Sunday, 13 September 2015

Nonnie Williams Korteling writes about Ann Quin

On a hot August Bank holiday weekend in 1973, aged 37, the British Writer Ann Quin walked along the beach, took off her clothes and walked into the sea off the coast at Brighton.  She then swam far out, with slow, deliberate strokes, and drowned.  Was she seeing visions?  Being called by the mystical voice of the ocean?  Was she echoing one of her literary influences, Virginia Woolf?  Did she commit suicide?  Was it all a horrible accident?  Who was Quin anyway, and why should we care about her life and want to read her writing?
I think it was that first term of my ‘Studies in Fiction MA’ at the University of East Anglia, in September 2007, that I first came across Quin’s first book, Berg (1964).  An experimental British writer from the sixties; a macabre, strange, funny, lyrical, vehemently experimental female British writer from the sixties.
Berg is a bed-trick, schlock Brighton tale about, as its opening proclaims, ‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, [who] /came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . . .’  As some of its reviewers and readers have noted, these first lines are designed to, and do, grab us, hook us in.  And, in the narrative that follows, the protagonist, a man called Alistair Berg but posing as one named Greb, does indeed go to a seaside town supposedly intending to find and kill his father, Nathaniel.  Of course – spoiler alert – he fails, and in fact in some weird way kind of becomes his father in the end.  The plot and story are farcical and the prose style is slippery and strange, often bordering on the grotesque.  I became obsessed with the treatment of domestic pets in the book – in increasingly bizarre scenes Berg kills his father’s budgie, Bertie, and father’s (and own) lover’s beloved cat, Seby.  The seemingly domestic was a dark and nightmarish place in Berg, and I was fascinated.  But when I tried to read up on Quin – What else had she written? What did other writers and critics think of her writing? – there was very little to be found, and so, sure there must be more to say, I decided to take on the project of researching her life and writing for myself.
What I found was that Quin was an ordinary, working class woman who had worked as a secretary at Art Schools in London and embraced the ideas of the sixties counter-culture: she was an experimental writer, traveller, drinker, peyote taker, bisexual lover, good time girl; she had also slightly ‘missed the boat’ – coming from a single parent background and leaving school at 17, she hadn’t been to university and wasn’t quite young enough, middle-class or educated enough to enjoy the sixties to the full.  She was also, as her obituary in The Times notes, plagued by ‘a fatal streak of melancholia in her preoccupations, which is present in all her work, and which was sadly prophetic of both the manner and the circumstances of her death’.  She had her first breakdown at the age of 19, and despite the early promise of her writing – Berg was awarded fellowships that enabled her to live and write in America in 1964 – Quin’s later life and prose were plagued by increasingly desperate, erratic behaviour and bouts of severe mental ill-health.  In 1971 Quin was found semi-naked and freezing in a snowdrift in Sweden.  She had, she said, been fleeing red agents, plagued by the signs all around her.  She was taken to a mental hospital in Stockholm, diagnosed with schizophrenia, forcibly sedated and given ECT.  The treatment and sedation, she said, silenced her angels as well as her demons and she found she couldn’t write at all.
Over the next couple of blog posts this autumn I’d like to share some of my research about Quin – I hope that you’ll be as drawn in as I was.  In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more, do check out

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.

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