Quin, Ann 1936–1973

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Quin, Ann 1936–1973

(Ann Marie Quin)

PERSONAL: Born March 17, 1936, in Brighton, Sussex, England; died from drowning, August, 1973; daughter of Nicholas Montague (former opera singer) and Ann (Reid) Quin. Education: Attended Convent of the Blessed Sacrament, Brighton, Sussex, and Hillcroft College, 1972.

CAREER: Secretary to foreign rights manager, Hutchinson & Co., London, England, two and one half years; manuscript reader for New Authors, Ltd., 1956–58; Royal College of Art, London, secretary to Professor Corel Weight, 1960–62.

MEMBER: PEN, LAMDA Theatre Club, Academy Cinema Club.

AWARDS, HONORS: Harkness Commonwealth fellowship, 1964–67; D.H. Lawrence fellowship, 1964.

WRITINGS:

Berg (novel), J. Calder (London, England), 1964, Scribner (New York, NY), 1965, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.

Three (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 1966, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.

Passages (novel), Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1969, Boyars (Salem, NH), 1979, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.

Tripticks, illustrated by Carol Annand, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1972, Boyars (Salem, NH), 1979, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2002.

Also contributor to Signature Anthology, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1975; and Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction, edited by Giles Gordon, Hutchinson (London, England), 1975. Contributor to periodicals, including Nova, London Magazine, and Transatlantic Review. Quin's manuscripts and publishers' correspondence are held in the Lilly Library, University of Indiana, Bloomington; other manuscripts and letters are in the Robert David Cohen Papers, Modern Literary Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, Missouri.

ADAPTATIONS: Berg was adapted as the movie Killing Dad, 1989; Berg, Three, and Passages were the basis for the 1997 play Ann Quin—A Turn of Tides, 1997.

SIDELIGHTS: A novelist whose experimentations in literature were considered far ahead of her time when she first started publishing in the 1960s, English author Ann Quin was both praised and criticized for a writing style that some found refreshing and others found too obfuscating. The four novels she published use non-linear narration, multiple viewpoints, stream of consciousness, an often poetic style, and dream and fantasy sequences, among other techniques, to explore a wide variety of themes, including the search for identity, the influence of the past on the present, and the pressures that parents put on their children.

Quin experienced a troubled childhood that would later influence her writing, as well as her mental health. She suffered from several breakdowns during her lifetime, and when she drowned in 1973 many of her friends and family suspected she had actually committed suicide. After her father, an opera singer, abandoned her family, Quin was raised by her mother. She spent part of her education at a convent, where, not being Catholic herself, she felt alienated and alone. She retreated into her own world of fantasy and books, briefly toying with the idea of becoming an actress before discovering that she suffered from severe stage fright. With theater being out of the question as a means of expressing herself, Quin decided to become a writer. She began by composing poetry while taking on a variety of odd jobs, including being a secretary and a manuscript reader, in order to earn an income.

Deciding to try her hand at a novel, her first effort was rejected by publishers. She started a second novel while working at a hotel, but the combination of work and writing proved too much for her, and she suffered her first breakdown. She recovered after seeing a psychiatrist, but for the rest of her life she would have recurring bouts of what Judith Mackrell, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, speculated to be "probably some form of schizophrenia."

Quin's second novel, like the first, was rejected, but her third attempt, Berg, was successfully published in 1964. Mackrell described Berg as a "highly autobiographical [novel] in its underlying emotional impulse if not in particular detail. (Here the underlying impulse relates to Quin's absent father, about whom she wove an intense fantasy life.)" The main character in the book is Alistair Berg, who determines to murder his father, Nathaniel, as revenge for the way he abandoned his family. Traveling to the seaside boardinghouse where his father is staying, Berg does practically everything but kill his father. Instead, he finds revenge in other ways, including having an affair with his father's lover, destroying things that are dear to his father, and, in one scene that might actually be a dream sequence, humiliating his father when he tries to seduce Berg, who is dressed as a woman in an attempt to hide from the police. At one point, Berg even kills a different man whom he substitutes for his actual father.

All through the book, it becomes clear that Berg is doing these things in order to assert his own self-image as distinct from his father; however, he is unsuccessful in the attempt, and at times even takes on the role of his father, becoming more like him. Many scenes in the book are farcical, such as one scene where Berg dresses up as his father's lover and when he seems to believe that a ventriloquist's dummy is his father's body, which he must hide before it is discovered. The "black humor … also conveys a sense of the strange world that Berg's consciousness creates for itself," wrote Mackrell. And Quin uses shifts in style to convey the shifts between sanity and insanity that Berg seems to go through.

Berg was well received by critics, especially those in England who felt that Quin's novel had helped to revitalize English literature, which had remained overly literal and realistic while literature in other countries had become more innovative. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, for one, called Berg "a most impressive debut," and the novel won Quin two fellowships.

Quin followed Berg with Three, the complex tale of a middle-aged, childless couple whose marital problems are revealed when a young woman enters their lives while she recovers from an abortion. The couple, Leonard and Ruth, are financially well off, but their marriage is a sterile relationship in which husband and wife merely seem to tolerate one another. "S," as the young woman is known, attempts to break Leonard and Ruth out of their rut and self-delusion, and the three form an awkward relationship laced with sexual tension. "In a sense," commented Nicolas Tredell in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "S functions as the couple's surrogate child, as Ruth's confidante, and as a kind of fantasy outlet for the thwarted sexuality of both Ruth and Leonard." But after some time, S determines that she cannot open the couple's eyes, and she departs, leaving a note that appears to indicate that she has gone to drown herself. Much of the rest of the novel consists of passages from S's tape recordings, which she has left behind and which Ruth and Leonard analyze in an attempt to find out why S has decided to kill herself. But although S had thought that she could never shake up the stagnant marriage, her departure and possible suicide have done just that, and the novel ends with Ruth and Leonard finally reexamining their relationship.

While Three was praised by a number of critics, it was less warmly received than Quin's Berg. The experimental format Quin employs, in which blocks of text are set off as different views, as well as the mix of memories, impressions, and dreams, led a New Statesman reviewer to call the book "alternately irritating and fascinating."

Passages, Quin's third novel, has even less of a distinct plot than her earlier books. The basic framework of the story involves a woman's quest to find her missing brother in Greece; he may have died during the coup there in 1967. She is accompanied by her lover, and the novel alternates between their two viewpoints. However, as Mackrell pointed out, "despite the frequent interweaving of consciousnesses, the two characters in Passages cease very quickly to be discernible individuals." Again, the theme of the unsuccessful quest for self-identity is part of the novel, as it becomes clear that the two characters find that they cannot escape each other, even if they desired. Quin again blends fantasy and reality as she explores "not simply the confused and fragmented workings of her characters' minds but showing, too, the ways in which they reflect and are part of each other and how they are bound together in what seems to be a shifting sadomasochistic relationship." Although Mackrell called Passages a "much more ambitious novel than the previous two" that addresses the author's thematic concerns "with much greater literary originality," the book confused many reviewers. A number of critics felt that Quin was more interested in showy literary techniques than in conveying a story to her audience. For example, David Haworth, writing in New Statesman, charged Quin with "the elevation of technique above content." However, a Times Literary Supplement contributor said the "fusion between what is experience, dreamt of and thought … is well suggested."

As Quin's writing career progressed, her books continued to become more and more difficult to interpret, and Tredell called her last complete novel, Tripticks, "her most scrambled text." The main character is a thrice-divorced man who believes that he is being pursued by his first wife and her lover, but it also might be that he is actually pursuing them. "During his journey," as Mackrell described it, "the series of bizarre incidents that occur and fantasies [the protagonist] experiences are juxtaposed with flashbacks from the past, all of which have a dual purpose. On the one hand, they reveal the hero's erotic obsessions and paranoia; on the other hand, they satirize, either through style or theme, some aspect of American culture: its materialism; its uncritical acceptance of fashionable ideas and jargon; its crass notion of psychology; and the loss of individual contact and humanity within a mass-produced ideology." Many critics of Tripticks thought the book to be a thinly veiled excuse for the author to express her dislike of American culture, and of New York City in particular. A New Statesman reviewer, according to Mackrell, labeled it a "piece of self-gratification." Reviewed more recently in the Publishers Weekly, however, a critic lauded the book for being so far ahead of its time that it "still feels fresh and exciting and should win [Quin] some new fans."

Quin was working on a fifth novel, "The Unmapped Country," when she died in 1973. The fragments of the book were later published in the collection Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction. "The Unmapped Country" strongly reflects Quin's own experiences in recovering from the last mental breakdown she had before her death, telling of a young woman named Sandra who is convalescing from just such a collapse. Unlike her earlier books, however, this last effort is much more realistically told. Tredell called it "an accomplished piece of work, and the novel might have brought Quin a wider audience had she lived to complete it."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, 1983, pp. 608-614, Volume 231: British Novelists since 1960, Fourth Series, 2000, pp. 230-238.

Dunn, Nell, Talking to Women, MacGibbon & Kee (London, England), 1965, pp. 126-153.

PERIODICALS

Choice, July, 1967.

Library Journal, July, 2002, Eleanor J. Bader, review of Tripticks, p. 122.

London Magazine, June, 1969.

New Statesman, May 27, 1966, review of Three; March 21, 1969, David Haworth, review of Passages.

New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1965; October 9, 1966.

Poetry, August, 1968.

Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2002, "July Publications," p. 56.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2003, Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard, "Ann Quin," p. 50.

Times Literary Supplement, June 25, 1964, review of Berg; April 3, 1969, review of Passages.

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