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'The foremost female novelist of her generation': Ann Quin remembered

Ann Quin
Ann Quin Credit: bridgeman

If people thought of Ann Quin rather than Finnegans Wake when they had experimental fiction in mind, they might be more inclined to like it. Quin is the opposite of “hard work”. Exuberance and humanity blossom from her prose, which is also very funny.

Berg (1964), her first novel, about a love triangle between a father, a son and the father’s mistress, begins: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…”

But Quin is not nearly as famous as she should be. If she is remembered at all, it is for Killing Dad (1989), the bowdlerisation of Berg into a deeply funny film starring Richard E Grant, Julie Walters and Denholm Elliott. Her books fall in and out of print. She has been relegated to the status of a “cult writer”, despite admirers such as China Miéville, Deborah Levy and Tom McCarthy, who has called her “one of the few mid-century British novelists who will actually, in the long term, matter”.

The trouble was, Quin slipped from view before she could make an impression. One August morning in 1973, she swam out to sea near the Palace Pier in Brighton and drowned. She was 37. An open verdict was recorded by the coroner, and certainly the chaos of her existence – half-formed relationships, drug use and mental illness – readily supplies a slightly-too-neat narrative of an artist doomed to die young.

Does Quin fit that story? Not quite. Much about her remains mysterious – how, for instance, did this woman, born on the fringes of petit-bourgeois life and seemingly destined to be secretary fodder, find her way into that loose band of experimentalists who came to represent Sixties Britain’s literary avant-garde? But I suspect that Quin, a fastidious stylist and immensely hard worker who overcame many obstacles, would have found it injurious to be described as “doomed”.

Richard E Grant and Julie Walters in the film Killing Dad, based on Ann Quin's Berg Credit: alamy

The Unmapped Country, a new collection of her unpublished fragments and out-of-print short stories, helps slightly to retrieve the missing pieces of her life. In the autobiographical piece “Leaving School – XI”, we see an autodidact devouring Woolf and Dostoevsky in the public library but leaving her Brighton convent school with one O-level (in English literature, naturally).

“Chekhov, Lawrence, Hardy etc, rather than learning the coal fields. The Corn Law. Amo, amas, amat. […] More fascinated by the colour of Mademoiselle’s bloomers […] More curious about what the nuns wore in bed. If they were really bald.” After leaving school, she “wore make-up every day, bought high heels, nylons, and joined a rep”. 

Quin saw herself as a Sussex Caliban, washed up on the shores of the Channel. At 14, she met her half-brother and “fell desperately in love with him; he died five years later and I saw myself as Antigone”. At 18, when she went up to London on Saturdays to see her estranged father, she pretended that he was her lover.

Around this time, Quin was writing, too, and supporting herself as the secretary in the foreign rights department of a publishing house. Propelled by “a sense of sin”, she moved from Brighton to Soho, which inspired her abortive attempts at a first novel, A Slice of the Moon, about a homosexual (although at the time, as she later admitted, she had never met one). The rest of Quin’s life is a mixture of predictable Sixties bohemianism in her Notting Hill bedsit interspersed with electroconvulsive therapy in mental institutions and extraordinary adventures in the United States, including romances with two post-Beat poets, Robert Creeley and Robert Sward.

Ann Quin at home in 1966 Credit: Larry Goodell

It was there in the mid-Sixties that she met Larry Goodell, a New Mexico poet, and they remained friends until the end of her life. Speaking to me over the phone, he describes her as “strong and wild, but of a delicate nature” and recalls gatecrashing parties with her and boozy road trips across the continent.

A letter from Quin to Goodell, from 1965, shows her to be in high spirits, buoyed by a “gushing lush letter” from the University of Boston, which had offered to hold her manuscripts. Goodell recalls the enormous respect for Quin among the American avant-garde: "We thought she was the foremost female novelist of her generation… She realised she had to be relentless in her own writing – and she was. She worked on a novel on various pieces of paper but then she would lay them on the floor and try to arrange them. There were no unnecessary words in her writing.”

Her subject was, in her words, “the eggy mouthcorners of life”. Mental dysfunction and rampant desire tumble from the page in works such as “Tripticks” (1972), a surreal road trip across America that owes something to William Burroughs. With its stabs at pornography, “Tripticks” was never going to pass the censoriousness of the W H Smith stockists, but there’s a lot of Quin’s writing that does focus inwardly, brilliantly, on English life. 

Ann Quin's novel Berg

In The Unmapped Country, we find empty post-war Sundays, grubby extra-marital affairs in seaside guesthouses with shared bathrooms, and narrow streets of terraced houses whose inhabitants, she notes, had a “glazed TV look”: “Girls. Hair in rollers. Queued in the butchers. Wondering if Jim. Fred. Or Harry will be at the dance tonight.” A particularly poignant piece, “Motherlogue” (1969), imagines a phone call from her mother – desperate for her bohemian daughter to settle down – as a stream of consciousness: 

By the way he [Quin’s father] asked me when you might get married do you really think hello hello are you there who who who’s she oh Richard’s wife yes of course well I suppose he must miss the children and that is a problem isn’t it dear do you really think she’ll divorce him I mean and oh by the way you might tell him to get that magazine readdressed…

Although you can detect Virginia Woolf’s legacy here, there is a contemporary truth about Quin’s work, a desire to dwell in her own experiences. In this respect, she represents a compromise between her fellow radical B S Johnson and what he stood against, the lightly ironic social realism of Kingsley Amis and William Cooper, which dominated English fiction in the Sixties.  

Quin was less ostentatiously experimental than Johnson – in his 1964 novel Albert Angelo, holes were cut in the page to make the reader aware of present and future – and in person less self-confident. In his terrific 2005 Johnson biography, Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe quotes a description of Quin taking to the stage alongside Johnson to read prose to a live audience. When her turn came, she simply froze. 

In the Seventies, Quin’s mental health deteriorated, a struggle traced in her letters to Goodell, although she never lost her sense of humour. On July 24 1973, she told him she had returned to Brighton to look after her mother, and wondered whether a spell as a student might resurrect her love life: “The older I get, of course, the choosier I seem to become. Ah well perhaps there will be some lecherous lecturer at E Anglia…” She died the following month.

In “Leaving School – XI”, Quin recalls her younger self deciding to “climb out of the madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day-to-day living”. That life’s absurdities grew too much for Ann Quin is unutterably sad. For her decision briefly to embrace them, we should be grateful.

The Unmapped Country (£10) is published by And Other Stories