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Ann Quin (photo by Oswald Jones/the estate of Oswald Jones)

Sixties secretary turned avant-gardist

Backlisted, Essay | 17 minute read
It might seemed like Ann Quin had all but been forgotten but her work is back, and having a bit of a moment...

Picture a wild and freewheeling avant-garde writer from the sixties, a properly swashbuckling one. You know the kind of figure, the sort who lived a radical life while writing radical works – a fizzily vital embodiment of the rule-breaking, convention-flouting spirit of the time.

Think of one who ran with Pop artists and experimental poets on both sides of the Atlantic, living a semi-peripatetic existence, restless, forever in pursuit of peak experience: sex, substances, altered states of consciousness. They very probably wouldn’t be British, they likely wouldn’t be a woman, and they almost certainly wouldn’t be working-class. But Ann Quin was all three of these, as well as being all of the above, and that’s precisely why she isn’t better known. Chris Kraus’s recent biography of the American writer Kathy Acker tells us that Acker ‘craved’ the status of the first female ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’. But arguably she was too late (there are other contenders too, of course, and almost all of them, like Quin, aren’t nearly as well-known as they should be).

Quin was born in Brighton in 1936 to what was called, back then, an ‘unmarried mother’ and a mostly absent vaudevillian father. Her mother hoped she might be ‘brought up “a lady”’, Quin writes of her childhood, and so sent her to convent school, which equipped her with a speaking voice that doesn’t quite sound like her own. In the one surviving reel-to-reel recording of her she sounds startlingly clipped and RP-proper as she trips uneasily over her own beautifully elliptical prose. Later she moved to London, where she worked as a secretary by day and wrote late into the night.

Her clattering away at the keys of her typewriter into the early hours got her evicted, but, no matter – she would soon find a way to levitate out of bedsit land altogether. She’d burned the manuscripts of her first two novels, Oscar and A Slice of Moon, in a fit of writer’s pique, but her third, Berg (1964), was a success, and she spent the remainder of the sixties concocting her own picaresque, living and writing her way across Ireland, Greece, Mexico and the Bahamas, but spending most of her time in the United States. Three more novels followed: Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972). As scant a body of work as this might be, it nonetheless proposes that there might be something stranger, dirtier and more anarchic to the story of twentieth-century writing in Britain than the one we’re often told.

Writers like Quin tend to get framed as outliers, but she had her community: first amongst the British Pop Art scene, fermenting at that time at the Royal College of Art – she was a secretary there, though, rather than a student. Later she found a kind of home in exile in the United States, in the alternative living scene around Taos, New Mexico and with the American post-Beat poets. She wrote prose fiction in the main – albeit in a way that demands an expansion in our thinking about what such a category might mean – but she identified herself as a poet, and had significant relationships with two others: Robert Creeley and Robert Sward. Back home, she was part of a loosely aligned set of radical sixties British writers (including amongst their number B. S. Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose and Brigid Brophy) who also set about challenging the conventions of the traditional novel. Published by Calder & Boyars, she belonged to a stable of authors who produced some of the most provocative and cosmopolitan writing of the period: Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and others.

Travels on the map and travels in the mind were inextricably linked for Quin, and at times she would find herself having ventured too far off the edge. Her life was punctuated by devastating periods of mental illness. She suffered her first psychic breakdown while working as a waitress in the Cornish fishing village of Mevagissey, of which she wrote:

‘I collapsed one morning … I lay in bed for days, weeks, unable to face the sun. If I went out into the garden, I dug holes and lay in them weeping. I woke up in the middle of the night screaming, convinced my tears were rivers of blood.’

She consulted a psychiatrist who, according to her close friend and fellow writer, Paddy Kitchen, ‘found Ann’s wild imaginings way beyond her scope’. Quin would write later that ‘[t]he loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day-to-day living’. But the balance between the two was increasingly hard-won. She suffered breakdowns and bouts of aphasia, undergoing electro-convulsive therapy several times, and she died tragically young, walking out to sea near Brighton’s Palace Pier in the summer of 1973, when she was only thirty-seven.

Brighton (Photo by Hamish Duncan/Unsplash)

That autumn, she had been due to take up a place on UEA’s creative writing course – which, three years earlier, had counted as its inaugural student one Ian McEwan. It does no good to indulge in counterfactuals, but I can’t help but ponder what might have become of Quin had she lived. I’m fond of imagining her as a sort of elder stateswoman of British letters, all neck-scarf and severe bob, glaring over thick glasses, a bit like Doris Lessing or Muriel Spark.

British culture has a way of assimilating square pegs such as these in their dotage. J. G. Ballard was pinned as a pornographer in 1970, with the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition, but had become dystopia’s kindly old uncle by the time he died in 2009. Could Quin, like Ballard, have eventually found herself turning down a CBE? Or, to put it another way: could her presence have helped to sustain a literary culture that was more curious, more open, more cosmopolitan? To speak of an ‘avant-garde’ these days has more than a little of the Sealed Knot about it. But we haven’t moved so very far away from viewing experiment in writing as a kind of intellectual dandyism or a pernicious form of French flu.

Would Quin’s place in the culture have been at the cost of having her sharp edges smoothed away? Or would she simply have receded from view altogether? I hope, in a sense, that she’d have absconded from all of this and found herself drawn back to the sunnier and more welcoming climes of the States. Only eight years older than Acker, she would have been quite at home amongst the downtown artistic demi-monde of the seventies and eighties. I like this version of a possible future for Quin: the self-dispossessed and swaggery writer-in-exile.

That’s not what happened, though. Loved passionately by initiates, to the wider world it might seem like Quin has been lost down the back of the settee these past forty-five years. But, since the collection of her short stories and fragments that I edited, The Unmapped Country, was published in January of this year, Quin has been having a moment. Whatever ‘cult writer’ means, if Quin wasn’t that before, she certainly is now. I spent seven years, off and on, collecting together the stories which had remained where she left them when she died: scattered in boxes and sequestered in drawers in private collections and archives all over the world. Though at the time I went about the task with a kind of dogged and more or less unthinking drive toward completism, I can see now that it’s a funny thing to do, a fanatic thing. It must have been this that prompted people’s questions: what is it about her that’s so significant now? Why is she relevant? These started to rankle a little.

I’m far less interested in making impossible claims about Quin’s foresight and, in doing so, making her more palatable, than in what the fate of her work tells us about the culture that dismissed her: its assumptions about who is permitted to write books, who those books are for, what they can be about and what they can do. There’s a kind of myth that gets attached to ‘lost’ writers when they come in from the cold. Their very ‘lostness’ has a powerful cachet which tends to occlude our thinking about why they got lost in the first place.

But, while we shouldn’t kid ourselves about how far the modest success of a single book can go towards making our traditions more welcoming and more elastic, the thrill of discovery can be a good thing too: that sense of encountering an emissary from an alternate timeline, where things might have turned out other than how they are. It’s a particular version, I would argue, of the best of what books are capable of: difference, disruption, disorientation, making strange. And that’s a feeling that’s worth holding on to, now more than ever.

In any case, it’s less that Quin has come of age and more that we’ve finally caught up with her. With what has been declared as a golden age for independent publishing, has come an impetus to look backwards as well as forwards for innovative and ambitious writing. Her work shouldn’t feel so new and bold, but it does. Her writing of female desire, especially, as a restless, tentacular, avaricious thing that roves and roves but is never fulfilled, feels timelier than ever now, so many years later, when we are still only just beginning to speak directly about female sexuality and how we as women inhabit our own bodies.

So too does her rendering of a female consciousness that cannot settle in its own sovereignty, that cannot quite claim an ‘I’, but is forever devolving into a ‘she’. There’s a powerful kinship between Quin and some of the most audacious women writers of today – Claire-Louise Bennett, Eimear McBride, Ottessa Moshfegh, Deborah Levy – all of whom are driven by the need to present the female subject as a coherent and powerful agent in the world, while, paradoxically, using this position to voice experiences of oppression and disempowerment.

Another no less abiding theme of Quin’s is that of the difficulties of human connection: how women and men can live together without destroying each other and whether it is possible for sex to be more than just a means of extinguishing oneself or another; whether love can be, as Susan Sontag pondered in her early diaries, anything except an ‘immolation of the self’. Her stories are frequently told from several different points of view, voices that merge in chorus and then come apart in sudden discord, accounts that don’t add up. Characters long to know what the other is thinking, to arrive at a state of unity where they are, as she writes in Passages, ‘mediums inhabiting each others’ imagination’. But they remain strangers to one another and to themselves.

In the book, she returns again and again to the image of waves that ‘kept their direction when intersecting … penetrated each other without changing their first shape’. The sea, again – some have read this preoccupation in the writing as a kind of foreshadowing of her untimely death by drowning. But fiction doesn’t pattern life like this and, in any case, the metaphor works in more complicated ways: less to do with the drive towards death than with the potential for living in ways that are freer and more formless.

Quin was fond of claiming that she was telepathic. Her fellow experimental writer, Alan Burns, recalls a group reading at the ICA given by Quin, B. S. Johnson, himself and others. Quin, he recounts, was ‘doing her Quin thing’ which, he explains, involved sitting on the stage staring at the audience in complete silence: ‘she wouldn’t say a goddamn word’. She either implied or actually stated that we sort of ‘think-communicate’, that we can communicate more in silence than with someone actually putting the words across.

Convinced that this was some kind of avant-garde jape, B. S. Johnson was furious, Burns recalls. But I think there was more to her turn at the reading than that. So much of Quin’s work is concerned with the struggle to bring to speech our own inner experience – to find a way of communicating what she called our ‘fugitive visions’ in words that are at once capable of capturing the presence of how it really was and of being understood by others.

Sandra, the protagonist of Quin’s final, unfinished novel, which lent its name to The Unmapped Country, undergoes electro-shock therapy and afterwards mourns the loss of her ‘subterranean language with the underground forces’: if this was speech at all then it was the spaces between words, and the echoes the words left, or what might be really meant under the surface. She knew, had known. No longer knew.

All four of her novels are quest stories, after a fashion. Berg’s eponymous hair tonic salesman, as the opening legend states, ‘came to a seaside town intending to kill his father’. In Three, an unhappily married couple attempt to uncover the mystery of the death of their female lodger. Passages is a picaresque in which two lovers maraud across unexplored territories, in search of the woman’s missing brother. In Tripticks, an unnamed narrator barrels across a phantasmic American dreamscape of catatonic tycoons, Stepford-esque housewives and satanic orgies in pursuit of his ex-wife – although it is never quite clear who is the pursued and who is doing the pursuing.

Quin frequently hangs her stories on a mythic frame, and, like myths, these stories contain more than the events of their narratives. All her characters are, in the end, in search of something more abstract: freedom, or a version of it. Berg, for example, fancies himself as a kind of existential anti-hero. He ruminates and schemes, wanting to ‘defy fate’ and the ‘tragic sense of destiny that is inherent in every man’, but he ends up tangled in the oldest plot of all, stuck in an endless series of oedipal variations, each one more farcical than the last.

Passages takes for its underpinning the story of Antigone, who defies the law of home and polis, as well as her gender, in order to bury her dead brother. But while the novel’s couple busy themselves trying to get out of their heads and into their bodies, to become ‘some drifting thing that at least had found somewhere for inhabiting’, they’re constantly encroached upon by shady totalitarian forces. If it feels radical now, I can only imagine how it felt when it was first read back in the sixties – which, Quin’s work insists, were definitely not as right-on as all that, giving the lie to our familiar story of that excessively storied decade.

I first read Ann Quin at university, as a twenty-year-old student of English Lit who was snottily antipathetic to the syllabus. I suspected that this culture, this canon, this thing called the (definite article, capital letter) Novel – seeming so solemn and calcified and precious – was not really formed, that I was a kind of interloper in a tradition where I didn’t really belong.

Berg was the one I picked up first, and it felt galvanising to me as a reader – and as a human – in that sense of, ‘oh, I didn’t realise you were allowed to do that’. All this is fifteen years ago now, but that feeling is one I’ve looked for in writing ever since – of possibility, perversity, even. A page of Quin is not like anyone else – though I didn’t know at that time how to articulate precisely what it was (and what it is) about her writing that struck me so powerfully. I knew that I liked the way she insists on rubbing our noses in life’s friable edges, her marginal characters with their marginal lives, her obsession with the bizarre and the grotesque. I liked the filth too, of course, the out-and-out mucky lubriciousness of her writing – of a kind rarely seen in English novels. But it was only later that I recognised that what struck me so powerfully about her work was something larger than that: I mean her expressive distortion of reality, how in her work the world is set forth as a substantive and yet, at the same time, totally irreal and strange universe.

This is Quinworld, where, as the male protagonist of Passages writes in his diary, you are ‘constantly amazed by the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things’. The novels are rendered as a series of fragmentary vignettes, fluxed by jump cuts which forge links between discrete events; or suspend a moment, or a thought, infinitely; or depict, almost simultaneously, an event both happening and not happening. This is not so much metaphor as transmutation: a murmuration of birds becomes the lines on a face, the space between objects segues into the space between bodies, an ambiguous longing becomes the longing for rain, a character steps into and out of a swimming pool at the same time. Here memory, fantasy, dreams and reality all show forth at once.

The boundaries between self and other, inner and outer are blurred. Domestic scenes become suffused with the inner life of her characters, objects seem to vibrate with their jittery neurotic energies or else to swell with the force of their repressed desires. Conversations always convey much more, or much less, than what is said. People talk in doublespeak: pet names and flummery, barely concealed resentments, passive aggression and barbs about the other’s drinking.

It is one thing to read a writer, and quite another to become their posthumous editor. It’s uncomfortable work: cold-calling her lovers, friends and confidantes, out of the blue after almost fifty years, on the off-chance they have any of her papers stowed away in some back bedroom. You feel like a prospector, disturbing the typewritten fragments of someone else’s past that had settled long ago. Immersing yourself so fully in the texture of the writing – its tics, its recursive obsessions – that you feel capable of second-guessing what she intended when smudgy photocopier ink has made a line indecipherable and the original was lost long ago, of deciding whether the pencil marks that have been scored across the typescript at a later date indicate the shape of a final draft, where an unusually placed comma is stray and where it is style. You begin, by necessity, to inhabit their mind a little. It’s a strange sort of communion: Quin at her typewriter in her bedsitting room in Soho in 1963, or in Taos, New Mexico in ’64, or in her flat overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito in ’65, and me at my laptop resting on a fold-up camping table in my sister’s childhood bedroom in Hull in 2017.

There was never any love lost between Quin and book-shucking, library-bothering ‘anal-retentive researchers’ (her words) like me. I, for my part, had never intended on getting this close, had tried to keep my distance, in fact. We know not to conflate author with protagonist, or the events of an author’s life with those that happen in their books, but still it seems we cannot help but do so with women writers and, even more so, with women writers who experience mental illness – think of Sylvia Plath – or who are working-class. This is especially true of those who, like Quin, draw closely upon their own lived experience. Writing and living were complicatedly entangled for her, she made over fiction into life just as she made over life into fiction.

Such writers find their craft and their labour subsumed by romantic notions about artlessness, lack of control, talk of savant-ish intuition and the tapping of muses – quite as if writing for them were merely a messy splurge of unmediated self-disclosure. It was this that I was wary of with Quin: the idea that after all these years the very attributes that make her such a singular and significant figure – is it possible to name another British, working-class, experimental woman writer? – should threaten to eclipse the virtuosity of the writing itself. And, in turn, that the extraordinariness of this life lived at full pelt should be lost too, receding behind the old story we always tell about ‘mad’ women writers too delicate and too troubled – too troublesome – to live, quite as if an early death in tragic circumstances were a kind of quid pro quo.

I think the way out of this double bind is not to draw back, but to get closer still: to tell the story of this sixties icon-in-waiting, who, finding no pre-existing narrative for the unlikely tale of a Brighton-born convent-school girl turned jobbing secretary, turned avant-garde novelist, turned would-be American Language poet-in-exile, simply went ahead and wrote her own.