Ann Quin Critical Essays

Quin, Ann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Quin, Ann 1936–1973

Ms Quin was a British novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)

There is action in Berg, but it is a farrago, a quintessence of Calderism. 'A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father …' runs an introductory page. The headlong prose, the ending-at-the-beginning, the whole arch apparatus of the over-serious, derives, one supposes, from Beckett et al. The insubstantiality and wordy portentousness are the writer's own. (p. 48)

John Fuller, in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 8, 1965.

If [Berg] were as repellent as Miss Quin tries so hard to make it, it might be something to worry about, or at least to notice. But the deliberation with which she makes every wall, every ceiling, every flagstone cracked, and, wherever possible, puts insects into the cracks, the care with which she describes Berg (alias Greb) taking the skin off the top of his cup of cocoa and draping it over the corpse of a moth on the saucer, the inevitability of the bird's death, or the cat's death (Berg picks it up by the tail, whirls it around and flings it against a wall), must give the game away even to the most easily offended reader. It isn't simply ad nauseam, but beyond that into pure tedium.

And to make matters worse, it is derriere garde literary, with run-on sentences and all….

The plot is about a man who is looking for his father in order to kill him. The great books, rechaufee, or Oedipus with athlete's foot. (p. 16)

David R. Slavitt, in Book Week (© The Washington Post), October 13, 1965.

["Berg"] would have been avant garde in 1922. Interior monologues dissolving into dreams, heavily underscored Oedipul churnings—artily sordid imagery—all attest to the existence of Joyce, Freud and Eliot. ("Alistair Berg, hair restorer, curled webbed toes strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light and laughter from the dance hall opposite. Shall I go there again, select another one?") These are wholesome influences, but Miss Quin's application of them is oppressively heavyhanded. (p. 68)

What should be a subtle montage of emotional states is all too literally spelled out. (p. 69)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1965.

[Three] is a skilful book that needs reading more than once, and readers may feel the same confusion as did the early readers of Virginia Woolf. The swivelling viewpoint is the same, as is the evocation of the sea and the delicate symbolism of gulls, crabs and rocks. I should make the same criticisms too (perhaps it's women). The author's sensibility fills every character to the brim so that they don't exist in their own right. The three here have no appreciable difference in tone of voice or cast of mind. And … they exist in a closed and jobless world where the chief industry is making mountains out of molehills. (p. 734)

John Daniel, in The Spectator (© 1966 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 10, 1966.

"Three" is what used to be called "experimental." That is, the center of consciousness shifts so swiftly as to be confusing; there are long sections of a diary written in a kind of blank verse; the three main characters are referred to as L, R and S for much of the book; there are no quotation marks. What is remarkable is that, for long stretches, Miss Quin writes compellingly (though almost never movingly, for reasons I will mention later)….

Section by section, the book fragments itself down to the fragmentary end. One is left with shards of consciousness, of domestic and sexual lives and rag-ends of fantasies. This is itself no criticism. It is rather that the quarrels of L and R are, underneath the elegant language, quite banal. The sexual difficulties smack of conventional mismating. And the fantasies—even when enacted—seem to have little to do with the people themselves.

Here is, I think, the reason why I was left unmoved: finally, it is the human beings who engage one or who do not. Miss Quin has relied on her extraordinary gift for language to salvage people who, I am afraid, are beyond salvation. For long stretches,… [Miss Quin] writes a vivid, supple prose flashing with insights. These segments, however, serve to prove how digressive and unfortunate her almost arbitrary experimentalism is in the rest of the book.

There are today, of course, writers whose experiments with form are authentic; writers of great originality, whose sound and style develop out of an inner need, not a sterile "tradition of the new" (as Harold Rosenberg calls it). Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Nabokov, Elie Wiesel, Jakov Lind speak in voices that are unmistakably new. Miss Quin gives signs of owning her own voice. Paradoxically, she is at present shackled by speaking in an old-fashioned tongue.

There is a wonderful phrase sometimes attributed to Valéry: tout se change sauf l'avant-garde. Witty words and wise.

Daniel Stern, "What Became of S?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 9, 1966, p. 66.

Ann Quin … is trying to develop a new form for the novel. (p. 29)

[In Three her] method is, to put it mildly, oblique, and the reader is likely to feel much of the time that he is lost in a fog. She even refuses to provide him with such guidance as punctuation can give, and he may have an exasperated sense that she could have spared him a good deal of bewilderment if she had not been so scornful of commas, semicolons, and quotation marks. Yet the characters become surprisingly clear as the novel develops, and the situation, as the reader reconstructs it for himself, is not without drama. Whatever else is true, Miss Quin has a feeling for words, and there are memorable passages. (p. 30)

Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 3, 1966.

Tripticks is dedicated to Alan Burns, and like his own novel [Dreamerika!], published at the same time by the same publisher, attacks American society with ridicule, and runs a thread of narrative through jumbled and flickering episodes. Where Dreamerika! is illustrated with newspaper collage, Tripticks has comic-book style illustrations, some mildly erotic, scattered in its pages, and only more or less relevant to its text….

The point seems to be to remark on a shattered society with a splintered art-form (again?), and the regulations at the moment seem to require America to be the proper setting for this. The technique, which must be even more laborious to employ than it is to interpret, cannot perform what it aims at. The thing is still physically a book, we must still turn over its pages, we still have to remember from one page to the next what has accumulated. The effort of doing so through the thickets of frustration that the method and layout interpose is too much, and draws fatal attention to the powerful underlying humorlessness of the whole thing. Bile and a certain peculiar pathos enliven Alan Burns's work, in consequence of his wit: there are no such rewards with Ann Quin.

"Shattering," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 5, 1972, p. 526.

Tripticks almost deliberately defies analysis or commendation. Bemusing to the point of complete incoherence it invites no more than intellectual befuddlement…. Ann Quin can write well; but in this piece of self-gratification she promulgates nothing more than the work of an artist at the end of her tether.

There is a great temptation to compare … Miss Quin's [book] with the Mrs Trollope of The Domestic Manners of the Americans—something I find impossible to resist (despite … the book's marvellous illustrations—a cross between Krazy Kat, Roy Lichtenstein and John Calder's endless generosity)….

'Some bits are magnificient; but what a defective structure!' as Flaubert said. (p. 844)

Barry Cole, in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 16, 1972.

Like all Ann Quin's books, in my view, there's an essential shoddiness [in Tripticks]. Her grammar's bad, her narrative's slipshod, her character's inconsistent, even her spelling's not so hot, as I've seen on the typescript. But what triumphs is her energy, she's got something to say so strong it rams home, defies her technical inadequacies. She's not very well read, or perhaps she's inadequately grasped what she's read, and there's all sorts of undigested literary matter floating about, and personal influences like Creeley and Nabokov and me, from whom she's picked up bits and all this stuff's half-digested, but even that's an energetic thing…. That's not to say there's not great subtlety in the book. Ann's writing contains areas of shadow, inhabited by shadow images, areas of association, which slip further and further away from the text. She has this talent for throwing off ripples of association, and that's very fine, it's her best quality, her subconscious quality…. (p. 47)

Alan Burns, "Blending Words with Pictures," in Books and Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1972), July, 1972, pp. 46-7.

[In Tripticks Ann Quin] has abandoned the clotted and hyper-elaborated stream-of-consciousness of Berg for a verbal continuum somewhere between Ambitdextrous pun-pricks, Joycean parody and sub-Burrovian cut-uppery. Its verbal trick-tics would be more amusing given less straining and heaving after intellectual texture. It catches the stream-of-consciousness-as-contaminated-by-verbal-culture-considered-as-an-internal-landscape, and some epistolatory sequences catch the quality of crisp tart idiomatic letter-writing. Here above all one hears the sharp clear ring of superficial reality heightened into a fuller truth. Otherwise, a gift for terse sour prose is subordinated to what is not so much a slice of life as a razzle-dazzle of perceptual crumbs (from tourist blurbs, films, Phoebe Zeit-Geist, Nancy Grossman, Hugh Lofting, etc). It says little that's not cosily superior about the spirituo-cultural bankruptcy of America's stinking rich, and the social satire is so easy that the verbal machinery threshes in a void, sometimes quite entertainingly. It's true that its mockery is complemented by the pained confusion within the narrator's mind (indicated by his ironic oscillations between first and third person). But both the social and the subjective aspects seem, in the end, the product of a largely verbal process (displaced idioms, jargon, etc). (p. 66)

Raymond Durgnat, in Books and Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1973), November, 1973.