Book Review

Passages by Ann Quin

Photo on 01-02-2016 at 02.12 #2

Usually, by the end of January I’ve read a novel I expect to influence my reading habits for the rest of the year.

Or at least the way I think.

Or at least the way I think my reading habits for February are going to go, yeah?

This year, I’ve excelled myself.

And now all I’m scared of is that maybe I’m too confused and overwhelmed by high modernism and a very fine chardonnay [you’re not drinking] to offer the appropriately gushing and informed review that Ann Quin needs to claim the off-canon place she deserves.

Ann Quin was, to name names familiar to regular readers of this blog, B.S. Johnson’s greatest contemporary rival.

Quin published four novels between 1964 and 1972, the first of which, Berg, was a commercial and critical smash. It was the year of Albert Angelo, it was the year the Beatles did their massive world tour, it was the year when England was the cultural centre of the Western World. Berg was (and is) a novel about a man returning to Brighton, his hometown, to kill his father. I’ve never read it, but this basic plot is mentioned in the introduction to Passages (a Quin text I picked from her four books solely based on its  Amazon price when I decided to read her), and the book’s 1989 Richard E. Grant film adaptation is called Killing Dad. Facile.

Quin’s novels were published alongside B. S. Johnson’s big hitters, and her suicide by drowning – if I’m remembering my Like A Fiery Elephant correctly – occurred just before Fat Man on a Beach was filmed and was directly referred to in its final scene: at the end of FMoaB, a dark piece about mortality and ageing and the essence of life, Johnson struts pompously out into the sea, just as Quin had strutted out from the seafront at Brighton with the unpompous intention of being subsumed.

Johnson, of course, killed himself before the film was edited, and months before it was televised on ITV. Ann Quin – his literary rival in life – beat him to a self-inflicted death.

Johnson’s death was bloodier, sure, his was more immediately dramatic, and his had an hour long ITV avant garde special waiting to be broadcast on the coattails of “successful novelist slashes his wrists in Islington”, but Quin’s happened first, and Quin’s #destructionbynature was far more era-appropriate.

Ann Quin beat him in death, and Ann Quin beat him-

I was about to write “Ann Quin beat him in 1969”, knowing that Johnson’s last few novels were his weakest, but 1969 (the year of Passages) was when The Unfortunates (Johnson’s pinnacle) was published, so the issue of victory is irrelevant. Passages is better than all Johnson’s non-phenomenal novels, everything that followed 1969 (discounting Fat Man on a Beach), but it is not The Unfortunates, as nothing is.

Ann Quin beat Johnson at writing like Beckett writing like Joyce.

Ann Quin beat Johnson at writing male sexuality, in fact Ann Quin writes male sexuality better than any male writer I’ve ever encountered. Quin declines to edit out that self-disgusted self-awareness that one imagines cocksure male writers tend to remove in their tenth drafts when their pregnant wives make an off-hand comment reminding them that some of the people proof-reading the final version might be women they could try to finger-bang at the book launch.*

I haven’t read a book in months I’ve wanted to share on social media as much as Passages. My mobile telephone has broken, and thus I have no access to Instagram’s upload function, but during the three hours it took me to read Passages, the amount of times I was irritated by the fact I couldn’t photograph [and gloat over my awareness of the existence of] Quin’s prose was hitting double figures.

Quin writes one-liners like Wilde; Quin writes sparse, postmodern, Beat-like, cut-up-style prose poetry like someone I can’t name off the top of my head at 2am. The plot of Passages is like a heavy Graham Greene: a woman and her lover travel around an unnamed “foreign”** country searching for her missing brother. And on the way they both indulge in various extra-non-marital affairs, his getting too public and #daddylovesleather whipping-of-young-women to be brushed under the “bad relationship” carpet.

Passages tells its narrative of a mutually destructive relationship in a literarily decomposing way: there are four chapters written in two styles: prose, written in a first person direct discourse that constantly and – breakdownlike – bounces into a free indirect discourse coming outta the same head; and diaries, written in two columns that offer annotated notes from a different perspective on the same events as the other voice. In terms of perspective, the novel is dense; there are four voices: the female protagonist, split between the first and the third person, each subtly reflecting different aspects of the same personality; and the male protagonist, which is split between his diary entries and the notes – from the same, but more intellectualised, perspective – written about them.

Passages is moving, it is witty, it is exploratory in both its content and its literary merit. I read it wishing I’d already read it; I read it, drinking, wishing I was not. AND THAT’S THE KIND OF ECPERIENCE I NEED EVERY DAY IF I’M EVER TO ESCAPE THE BOTTLE.

I’d like to read the book again, which isn’t something I often think, but more than that I’d like to read the rest of Quin’s oeuvre. This is great. Funny, sexy, intelligent, heavy.

B. S. Johnson, whose Albert Angelo and Trawl she trumped swiftly  with more acclaimed, more experimental texts very quickly afterwards, is increasingly becoming a [literary] household name. And that’s good, because Johnson is great and was until recently underrepresented given his importance, but Quin is now in the position Johnson was in in the 1990s. I will read Quin’s three other books, and I expect them to be as great. I will read her acclaimed literary biography, and I will recommend what I can.

There weren’t many times England was the best at anything in the World, but one of those times and things was experimental popular culture in the 1960s. If the Beatles being put onto Spotify can be the biggest music news in the world for a week, a new printing of an Ann Quin has the potential to be the literary equivalent. Passages, sensual, ex-pat, Under the Volcanoey, is great. I need more Quin.

I need more Quin.


* Is this too anti-male? Or not anti-male enough? I’ve got to do a lot of back-pedalling to rescue a blog post about a neglected female novelist I’ve top-ended with discussion about her disproportionately remembered straight white male contemporary.

** The lack of specificity about this is probably the most frustrating part of the novel. It describes a country torn apart by some kind of communist-statist conflict, but it is set in a non-westernised country, but one that has Catholicism as its major religion, and also one that has active volcanic islands dotted around its coast. Somewhere obscure in South America or the Spanish-colonised Far East, perhaps, are the obvious implications, but these are made more confusing by the 2003 US edition I read the novel in describing it as being set in “the Mediterranean landscape”, which obviously it isn’t. But is it?

2 comments on “Passages by Ann Quin

  1. Pingback: Berg by Ann Quin – The Triumph of the Now

  2. Pingback: Music & Literature No. 7 – Triumph of the Now

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