Ann Quin’s Passages
“A new order of space.”
Ann Quin’s Passages (1969) is a brilliant blur of a novel. When you are done with its 112 pages, you will know you have been on breathtaking roller coaster of a journey, but you won’t know where you’ve been or remember much of what you witnessed on the way. A man and a woman (both nameless) are traveling through some vaguely Mediterranean country. Part of the time the couple appear to be searching for the woman’s missing brother, who might already be dead. There are fleeting rumors of torture, a firing squad, detention camps, a sinister right-wing government, suggesting that they are most likely in Greece, which came under the rule of a military junta in 1967. The two suspect they are being followed. At one border crossing they are told their papers aren’t in order; a bribe is paid and suddenly they are told it’s “a case of mistaken identity, let’s say.”
In Passages, Quin’s narration alternates between two very different formats. One is a somewhat straightforward third person indirect prose narration, except the perspective can shift between his and hers—sometimes in successive sentences. The writing in these sections disconcertingly omits the usual signposts that tell us who, where, when, why. Only the what counts. There is almost no reporting from inside his or her mind in these sections, only what they (or one of them, at least) see, do, hear, say.
We walked down to the beach, and sat against drift wood. I watched his cigarette light up a part of his swollen face. Track of light the moon made on the sea. Three hundred yards the beginning of that where she could life both feet up and walk on water. Grains in wood his fingers traced, she entered. Land many oceans spilled into. The way landscapes entered a room. Rooms she went through, corridors. Doors she opened onto carpets that grew towards trees, branches through walls, windows. Soft green light she touched, and was touched by. The scuttling of a crab or some other sea creature passed between them, over the wood. Movement under sand. Shifting of sand in front, behind. Flying fish between waves, those that fell out of the sea, fell back. These she listened to. And the sound of insects.
You can almost follow what is happening, but, as in cinematic montage, there are no laws to Quin’s sense of space or time. Both can become compressed, extended, or reassembled at will. The writing is elliptical, suggestive. “Dislocated from moment to moment” or “connected yet not connected in parts,” as Quin’s narrator puts it. There are frequent references to the act of vision, to what it looks like when we see the world without bothering to narrate the different images in our mind into a coherent story. Nevertheless, there is a powerful logic to Quin’s seemingly confusing prose. Take this example, which occurs when the man and the woman are seated next to each other on a train. When Quin writes “He took out a photograph, passed it to her. I looked at it,” you realize that the “her” that the “I” is referring to is the woman’s own reflection in the train’s window.
This kind of narration alternates with sections of the man’s daily journal, which cover the same time period as the prose portion it follows. But even the journal is bifurcated, containing both the daily entries and occasional annotations written in the margin. He observes her, thinks about her obsessions and what he calls her “madness,” and he ponders his own obsessions and his nightly dreams. His journal is very much concerned with the questions of why? and what does this mean? Many of the marginal notes are descriptions of the imagery on the sides of kraters and other ancient Greek vessels. At times, it’s tempting to think that Quin is using the man’s journal to observe someone very much like herself. It’s the way in which Quin deliberately distances the female character and then analyzes her. In one entry he writes: “She says she knows no limit in/for herself.” And elsewhere:
She cannot live without sensations. She will like some sorceress shape them out of air itself it seems and then present them as if they were the most natural events. But oh beware the man who accepts them as such, then she will carve out his mind and heart, leaving him to cope with the remains.
One entire page is given over to a poem-like listing of her qualities.
The focus of Passages is on the couple’s relationship. They are not in love, they are lovers. “I love all men,” she says, “how can I ever be tied to one man for the rest of my life?” He writes of himself that “he makes love, non-committed on both sides” and “the problem is to discover whether I can live with this woman’s demons without forfeiting my own.” What draws them together, perhaps, is their ability to push themselves to take more risks as a pair. The aura of political violence that continually hangs in the air seems to make them more attuned to what they see and hear, taste and smell. They want to live nearer the edge, senses afire. This is best seen in the hunger, role-playing, sensuousness, and occasional violence that they bring to their flirting and lovemaking. “She risks with her body, her imagination (her heart/mind?)” He and she both make love with strangers on at least one occasion, while the other watches.
Afternoon spent with naked bodies, sunlight and hashish. She fell in love with her own sensuality.
When she saw him make love with another woman she became aware for the first time of his body, as a physical thing.
In the dark woods, on the moist earth, I found my way only by the whiteness of her neck.
The auricle of her ear felt fresh, cool. A shell to the touch on the tongue.
I did not feel jealous until she asked me if I was.
Passages is a remarkable experience. It is the third of the four novels that Quin wrote in a span of less than ten years before committing suicide in 1973. Dalkey Archive brought out new editions of Three, Passages, and Tripticks over the years 2001-3.