by Ann Quin every time.

[original source: The Guardian, Tuesday 8 May 2007]


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