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Unmapped Country

Quin unmapped

Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.

“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity that I can’t help but pay homage to the drive that kept Quin pushing further and further into an “unmapped country” of writing.

Written over a brief period of something like seven years, these fourteen pieces could probably pass as an anthology by several different writers. While some writers seek to find their voice, Quin seemed to have a need to explore voices. Her narrators and main characters are female, male, children, passive, angry, feminist, conservative, well off, working class. In “A Double Room,” a woman, traveling on a train with her married lover, says to herself “Already, I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” The male narrator of “Tripticks” tells us that his “special interests” are “living out other peoples’ fantasies,” which might be another way of saying—at least in part—what a writer does.

Quin was also a great mimic of the abbreviated and sometimes contorted fragments that pass for full sentences in our conversations. Here’s the speaker in the wonderfully titled “Motherlogue,” which gives us only one side of a telephone call between a mother and daughter:

you know Peggy who was found dead after a whole week the landlady discovered her only because of the smell coming out of the landing there she was a whole week rotting away well apparently she’s earth bound they’ve had several new lodgers in and each one hasn’t stayed long terrible things happening in the night bedclothes taken off furniture thrown about and one girl even had her nightie torn off…

Ω

In 2003, Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard co-authored an essay about Quin and her work in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, where they asked themselves the question “Would republication of these stories add to Quin’s reputation?” The answer they gave then was:

Probably not. Publication of the remainder of ‘The Unmapped Country’ might, however, add a chapter to critics’ sense of Quin’s artistic development, particularly if there is more to the novel than the single published chapter. However, Quin’s reputation for the time being must rest largely on her four completed novels, novels that show her as an important figure in British innovative writing, one whose work still remains intriguing today.

I would beg to differ with Evenson and Howard. At least four of these stories are jaw-droppingly powerful, each in their own Quin-quirky way: “A Double Room,” “”Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking,” “Never Trust a Man who Bathes with his Fingernails,” and The Unmapped Territory.” (And how about Quin’s titles?) If nothing else, The Unmapped Country gives the reader a concise overview of the wide range of narrative possibilities Quin managed to explore across the span of four novels.

In the seemingly simple sentences of “A Double Room,” Quin quietly tucks harrowing revelations in the midst of banal moments. Here’s her lonely main character waiting at the train station for the married man she is about to spend the weekend with:

Cabs swished by. People rushed through barriers. Escape. Escape with my lover. But he isn’t even that. In her small room. On her single bed they had gone so far. Fully clothed. No we’ll wait it wouldn’t be fair I have to leave you soon. Now the weekend he would prove to be

She clutched her bag. Glanced at the clock. And there he was. His hat cuckoo-perched on an unfinished nest.

I can’t get over the sadness I feel when she has to retract her own thoughts and remind herself that this man is not her lover and will never be her lover, that he’s just using her. Then there is the unfinished sentence with no ending period when she again catches herself, afraid to think any further into the weekend. And how about the brilliant description of the man’s hat and hair? “A Double Room” is a devastating story of a woman alternately struggling to/refusing to come to terms with her loneliness and her need/hatred for men. At the end of the story they return from an mutually disappointing weekend by the sea, passing through a staccato inventory of emptiness.

The fields. Hedges vanished. Suburbs crawled in and out. The football fields now dry. Now empty. The river red flecked with white. The power station powered out its smoke. They walked through the barrier. Paused in the half empty station. Well. Well? Well I’ll ‘phone you. No it won’t be any use will it? Well then it’s goodbye—goodbye love. And he rushed into the underground.

But before the day is over, she has rethought everything and has called him up and asked him over on Thursday, her resolve completely erased.

In “Eyes That Watch Behind the Wind,” an Englishwoman and an American man traveling through Mexico attend a bullfight—”the meeting place of challenge”—which becomes a description of their tense, tenuous relationship. As she watches the matador facing off with the bull, the drama in the ring suddenly becomes her own inner drama.

The pulse in his neck moved
a small creature, ready to jump out, seize her own neck that arched back, down, where she felt the ache. The ache at times of wanting this violence in him to break out. Devour her. Hurt me hurt me hurt me. But not in this way. Not in the heavy silence of them both facing each other, weapons concealed. The final turning away, not even in anger, but resentment.

Once again, Quin uses an abrupt line-break to signal a pause before moving on and a gap that must be leapt across.

Later on, at the beach, the man playfully buries her body in the sand up to her neckline, causing her to flee into her imagination and her fears.

The trance then had been quick in coming. She had nearly reached some point in space. A space in herself, yet outside her body, when she felt his mouth, warm, salty from sweat, sea, on her eyes. She was jerked out of an area into a place she did not recognize, and then she saw the arrows. Breaking out from these she ran.

Screaming silently
in a space she had so nearly found, but then filled in by the arrow points. She threw her body, no longer her own body it seemed, but just a body hurled out of the ground, into the mountains of water, she bent her head under, rose up, bent again, and struggled out. Further out to higher and higher mountains. Away from the beach, where she knew he waited, watching, not quite knowing. Unsure again.

And if she returned?
If she chose not to, but moved on out into the ocean until perhaps the area she had so nearly reached could be touched upon.

Ω

At fifty pages, the title piece is the longest in the collection and yet it is still a fragment, meant to be part of the novel that was left unfinished at Quin’s death. But it’s a promising fragment, full of themes that one imagines she would have developed further. When we first meet Sandra, she is being treated in a mental institution, locked in a daily battle with uncaring doctors and nurses, psychiatrists who make no real effort to understand their patients, and dismal living conditions. In her journal she has written: “Today I do not know the date….I can no longer remember how long I have been here and yet I count the days for when I am discharged. They say ‘soon.” ‘You are making progress.’ It is all pretence on their part, as well as mine.”

Like it’s predecessor, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), one of Quin’s intentions in “The Unmapped Country” was to use a mental institution as a devastating critique of society whose values have become topsy-turvy. But it’s in the second section of “The Unmapped Country” (which was not included when “The Unmapped Country” appeared posthumously in the 1975 anthology Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction) that we see the real focus of her novel-to-be: Sandra’s unraveling mind and her relationship with Clive, a painter whose days as her boyfriend are numbered. The first section of “The Unmapped Country” is written in third person, but here Quin switches to first person perspective, and over the course of twenty-five pages she gives us an insider’s view into Sandra’s mind as it devolves into chaos, struggling with forces outside of her control. “I have been chosen, but cannot choose,” she proclaims. She experiences odd visions, sees God, and is paranoid about Russian spies. She quits her job, gives up smoking and eating meat and taking the pill. She wants a child. Clive doesn’t.

Seen from the third person, and in comparison to the other patients in the mental institution, Sandra seems relatively sane. But in truth, she is utterly disintegrating within. In this bisected piece, Quin was playing with what she had only hinted at in several other pieces in this collection. Fascinated by the flippable nature of narrative, she was exploring the dialectic between life and fiction, between living and being watched living—especially as it played out in a work that was as autobiographical as this piece, where Quin was, in some measure, simultaneously watching and writing herself. After Clive visits Sandra in the institution one day, she writes in her journal: “Have just seen C., and saw myself seeing him, saw him seeing me, or rather not seeing me.”

Ω

Events:

Thursday January 18, 7pm. “Ann Quin: A Celebration – with Deborah Levy, Juliet Jacques and Jennifer Hodgson.” London Review Bookshop, 14-16 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, London WC1A 2JL
£10 Tickets/More info here

Friday February 16, 2-9pm. ‘Who Cares About Ann Quin?’ Royal College of Art, Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre, Dyson Building, 1 Hester Road, London SW11 4AN

Further resources:

Listen to Quin’s precise reading from Three (about thirty-six minutes long).

Robert Buckeye. Re: Quin. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. A very brief, but handy book focusing on some of the themes in her work, like sex, silence, and death, along with a short biography.

Greb v. Berg

Quin Berg

In Ann Quin’s first novel, the black comedy Berg, “Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveler, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoid paramour” has set out to murder his father, a semi-itinerant womanizer living in a flop house with his current girlfriend Judith. Alistair’s father abandoned him at such a young age that he does not know that the young man who has moved into the adjacent room is his own son, bent on parricide. Alistair befriends the couple, then proceeds to spy on them, listening to them making love and fighting through the thin partition that separates their rooms. He slowly insinuates himself into their lives, but, when presented with several opportunities to murder Berg, Alistair falters, and in a role reversal, he suddenly becomes his father’s rescuer, more than once steering his hopelessly drunken father safely home. By the end of the novel, the hapless Alistair has displaced his father and is living with Judith. Beyond that brief plot summary, don’t ask. It’s complicated.

Berg (1964) is a restless, staccato piece of writing that involves cross dressing, identity theft, mistaken identities, a ventriloquist’s dummy, and endless literary mayhem. Quin’s narration deftly moves into and out of Alistair’s consciousness, alternately observing him and tracking his train of thought—an untidy and unstable construct of glimpses of exterior reality, memories, snippets of conversation, spontaneous physical reactions, and rare moments of reflection. It is up to the reader to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Alistair is an interesting character. As a child, he was abandoned by his father, doted on by an overly cautious mother, abused by his uncle, and called a “cissy” by his school mates. As an adult, he has learned he is sterile and he seems to suffer from sexual dysfunction. Why wouldn’t he want to murder his father? He’s observant, curious, and even a bit sentimental, but his worldview has been so stunted that he’s incapable of learning or self-improvement. He doesn’t understand the first thing about himself or his father and he doesn’t believe there is anything to learn about women. “Who would wish to go beyond the surface in a woman, anyway?”

[Alistair] stared out the window. The street bound by snowdrifts. He leaned out. Icicles hanging from the pipes—splinters of glass—reflecting the shadows from clouds. A muffled town assuming the atmosphere of a cathedral, a sacrilege if one spoke above an ecclesiastical whisper. Sizzling of frying, the warmth of the room, and Judith softly humming, brought a sudden sweep of nostalgia; a tangle of broken wires, a need to gather them up, sort out, graft together, encircle the mind, and in becoming: know.

“And in becoming: know.” Quin seemed to be trying to grapple with a number of questions in Berg. How does a “self” gets determined? Is there really a border between the self and the world, between inner and the outer? In his recent biography of Kafka, Reiner Stach writes that Samuel Beckett “was taking the next logical step in the development of the European novel, the disintegration of a consistent inward and outward awareness and the undermining of the questionable identity known as the ‘I’.” Quin was taking the baton from Beckett. And, like Beckett, she was asking: Is there any reason to carry on? For Quin, this was not a rhetorical question. Alistair harbors thoughts of suicide and seeks some kind of relief or release.

If only sleep could release me. Stretching his legs he tried relaxing, first with the toes—this one went to market, and the remaining? He climbed off the bed, swept back the curtains, and watched the tapering fingers from the trees strike a window opposite. Half in the light he stood, a Pirandello hero in search of a scene that might project him from the shadow screen on to which he felt he had allowed himself to be thrown. If only I could discover whether cause and effect lie entirely in my power.

As the Pirandello reference suggests, Berg, with its plot of one farcical moment after another, feels related to the theater of the absurd or the great British tradition of burlesque. Quin has a great deal of fun with episodes of male bungling and ineptitude that seem right out of the Keystone Cops. And finally, as the novel closes, the plot seems about to start all over anew. A man who looks just like Berg (except he’s “more classy”) and whose luggage looks identical to Berg’s is moving into the room that Alistair just vacated.

Curiously, Quin seemed to clearly signaled that the psychological arc of Berg is a movement toward clarity. The book opens with a view toward the sea through a window which is “blurred by out of season spray,” while it closes looking out “a window just cleaned.” I just don’t think it is Alistair who came into any clarity. I think it was Quin.

Ann Quin. Berg. Dalkey Archive Press,  2001. First published in England in 1964.

“Disrupt the certainties”: Ann Quin’s Three

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One of the extraordinary gifts the British writer Ann Quin had was to see the real discourse going on beneath the surface of ordinary conversation, the prejudices, messages, and class distinctions encapsulated in tiny, seemingly innocuous phrases, the roiling power struggles in the daily chatter of couples. In Three, her second novel, published in 1966, a good portion of the text is devoted to the conversations that take place between Leonard and Ruth, a married couple, who are puzzling over the disappearance of a young woman—known only as S.— who rented a room from them and had become part of their family, so to speak. They suspect she has drowned by swimming too far out to sea, either recklessly or on purpose. Quin often gives us their conversations as if they were a verbatim transcript, interspersed only with brief indications of what the two are doing as they speak. These sections are written without any quotation marks or line breaks or indication of who is speaking. At first, this is likely to make the reader a little seasick until, slowly, the text begins to level out as the mind learns to sort out the dialogue.

Do you think she was in love with you I mean. . . .Good heavens what makes you say that Ruth? Well it’s conceivable after all you’re attractive lots of young girls look at you I’ve noticed and don’t pretend you hadn’t realised that. I wasn’t denying it. How long did you in fact know her Leon before—well before I met her? Can’t remember exactly came to work for me let’s see must be a year or so. Did you know she had an abort—abortion? When? Before she came here in fact that’s what she said and not the illness we were led to believe. Oh. Is that all you can say Leon? What is there to say I know you don’t agree with that sort of thing but she was a practical girl in many ways. He continued reading, turning the pages carefully over. She fell back against the pillows, stared at the folds in the curtains. More tea love?

At times, Quin seems to be pushing the text toward disintegration, edging the reader to a purely instinctive comprehension of prose that rejects full sentences, the structure of grammar, and the protocols that that are supposed to govern fiction writing. This is especially true when Ruth and Leonard listen to some strange reel to reel tapes that S. recorded and left behind. In these tapes S. often speaks as if in a trance, hopping from subject to subject, from word to unrelated word.

Dreams. Day dreams
fashioned
from white walls. His thoughts. Female semen seep through
undergrowth.
Lying in wait. For something. The unexpected. Disrupt
the certainties. He declares familiarity of the city. Knowing his
way
around
streets. One way. No entry.

But in other segments a narrative slowly emerges.

Streets
elevators
houses. Pressed closer. A cab to a place near a park. Seven a.m. Over-generous tip. Smiles. Knowing. Impression of a too-expensive hotel. Perhaps they didn’t have a vacant bed.
After all.
Injected
made ready. In white. Like half drunk. Must not lose consciousness. Various instruments. Wad of blood retained shape of gynaecologist’s finger. Low voices in ante-room. Cylindrical light above. Chromium. Breathe deeply. Push. Where is it—was it big enough to see? Three months. What do they do with it in a bottle throw away?
A cab back. Not enough change for a tip.

Three is a novel in which these three broken characters endlessly scrutinize each other, spy on each other, and write up their separate versions of the day in their journals. Ruth secretly reads Leonard’s journal and Leonard secretly reads Ruth’s, but neither seem to learn anything meaningful about the other. In addition to listening to her tapes, Ruth and Leonard read S.’s journal, in which S. sometimes writes about them. “Funny how she observed us,” Ruth says to Leonard, “quite honestly I would never have recognized ourselves from her descriptions.” But the truth is that S. ruthlessly sees through their mind games and delusions. And of the three, only S. is capable of observing herself with any sense of clarity.

On days when the three are bored they play a game that involves wearing masks and miming grim scenarios. “Let’s pretend we’re the only inhabitants after an atomic war. Or prisoners all in one cell.”

Ruth and Leonard are both trying desperately to maintain some semblance of British order and rectitude even as the world around them seems to be turning violent. On several occasions, vandals damage the yard of their summer home and shoot off fireworks close by. Strangers on the street and in nearby cars seem threatening. Their house has become their fortress against changes in society they find disturbing.

The novel’s intense heat is generated by pervasive sexual tension. Ruth and Leonard flirt with each other and talk openly about sexual matters, but it’s as if they were playing roles they’ve both grown tired of. In fact, Ruth has become sexually repelled by Leonard, even as she desperately needs him to dispel her loneliness. “When we met he was a God, a brother I never had, perhaps a father too. His faults were endearing. . . .When did all that falter, what day, night did I feel this appalling separation, a certain loss of identity?” Quin hints pretty strongly that Leon and S. have had sexual relations, and Ruth tries several times to pry details out of Leonard without success. Leonard’s desire for Ruth is purely an animal need, devoid of any tenderness or eroticism, both of which only become apparent when he visits the orchids and other exotic flowers he raises in his greenhouse.

Toward the end of the novel the tension boils over and Leonard violently rapes Ruth. She flees and drives aimlessly around, before returning home, the only place where she feels any type of security.

Hearing the door open, he closed the diary, picked up the newspaper, redirected the lamp, until the light shone on the headlines. He heard her steps in the corridor, saw her shadow against the wall, above the desk, waver there. He turned the newspaper over to the back page, aware now of her shadow falling away, her steps, a door closing. He stared at the painting above the fireplace. His hand curled over a catalogue cover of an orchid. . . .

He . . . .paused over a small item at the bottom of the page.

“The unclothed body of an unidentified young woman, with stab wounds in back and abdomen, was found yesterday by a lake near the Sugarloaf mountain. A blood-stained angler’s knife and hammer were also found.”

Is the woman in the newspaper S.? Quin never definitively tells us what happened to her.

Throughout Three—as in each of her four novels—Quin can create a deeply etched scene with only a few crisp lines, ramping up the emotional intensity through the economy of her words, an economy that forces the reader to become comfortable with ambiguity and with questions that go unanswered. For Quin, there were no easy answers.

Three was reprinted in 2001 by Dalkey Archive Press.

Ann Quin’s Passages

Quin Passages cover

“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.

Quin Passages page one

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.