Berg by Ann Quin
Ann Quin was something of a rising star at the time of her premature death in 1973, but has since been all but forgotten. The author of four novels, she has the distinction of being one of relatively few British writers to be published by John Calder (this edition is a reprint by the admirable Dalkey Archive Press), placing her in the company of such avant-garde figures as Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs and Henry Miller.
On the rare occasions when her name does crop up, Quin is normally cited as an English-language extension to the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Simon, Duras and Sarraute. Berg, her debut novel and most accessible work, certainly displays some of the characteristics associated with these authors – fluid movement between voices and perspectives, flashbacks and embedded dialogue, and a design that makes the reader take on an active role in weaving together the threads of an incompletely revealed narrative.
However, far from being a Francophile imitation, Berg is a delicious cocktail of influences. Just as Ulysses married classical form with quotidian content, Berg plays the formal strategies of the nouvelle roman and the Oedipal melodrama of Greek tragedy against the prosaic Englishness of rainy off-season Brighton. The banal trappings of the kitchen-sink drama - clipped manners, small talk about the weather, cups of tea and pet budgerigars – are fed through the formal machinery of Quin’s more cosmopolitan influences. Perhaps this is why Berg manages to feel both quintessentially English and completely un-English at the same time.
A novel shot through with the rites, taboos and genre codes of Greek tragedy, Berg slaps its cards on the table from the first sentence: ‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father’. This ‘more is more’ approach to symbolism will later see Berg narrowly avoid being raped by his father while dressed up in their mutual lover’s clothes, before consummating his long-procrastinated parricide with a mannequin. Berg is not the sort of novel that wastes too much time trying to hide from its own artifice.
Indeed, Berg draws attention to the constructedness of its form at every turn. It bounces off the expectations and inevitabilities transmitted through its literary reference points. Like Hamlet, Berg is structured around a claustrophobic build-up of tension, delaying the act of violence that we know will define and demarcate its form. We peer out through Berg’s eyes as he lurks in wait for his father and his mistress from behind the flimsy partition separating their pokey adjoining rooms. This spatial constraint is channeled by the terse sentences of Quin’s disjointed prose, a crescendo of broken images filtered through the mind of the protagonist.
While she occasionally strays into ham-fisted territory, Quin’s prose is more often wonderfully economic and controlled. Here is Berg remembering his mother waving him goodbye as his train pulls away: “Confronted by her flushed face from the neck up, her hands fluttering; the faded brilliance of a saved-up birthday brooch on her nylon-fur coat lapel, the rusty pin at the edge that always caught something in your throat”. The imagery combines the internal and external, a narrative eye infused with the figures of Berg’s conflicted thought.
For all its attentiveness to form, Berg is ultimately a novel that addresses, through its Freudian framework, the absurdity of our condition. Berg’s perspective provides the meeting ground for the novel’s high and low reference points: part Oedipus, part contemporary Angry Young Man, and part narrative focal point in the manner of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. The common thread that unites these themes is the condition of absurdity. In exchanging the suffocating banality of domestic life for the histrionics of revenge tragedy, Berg merely succeeds in swapping one form of absurdity for another. Even in death there is no escape from cliché.