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Ann Quin is the author of four short novels that were published during her life. Before fully hitting her stride as an author, she completed two books that remain unpublished. When she died at the age of 37 in 1973 she was working on a novel that was never completed. Sadly it was Blaster Al Ackerman and not Quin who came up with The Ecstasy of Macaroni (circa 1986) as the title for a short story. Berg  (1964) was Quin’s first and most successful published book. By the time of Tripticks (1972), her fourth and last published novel, she had completed her transition from late modernist to postmodern writer. In-between came Three (1966) and Passages (1969). These two books by Quin tend to merge in my mind, but that’s cool because often it is more productive to read an author’s entire output as a single work rather than treating individual novels as discrete entities.

In a conventional critical appraisal of Three, the trio of characters in the novel might be compared to a ménage-a-trois. These is an older couple and a younger girl who has disappeared. It could even be argued, erroneously or perhaps not, that Three represents a refusal to fully engage with the Electra complex; just as Berg was a rejection of the Oedipus complex as it had been handed down to us/reinvented by Freud (or ‘fraud in the name of the father’). In Berg the central character wants to kill his father, in Three the relationship between the dead girl and the older couple is way more ambiguous. We might see Three as anticipating the full-blown postmodernism of Lynne Tillman’s Cast In Doubt (1992), where an older gay man named Horace becomes obsessed with a young American girl called Helen who has disappeared. In both Three and Cast In Doubt the anti-narrative is built around an absence and in each book we get to read at least parts of the missing girl’s diary. These novels are mysteries but Three owes more to the nouveau roman (in part because it is proto-postmodernism rather than Tillman’s full blown version of the same thing), and as a consequence Quin is more interested in appropriating elements from detective fiction.

When I read or re-read Ann Quin I prefer losing myself in the flow of her words to engaging in a critique of the text. Thus rather than writing in an academic manner about Quin, I favour the post-critical approach of citing passages from her work without commenting upon them. Post-criticism is closer to curation than textual analysis. Thus I will self-consciously avoid providing a proper context for these quotes since a dexterous reader can supply this background for herself (even if this necessitates a familiarity with Quin’s books – if you haven’t read them already then you should). This is a passage from Three:

“ ‘I was a camp adjutant, I merely sat in my office with my paperwork. It may sound unbelievable, but I never set foot inside the actual camp.’

‘Did you never make any attempt to find out about the 60,000 human beings locked in there. Did they have shelter? How were they fed? Was there a water supply?’

‘I never heard of any complaints.’

‘Who was able to complain?’

‘No one was allowed inside. It was punished by death!’

‘Look at the map, look at that grey building, that yard. Did you know about that?’

‘No. No.’

‘Did you know that there were three gallows in that yard?’

‘Three what?’

‘GALLOWS. Gallows from which men were hanged.’

‘I didn’t see them from my window.’ ” (pages 58-59, Calder and Boyars edition).

In my post-critical mode I can now move on to citing four shorter sections from Passages:

1.  “He balanced a whip in each hand. The girl strapped to the chair. Her head swayed over the back, hair hung down. Legs apart, fruit placed between. He drank, but did not swallow. On his knees he thrust his face between. Sound of whip meeting flesh, into a rhythm, slow at first…” (page 25, Calder and Boyars edition).

2. “I love all men, how can I ever be tied to one man for the rest of my life?” (page 40, Calder and Boyars edition).

3. “The island obscured by mist, though the top of the watchtower could be seen. A rumour that detainees had been tortured. The cells were infested with fleas, bugs and lice – deliberately put there. The prisoners are allowed out to the courtyard only for short periods twice a day. As soon as they fall asleep they are abruptly woken by the guards and hurried to an officer’s room for interrogation. A blinding flashlight shines in the prisoner’s eyes throughout. This lasting for ten hours or more. Women are stripped naked for questioning…” (page 77, Calder and Boyars edition).

4. “If one could pick such and such a day to die how superior, how indifferent one would be…. However, nowadays one cannot choose how or where to die. Even that is taken out of our hands: to resuscitate or not to resuscitate.” (page 94, Calder and Boyars edition).

In a conventional piece of criticism I might talk about how the shortness and simplicity of Quin’s sentences is pleasingly American and breaks with the British literary habit of being unnecessarily long-winded and boring. I might also mention the influence of journalism on more advanced forms of English language literature in the twentieth-century and observe that most literary writers in the United Kingdom have been rather backward in their approach to culture for a century or more. Alternatively I might relate the passages quoted above to what I know of Quin’s life; viz she ‘committed suicide’ by drowning at sea rather like the missing girl in Three. That said, while it appears that Quin consciously instigated her own death, there remains enough ambiguity about the ‘tragedy’ to place this conclusion in doubt; just as it isn’t entirely clear whether or not the girl in Three committed suicide, died in an accident or was murdered. Fortuitously or not, it might be claimed that Quin suffered from mental health problems and we can see from her schizophrenic anti-narratives that she was ‘crazy’. Insanity is, of course, the only sane response to a mad capitalist world. Alternatively we can chase the chimera of Quin’s biography by suggesting that the passages I’ve quoted above in some way relate to her possessing a ‘promiscuous’ sexuality grounded in bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism. Or perhaps that her obsession with the number three relates to her Catholic schooling and the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Someone with an interest in conventional criticism might even delve into the relationship between Quin’s work and the Danish painter Asger Jorn’s pursuit of triolectics. I should, of course, state here that it may just be coincidence that both Jorn and Quin died in 1973. As Jorn observed in his text On The Triolectical Method In Its Applications In General Situology (1964): “In his book Die dreiköpfige Gottheit, Willibald Kirfel proposed that the origin of the image of the god with three heads goes back to the pre-Celtic megalithic (or Neolithic) era and that it has its place in the cultural world of the Mediterranean. It is still found in places all over the world. To the African Yorubas, it is Shango, the god of thunder, and is associated with secret organizations. Frobenius affirms that the feeling and the concept of Time is expressed through the number three – past, present, future – and that the number four is a projection in space of directions across the surface plane. Frobenius’s proposition appears to be corroborated by the existence of Spanish representations of the month of January imagined as a triple head which, by its evident symbolism, send us back to secularity. The opposition of the Catholic Church to the representation of the Trinity as an image with three faces has its explanation here. The Christian concept of duality probably arises from the notion of opposites like black and white and the double face of Janus (January).”

Personally, rather than indulging in conventional criticism, I find it more rewarding to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Calder and Boyars paperback editions of Three and Passages. The cover of Three features a very crude graphic of what appears to be a representation of a reel of tangled audio tape, laid out beneath Quin’s name and the title of the book. I read the reel as containing audio-tape rather than celluloid because this relates it more closely to the content of the novel. However it should be stressed that this interpretation is highly subjective and is based on my familiarity with the text inside the book, rather than being an objective assessment of the cover. I don’t actually know whether the person who designed the graphic had read Quin’s book or at least been briefed on its contents; nonetheless I subjectively assume this to be the case because of my desire to relate the image to the text. Towards the bottom of the cover are the words: ‘A novel’. Both the typography and graphic are printed in dark green on a white background. The cover does not look like the work of a professional designer, but then appearances can be deceptive. The cover design of Passages is as simple and amateur looking but this time the artwork is purely typographic. The title and the author’s name are laid out in alternating purple and white letters on a mauve background at the top of the cover, with a white line separating them. Beneath this there is a mauve field and at the bottom of this in smaller white lettering one reads: ‘Winner of the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship and the Harkness Commonwealth Fellowship’.

The text design inside both books is reasonably professional, so it is possible to speculate that the covers were deliberately made to look shoddy to contrast them with the quality of the writing they contained. However, I think it more likely that the publishers were trying to save money and lacked the ability to properly judge and evaluate graphic design. This latter view would seem to be backed up by the serviceable perfect binding on both books and the quality of the paper. My copies have only survived forty plus years of use and non-use because they have been handled and stored in a reasonably careful manner, rough treatment would have destroyed them. Or as the publisher has it on the back cover of Passages: “a woman in search of her brother, and her lover, a masculine reflection of herself, in search of himself.” It should go without saying that the brother is dead. The binding of my copy of Passages is still intact but it would be broken had I not handled it carefully.

Beyond the poor quality cover designs, there are other things about these two paperbacks that don’t quite add up. Three has the price 15s printed on the back cover, while Passages features the post decimal price of 75p (the UK currency was decimalised on 15 February 1971, and if the Passages paperback had been issued in 1969 as indicated on its copyright page, then it too would have been priced at 15s; as 15s = 75p and vice versa). On the back of the paperback edition of Three there is an advert for the hardcover edition of Passages which was published three years after Three. Both books bear the date of their original hardback publication inside, so it looks as if nothing apart from some of the cover artwork was altered after the text was set for the first editions and then reused for the paperbacks. Rather than appearing simultaneously with the hardback editions (as the copyright pages seem to indicate), one can deduce from their covers that these paperbacks were issued several years later. On the inside front covers is some text that confirms this: “CALDERBOOKS These large format paperbacks, comprise, in the main, re-issues of the major titles originally published by Calder and Boyars in hardcover editions. They are published at more popular prices to enable the best of contemporary literature from Calder and Boyars to reach a wider reading public. The list now contains more than 150 titles.” This is the version of the text in the paperback edition of Three, in Passages the number of titles has been amended from >150 to >250. In both instances this statement is followed by a long list of authors. The copyright pages are misleading and these paperbacks are not first editions issued in 1966 and 1969 respectively as the publication details indicate.

By now I hope to have made it clear that I’m not really interested in writing a classical appreciation of Ann Quin. It isn’t that I don’t ‘love’ her prose, it’s just that I find her more interesting as a way into other things (but I’ll leave it to other people to cover the legendary and not entirely professional business practices of Quin’s publisher John Calder). Although I could talk about ‘stream of consciousness’ as it is deployed in some of Quin’s prose, I’ve already dealt with this matter in my fiction and for me to go over it again would be pointless. Berg was the jumping off point for my novel 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess (2002).

Before I fail to address Quin’s influence on me, please allow me to bring up the distraction of the dedications in her books – ‘For Mother’ (Berg); ‘For Bobbie and Bob’ (Three); For Ian In Memory’ (Passages); and ‘For Alan and Carol Burns’ (Tripticks). It’s the last dedication that disturbs me the most. Did Quin like Alan Burns’s work or was he just a friend? Moving on, when I turn the pages of Tripticks, which is dedicated to Burns, what most attracts my attention are the illustrations by Carol Annand, and in particular those with a BDSM theme. A naked and bound woman with ropes running around her breasts, whose fetters are being yanked by a man towering over her from behind (page 60, Dalkey Archive edition).  A woman with long gloves and exaggeratedly feminine make-up caning a pair of exposed buttocks – the full figure is not in view but the extremely rounded glutes lead me to ‘read’ the backside as female; while shading that might be taken as hair on the arse and legs leave me with the impression this figure is male (page 74, Dalkey Archive edition).  As the alchemists of old had it: ‘the two sexes travel in the company of a third…’ Or as Quin’s posthumous American publisher Dalkey Archive puts it on the back cover of their edition of Tripticks, the book: “offers an episodic account of the narrator’s flight across a surreal American landscape, pursued by his ‘No. 1 X-wife’ and her new lover.” Once again, I find quoting from Tripticks preferable to analysing the text:

“Then I discovered she was on the needle, maybe Nightripper had initiated her. She’d close her eyes and say ‘Dear me, I’m so depressed now. We must have some medicine. Who’s got the spoon?’ She flustered to the other side of the room, then returned brandishing a syringe. ‘Let’s have a party, let’s have a fix. I just don’t feature getting strung out, I just don’t dig it. Like there’s no need for it, no need at all. You got a habit, you like your habit, then it’s just gonna turn on you and be real mean. It’s gonna make you hurt, it’s gonna give you such an awful pain. And man I don’t like pain, no kind of pain. That’s why I got a habit in the first place…’ ” (page 133, Dalkey Archive edition).

With this short extract I’m already all at sea, starting with the name Nightripper. I don’t know whether to pronounce it as “night-tripper’ and relate it to the far out hippie music of Dr John ‘The Night Tripper’. Or whether I should say ‘night-ripper’ and think of a serial killer and Italian giallo movies. But things get even more confusing with the last sentence I quote above. Quin is ostensibly talking about a drug habit but because I grew up in the 1970s in the UK, it reminds me of adverts for the Abbey National Building Society (a savings bank) which ran on British TV and elsewhere under the slogan ‘Get the Abbey Habit’ (meaning start a savings account to make your future safe and secure). Is Quin riffing on these banking adverts? Were the adverts even running when she wrote the passage? From a quick web search I’m unable to determine exactly when ‘Get The Abbey Habit’ was first used as a promotional slogan, but sources indicate early seventies, roughly when Quin was writing Tripticks. But do we know for sure when Quin wrote Tripticks? We can at least be certain it was completed at some point prior to its publication in 1972 (three years after her previous novel Passages was first issued for the delectation of a discerning reading public).

What I can recall with complete certainty is that the first time I read Quin’s novel Berg I was still a teenager. It was 1980 and I was playing guitar in a post punk band Basic Essentials. Our manager Dave Tiffen, who must have been thirty-odd at the time, was a huge fan of modernist literature. I’d already read the likes of Beckett, Burroughs, Trocchi, Robbe-Grillet etc., and so Dave would give me books he thought I should know, mostly picked up from charity shops/thrift stores.  Dave loved old Olympia Press paperbacks and gave me several, but the best novel he passed on to me was a Quartet edition of Ann Quin’s Berg. It had a very ugly seventies drawing on the cover but the prose instantly grooved me. Dave liked B. S. Johnson (who he also introduced me to) even more than Quin, but I ranked them the other way around. I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the modernist authors Dave liked, and in particular I disliked Alan Burns. About twenty years after Dave introduced me to these authors, I attended a panel talk Burns gave with my friend Elizabeth Young (1) and some other literary types. Burns came across as a burnt out creative writing tutor reliving his glory years (and even those, in my opinion, weren’t particularly glorious). The session I’m invoking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London didn’t tempt me to revisit Europe After The Rain (1965), the first book I’d read by Burns. After I’d perused his truly contemptible ‘documentary novel’ The Angry Brigade (1973), I didn’t bother to read anything else by Burns. He’d been a lawyer before he became a full time writer, and was utterly clueless about the politics and the milieu that sustained the Angry Brigade and their bombings in and around London in the early 1970s.

I did revisit Ann Quin and more than once. But by the time I revisited Berg in 1999 I’d lost my Quartet edition of the book and replaced it with a copy reissued by Paladin in 1989, a tie-in with the awful movie Killing Dad (based on Quin’s novel and starring Denholm Elliott, Julie Waters and Richard E. Grant). In 1999 I re-read Berg on a long number 35 bus journey across London when I went to visit John King, the author of a slew of bestselling novels including The Football Factory, Skinheads and Human Punk. The winding journey from my flat in Shoreditch to John’s home in Clapham took about an hour each way and gave me enough time to read the book again. I was instantly struck by the thought that I should riff on the beginning of Berg to create a new work of my own – a novel that was eventually issued as 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess (2002). Quin, of course, had already beaten me to the punch with this move, since the beginning of her fourth and last published novel Tripticks (1972) takes William Burroughs as a jumping off point into something only Quin could have created.

When I wrote Dead Princess in 1999 (nearly three years before its eventual publication), Quin was not someone who the many writers I knew talked about. In fact the only writer I can recall discussing her with was Bridget Penney, who was born and grew up in Edinburgh but has also spent many years living in Quin’s hometown of Brighton. At the turn of the millennium most of the authors I conversed with weren’t familiar with Quin, and I wasn’t sure whether she was lost or ripe for a revival. I’d certainly never discussed Quin with the huge circle of writers clustered around Iain Sinclair, and these were men who often obsessed over figures they viewed as ‘reforgotten’. Perhaps it was only male writers and artists who were reforgotten, and women like Quin were not even privileged enough to be endlessly banished and recalled.

Of course many writers seem to vanish without trace in ways that bear only a figurative relationship to the way that Quin - or Arthur Cravan (2) - were lost at sea. A few days ago when I logged onto a social media site I was reminded of one such ‘lost’ writer called Anita Phillips. The poet Alev Adil had posted a picture of Anita with a caption that said Phillips had died in 2007. I’d met Phillips around the time her first and only published novel The Virtues, the Vices and All the Passions appeared in 1991. I used to run into Phillips at literary events in London, then she’d disappeared from my sight and ultimately my mind sometime after her only full-length non-fiction book A Defence of Masochism (1998) came out. I didn’t know Phillips was dead, and I doubt I’d have thought about her again without Alev’s visual prompt. While I’d seen Alev often in the late-seventies and early eighties, we’d drifted apart since then and haven’t met face to face for at least thirty years (we’ve only recently reconnected on social media), so we aren’t necessarily aware of all the friends we have in common or think to pass on news about them. Alev told me that Phillips had moved to Brighton (Quin’s hometown) in 2003, before dying four years later, which explained why I hadn’t seen her in more than a decade.

In contrast to Phillips, Ann Quin is unlikely to disappear from my thoughts. She may not be particularly visible in contemporary culture but I can’t imagine a time when I won’t want to revisit her work. Quin has the advantage of having been read by me when I was a teenager, a time when most writers tended to have a bigger impact on me than those I read for the first time now. But aside from that, Quin still really thrills me! (3)

1. Elizabeth Young was an influential and sometimes controversial book reviewer for the British national press who died aged 50 in 2001.  With Graham Cavaney she co-authored Shopping in Space: Essays on American 'Blank Generation' Fiction (1992). She also contributed short stories to various anthologies and was writing an uncompleted novel at the time of her death.
2. I invoke Cravan here because he was a poet and art critic of sorts (although his art criticism was more of a vehicle for self-expression than aesthetic judgement); but, in short, Cravan can be described as a writer. In some ways Bas Jan Ader (who was also lost at sea – but two years after Quin, rather than fifty-five years before her like Cravan) may be closer to Quin in temperament than Cravan. But Ader was an artist rather than a writer; that said, both Cravan and Quin were art writers rather than conventional literary figures.
3. Strangely or not, a week after writing this essay I spotted a social media post by the writer John Williams in which he said it was a year and a day since his wife Charlotte Greig (a writer and musician) had died. I’d seen a lot of John and Charlotte when they’d lived in London, and very little of them after they moved to Cardiff. Somehow posts about Charlotte’s death had failed to find their way into my newsfeed prior to the anniversary message from John, although when I checked Charlotte’s timeline I saw many posts about her death from a year earlier. No one had thought to tell me Charlotte had died, hence the gap of a year between her death and my learning of it.

Terry Taylor's cult 1961 London drug novel Baron's Court, All Change

Alex Trocchi's State of Revolt

London Psychedelic Culture in the 1960s

The Real Dharma Bums (Julia Callan-Thompson & Bruno de Galzain)

London Art Tripping (psychogeography of 50 years of bohemianism)



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