Ann Quin

And Other Stories, £10


Ann Quin was an experimental writer in the 1960s. John Calder – that enemy of the censor ¬– published her first novel, Berg, in 1963. That says a lot already and, as such, she is often mentioned alongside novelists like Samuel Beckett, Alexander Trocchi, Marguerite Duras and BS Johnson. It’s good company. Quin’s name, however, has not endured like the above. It is difficult to know why. It has nothing to do with talent. Berg won her a DH Lawrence fellowship and is regarded as a kind of British Nouveau Roman. Its opening line reads: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.”

The sea was an obsession of Quin’s. It is no surprise she was born in Brighton. In this new edition of her second novel Three, a woman called S disappears at sea. The implication is that she has killed herself, as Quin would later do, off the coast of her home town in 1973. This novel – a tricky, demanding creature – opens from the perspective of a wealthy middle-aged couple called Ruth and Leonard. We soon discover that S was their lodger when she died. Ruth and Leonard find S’s journal entries, audio recordings and home movies among her possessions. They explore these artefacts, hoping to find some motive behind S’s behaviour.

But there are no easy answers in Quin’s world. Instead, Ruth and Leonard find darkness, obscurity, and the realisation that their lodger had been watching them, very closely. Here are S’s observations of a dinner party. The guests arrive “two by two. Incriminating each other’s appearance by a point by point investigation. Only when the last guest hadn’t turned up did L succumb to the evening’s entertainment. Performed with R a defiant, unapproachable, unity. Everyone immediately concerned with what is expected of them … L at the head of the table, rubbed his hands, chuckled as a boy with thoughts of some prank he and the other men might hatch.”

Often the diary entries are not as coherent as this. Many read like obscure poems written by a university student, and her sentences sometimes lack a definite subject. When she starts to fervidly grasp for images, it is clear that S is teetering on the edge of sanity. Her most revealing observations, however, hone in on Ruth and Leonard’s every movement. The effect is unnerving. In this way, Quin was a very prescient writer: S uses technology in a way that is now the norm. After all, these days people spend most of their time either watching others or exhibiting themselves on social media.

Quin is often said to have eschewed class in her fiction, but Three shows us the stifling formalities of middle- and upper-class public life 60 years ago, formalities which only heighten the starkness and mendacity of Leonard and Ruth’s marriage. Ruth drifts in an unfulfilled malaise, using pills to stave off utter despair. Leonard, a dull academic, is forever fussing over his orchids. This seems, at first, twee and innocent. Until one remembers that in ancient Greece, orchids were a symbol of virility and masculinity.

There are some disturbing passages in Three, where male sexual violence against women is shown in all its brutality. There are also glimpses of S’s life: her neglectful father and her abortion, which she disguises as an “illness”. Reading Three, we have a perspective of the 1960s often forgotten: a great many women lived quiet, unhappy lives, oppressed in their personal and public lives. Quin gives them an authentic and original voice. We can be thankful then that And Other Stories are publishing Quin’s entire back catalogue. Three might not be Quin’s best novel – that credit belongs to Berg – but it rings with enough truth to deserve a wide readership.