I have somehow always confused Ann Quin and Anna Kavan. They are obviously different writers and yet there are similarities. Both have experimental styles of writing. And both have had a brush with mental illness.
Since I had already read, loved and reviewed Anna Kavan’s Ice earlier this year, it only felt right to explore Ann Quin.
But rather than begin with her famous novel Berg, I decided to first tread the waters by dipping into this story collection recently released by the publisher And Other Stories.
The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments, is difficult book to write about, simply because of Ann Quin’s experimental and sometimes challenging writing.
However, for those looking at a Quin appetizer before launching into the main course that is her novels, this is the best and the only place to start. As the whole title suggests, this is a collection of 14 pieces, stories, fragments; selected and edited by Jennifer Hodgson. They venture into a variety of genres – traditional narratives, horror, science fiction, stream of consciousness…
It begins with ‘Leaving School – XI.’ This is a piece of memoir writing where the narrator, which could very well be Quin herself, talks on a wide range of subjects. Here’s how it opens…
Bound by perverse securities in a convent, RC Brighton for eight years. Taking that long to get over. The Holy Ghost. The Trinity. The Reverend Mother. I was not a Catholic. I was sent to a convent to be brought up ‘a lady’. To say gate and not gaite – the Sussex accent I had picked up from a village school in my belly-rubbing days had to be eliminated by How Now Brown Cow, if I wanted to make my way in the world. According to Mother.
Besides her life in the convent, the narrator goes on describe her attempts first to try her hand at theatre, and the various dead end jobs she takes during the day – in a solicitor’s office in Brighton, as a secretary in a publishing firm in London, so that she can draft her novels in the evenings. But it was not always easy.
In winter I lived on potatoes, saved on the gas fire by going to bed, hotwaterbottled, typerwriter balanced on knees. I rarely went out in the evenings, but was a voyeur, in the sense of watching from my window the prostitutes…
And then she describes her trysts with mental illness…
I decided to climb out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.
We then have a grotesque but compelling piece called ‘Nude and Seascape’ where a man tries to create an artistic still life composition with a woman’s dead body on the beach. Not content with how things are panning out, he resorts to a bizarre tactic.
Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time.
This is followed by one of my favourites in this collection – ‘The Double Room’. This is a delicious tale about a pretty unremarkable couple. It is a tale of an extra marital affair and the woman is contemplating whether she should take up her married partner’s offer of going away for the weekend to the seaside.
Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time.
It is not exactly a match made in heaven. Both are quite nervous and tetchy and unable to consummate their relationship. The dreary seaside only heightens the woman’s sense of isolation.
‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’, is a story that focuses on a child’s mind, her enchanting perceptions of an adult world combined with an unflinching depiction of old age.
‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’ and ‘Ghostworm’ are stream of consciousness, experimental tales. In both, one is not really sure what is going on. Both are tales of lovers, that much seems clear. And yet, they are fascinating because of the impressions formed, and the sense of going through an experience. It’s all surreal as landscapes, words, sensual feelings swirl and merge to form an abstract painting.
Here are some tasters…
This is from ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’…
Later when they touched, it was as if someone else touched her. She gave herself up to this. From out of the past, with lovers she would not see again, be committed to. It was new. The lovemaking. Slower. Sensual. Longer. Backwards. Forwards. Sideways. She no longer placed herself over cliff edges.
‘Ghostworm’ opens thus…
I’ll take the ashes to his wife tomorrow. Idiot. No not again – go away. Never. Get off my back. You’re obsessed.
Clearly, there are two voices here. And here’s an image from the same piece…
Wind blew the curtains sideways. Lifted the Indian rug suspended from wooden beams. Wind across her feet. Face. Across his. As they lay on the mesa between rocks. The desert under his arms. She watched rain in the distance. Curtains of rain moving slowly. Wanting to watch that.
We then have ‘Motherlogue’, which is an interesting narrative because it is in the form of a telephone call and we only hear one side of the conversation – the mother talking to her daughter. And yet in this we get a glimpse of the daughter’s life as well.
And then there is the title story, ‘The Unmapped Country’, which was unfinished, but a dazzling piece told from the point of a view of a woman feeling trapped in a mental asylum.
She suddenly felt claustrophobic, the smell of women penetrated her nose, mouth, ears and eyes. She went again into the dormitory, where it was dark, silent. She lay down and slid into black velvet. A sea of velvet that tossed her gently, and somewhere above her the sound of ice breaking.
And then were a few lines in the story, which conjured up images of Anna Kavan’s Ice….
Wind ruffled snow. The north wind bringing the sound of ice. She saw again three gulls circle the ship’s mast, and heard the movement of wood against ice: saw the icebergs like fallen statues move slowly past. Points of light from islands pinpricked the disturbed darkness.
There are a couple of pieces I thought were pretty uninspiring. One was in the form of a manifesto, on behalf of one of Quin’s boyfriends Billy Apple. And the other is a tale in the form of cut-ups called ‘Living in the ‘Present’, which I couldn’t really get into.
But otherwise, this is a superb collection and gives a rich flavour of Quin’s innovative writing. There is no doubt that Ann Quin’s work is an acquired taste. But if you develop a liking, the journey is worth it.
And end up like me – yes perhaps it would be an experience for you that’s what you want EXPERIENCE in caps period. To live beyond myself. Such a craving.