Saturday, 26 September 2015
Nonnie Williams Korteling on Ann Quin and ‘Three’
This is the next posting by Nonnie Williams Korteling about the British experimental writer Ann Quin who died in 1973. Here Nonnie describes the decisions she made when writing her PHD on Quin. She then offers two extracts from that PHD which focus on Quin’s book Three which was published in 1966...
‘Much of the writing process of the PhD on Quin was spent agonising about how to manage the biography—critical distinction/tension/complement. I toyed with moving back-and-forth between short sections of the two, referring to ‘Quin’ when I was in literary critical mode and ‘Ann’ to indicate passages of life-writing. But this really didn’t – and I’m sure you can see why – work: too clunky, too messy, too simplistic. In the end, and much against my own instincts and interests (driven, I think, by my sense, whether misguided or not, of what my PhD ‘ought’ to be), the thesis was largely made up of long and complex literary critical essays with short sections of life-writing in between, entitled ‘Illuminations’. These were – you guessed it – intended to ‘illuminate’ aspects of her work. I really didn’t want the life-writing passages to be reductive, to seem to offer the answer or meaning, to limit the experience of reading her books. Looking back now I’m not sure how well they work, but I did and still do rather like the idea of placing life and work side-by-side, without offering them as explanation, and seeing what energy this creates. So, here I’m going to do just that; begin with a reflection on her second book, Three (1966), followed by a very short ‘illumination’.
Three – what Quin called her ‘ménage’ book – is a collage, comprised of fragments of friends’ letters, comments, household receipts and bills. It begins with a married couple – Ruth and Leonard – discussing ‘her’ death. This death, ‘could’ they say ‘so easily have been an accident’. Throughout the book, Ruth and Leonard’s conversation is haunted by the desire to interpret this mysterious death of the book’s third protagonist, a character only ever referred to as ‘she’ or ‘S’. Each of their utterances follows so closely at the heels of another that things are unclear and need working out, creating a disorientated reading experience. The momentum of the speech (written as plain prose without speech marks) and run-on lines, together with the continual return to worrying at the same event, means that our reading must slow, circle and repeat for understanding to happen. Whereas Berg – Quin’s first book -continually returns to a fantasised but never carried out parricide, in this book the death has always already happened: Three ‘begins’ when S is dead and ‘ends’ when she is approaching death. This focus on S establishes the pattern of the book as a whole. This third, absent character, emerges as a necessary part of the dynamic of the married two: together and alone, Leonard and Ruth are obsessed with S. She plays a crucial role in their marriage, and the mystery of her absence offers an opportunity for a uniting of the two that the third-ness of her presence never could. S is the figure that shadows, the mystery that designs, the narrative as a whole.
To read the overlapping collage of different narrative forms of Three is to perform a kind of trespass: to read and transgress upon diaries, to ‘listen’ to tape recordings and watch home-movies. Confused reminiscence is mixed with intensely detailed experience; third-person narrative with journal entries and free ‘poetry’. The resulting combination of texts are literary experimentation which moves this book beyond Berg. In many ways here the plot itself is even simpler, but the energy of the writing is more consciously ‘experimental’. For example, S’s journal transcripts appear as words scattered across the page. These half-formed thoughts and feelings are conveyed impressionistically, through unusual or repeated word pattern and image, or by focus on the sound and rhythm in and between words. The writing seems to have a free associative, pre-articulate momentum, sensory impressions are recorded without communicating a recognisably inner self.
According to the critic Robert Nye Three is Quin writing at her best. Here, Nye said, “Quin showed herself to be admirably alive to the elusiveness of what happens between people, to what is lost in conversation, and to the possibilities of the English language for suggesting these little communicative lacunae. Her best writing hoarded words as if they were pebbles washed smooth by huge seas of experience”.
Although it is a book haunted by a drowning, foreshadowing her own, final, journey into the sea, Quin began her second book, Three, more than ten years earlier, while living in a turret room at Lansdowne Road and working as a secretary for the painter, Carel Weight, at the Royal College of Art. When life in London became too intense, she caught the train to Axminster, in retreat to her friends and fellow writers Carol and Alan Burns’ cottage in Dorset, just inland from the coast at Charmouth. The cottage had no running water or electricity, but water was drawn from a well, there were oil lamps and a garden with an apple orchard. Here, Quin fantasised a Mellors in every farm labourer, walked for miles along the coast, holidayed with her then – incongruous as the pairing may seem – lover Henry Williamson (author of Tarka the Otter), and spent time with the Burns reading Ezra Pound, making cut-up poems, talking. These trips were energising and inspiring: they were also not without tensions perhaps inevitable in an intense friendship between a young woman and a married couple. Quin often played the role of third to her married friends’ twos including the American poet Robert Sward and his wife Diane. According to Sward the number three was absolutely central to Quin’s relationships, her fantasies, her writing.
But Quin’s longing for intimacy was in tension with a real fear of being trapped by domesticity. In discussion with Nell Dunn – one of a really interesting collection of conversations collected in a book called Talking to Women (1965) – Quin talks with dread about the domestic expectations and daily grind of a long-term relationship. Yes, something stable and comforting was alluring, but this would, she assumed, inevitably become ordinary and full of compromise. And worse, a traditional domestic set-up could well interrupt the stillness she believed vital for her ability to write: at the same time she desperately wanted consolation, affirmation. She jokes to Nell Dunn; ‘what I really need is a wife’.’
Nonnie Williams Korteling: Between 2008 and 2012 I was researching and writing a PhD on Quin at UEA. The project, called 'Designing its own shadow' - Reading Ann
Quin, ended up as a combination of critical readings of Quin's work
and biographical vignettes. I now teach at UEA and am particularly interested in twentieth-century literature, women's experimental writing, life-writing, and the essay form. My current writing projects include reflections from the classroom, a life-writing project reflecting on the women who made me, and a book on British Avant Garde
Fiction of the 1960s.