Book Review

Berg by Ann Quin

"Help me, help me," I cry, "I'm too sober to read".


This one’s going to be short, it’s getting late and I’m physically and psychologically exhausted. I’ve been drying out for a few days and doing so in London is every bit as awful as I’d imagined. Auditory rather than visual hallucinations this time & real, near constant, nausea.

Day One was fine, it’s now the night of day five and I’ve been better today, but all the ones in the middle were mired by a deep bodily ache for a substance my body – incorrectly – believes it needs. And it would be so easy to source, alcohol is so ever-present. I went to a political meeting this evening, but as soon as they started handing out wine I scarpered. My social anxiety was in the way of my attempt at a full week off the sauce. Also the booze was free, and as a man who’s scared of strangers when they ask me questions ABOUT MYSELF, who’s terrified of appearing impolite (unless I’m trying to appear impolite, which is what I often do when I feel socially anxious, as you don’t have to worry if someone likes you or not if you go out of your way to make them dislike you) and who LOVES FREE THINGS, the temptation was too much and I, quite literally, got on my bike and fucked off.

The very recent past has been stressful and traumatic, and has resulted in me having to leave my girlfriend’s car in a different part of the country, within effortless access of a man who has threatened me – though not in a specific enough way for the police to give a shit – on multiple occasions. If I die in a car accident within the next week, it’s because my girlfriend’s car has been tampered with. I want this on the written record. Then again, as long as I die quickly and my dog isn’t hurt, I wouldn’t care too much, I don’t really have much to live for.


It’s the constant, never-ceasing stream of thoughts like that which are why I’ve had to drink until I pass out pretty much every night for months.

Trying to get to sleep sober is horrible. I just lie there, crying, staring at the blackness and focusing on the warmth of my dog near my feet and remembering that he will die, and probably before me. I think about the errors I’ve made and continue to make, the sense of entrapment and isolation I feel and I almost, sometimes, when the dog either goes to sleep on his own bed or is too far away from my feet to feel him, I almost feel lonely.

Reading is harder too, when going through all these physical and psychological symptoms. Reading is of course easier sober than drunk, but this isn’t being sober in the way that you’re sober and with low enough blood alcohol levels to drive between 3 and 6pm on a weekday afternoon, this is an abnormal sober where the body is angry because it’s sober, where it hates me and makes me want to feel pain. It wants me to feel low enough to feed its hole, make it whole with the alcohol that is sitting, untouched for days, in a cupboard only a few feet to my right.

Reading is harder, sorry, so reading a piece of experimental fiction is a more difficult thing to do right now than it would be, for me, ordinarily. My mind is fuzzy, whirling between deep depression and very balanced thought, leaping from memories of songs that made me happy years ago to pragmatic problem-solving about day-to-day problems in my personal and professional life, dancing from anxious thoughts about a man cutting my brake wires (I don’t know what that means) to rational internal decisions about how to complete all the tasks I need to do this week.

Berg by Ann Quin isn’t the most difficult book I’ve ever read, but it’s a book that is formally involved enough for me to be aware that I haven’t quite experienced it properly over the last few days. This is the first novel Quin – experimental novelist of the 1960s to early ’70s, suicided into the sea at Brighton – wrote, and it was published to great acclaim in 1964. It is about a man called Berg – who tells people he’s called Greb – who travels to a stony-beached resort town in the off season so that he can find and murder his reprobate father, who he hasn’t seen since he was an infant.

Writing this is difficult. I feel like I’m half here. I don’t normally – and by normally I mean when drunk or hungover – feel like there are parts of me missing. I’m physically tired after a couple of demanding days, but as I indicated above I’m a bit scared of going and lying in the dark with just my thoughts and my doggy.

Sorry. It’s not like me to feel so intellectually squashed, inhibited. I often write these drunk, but whenever I do so I always hold off posting them until the morning, so I can check for anything completely inappropriate. This one – now 800+ words in and only about 150 of those are on the book – is almost entirely inappropriate, and this is me soberer.

Berg is written in a loose stream of consciousness style, third person but basically w/in the head of Berg himself. We also get passages – implicitly extracts from letters though not necessarily – that are indented and of a smaller font, which are always first person perspectives, usually from Edith, Berg’s mother. They may all be Edith, in hindsight, as I said, my reading has been impeded by my not drinking.

The character Berg is not very sympathetic. He has violent impulses, a weird relationship w/ his mother, intense sexual desire for lots of women (especially his father’s current lover), he beats a cat to death and he destroys lots of physical things. Berg is a violent text, full of angry sex and physical damage. There’s a lot of boozing and dancing and excess, and even though the seaside resort town is in the off-season, it still holds all of the temptations and pleasures that entertain its tourists in the summer. (The ones just listed plus gambling.)

The plot is odd, the setting reminiscent of Brighton Rock (published in 1938, so decades earlier), a dirty boarding house filled with rage. The characters are older, less hopeful – other than Berg’s father, who perennially runs away from emotional and financial debts with a dream of a better tomorrow – and the dark town inhabited by the desperate and the vulnerable is bleak and harrowing. It rains a lot, it is cold, the water stings with its lack of heat, there is blood and there are scars and missing corpses and intoxicated confusion and the text reflects all this, slipping in and out of dialogue without paragraph breaks or punctuation, weaving and tying and tearing. It’s not an easy book to read, b/c it’s so nasty, and the prose is exploratory and poetic, descriptive and cut through with the protagonist’s confused state.

I need to read it again, really, and comment on it with a clearer head. I probably won’t though, I’ve got so many other unread books. I enjoyed Berg, but it didn’t grip me the way Passages did. Though is that b/c I wasn’t in the right place?

I’m gonna go and try to sleep. Probably should’ve done that an hour ago, when I sat down to write this instead.

1 comment on “Berg by Ann Quin

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

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