Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Berg; or, Judith Worthy is just nauseated
Ann Quin is one of those writers you've never heard of until you have. Once you've heard of her, her name starts popping up everywhere: in articles, in other writers' lists of books they admire. The name "Ann Quin" comes with a particular narrative: experimental, drowned at the age of 37, inexcusably forgotten and ignored. Most (though not all) believe she committed suicide. She left four novels: Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972).
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father...
That's the first sentence.
Berg is about Berg/Greb, and his father, and his father's mistress, and tormented sex lives, and a thin partition between two hotel rooms, and a budgerigar, and a ventriloquist's dummy, and water and haunting and unhappy bodies and shame. It takes place in Brighton, where Ann Quin lived and died. The narrative weaves Berg's thoughts and actions together:
A shadow pushed itself across his face. He spread out his arms. I implore to be left where I am, as I have been given, I am satisfied, attuned to my world. He shut his eyes, and foetus-curled from the pavement. His lips dry leaves slowly parted. Have I ever been inside?
I tried and failed to find a biography of Ann Quin. Is this possible? Can it be that there really is no biography? Instead of a bio, I found some reviews, including a delicious one from a 1964 issue of Books and Bookmen, subtitled "Judith Worthy is just nauseated." "An unpleasant novel about extremely unpleasant people," Worthy writes. She considers Berg "squalid," and finds it "impossible to be excited by 168 pages of vision through his sordid mind." There's some kind of twisted pleasure in reading this stuff! I'm appalled at the thought of Quin reading this, at how devastating it must have been, and I want to defend her, and at the same time I'm filled with triumph because Quin is still read, in fact I believe she's making a comeback.* So TAKE THAT, JUDITH WORTHY.
More oh-so-fun-to-read Lit. Hate:
I'm all for realism in its proper perspective, but preoccupation with such things as dirt between the toes, masturbation and vomit, makes such realities more sordid than they really are. The author obviously has a flair for invention, and talent for using words to effect, but how can one appreciate her writing while suffering from nausea?
Aside: I only have one page of Books and Bookmen, because I got it through interlibrary loan, but it's enough to get an idea of the context in which Worthy's review appeared. Right below it there's a review of The Gemini by Peter Owen which begins: "Have we really reached the bottom of the barrel in the search for originality? Is there nothing worth writing about but queers and perverts and self-obsessed oddities?" This made me think that maybe the Books and Bookmen reviewers were just harsh like that, but no! There is a positive review on the page too, of The Far Side of Home by Maggie Davis. "It is not surprising that this American novel is a choice of the Literary Guild, because it is a splendid piece of imaginative writing and it is so virile that it is amazing to find that the author is an attractive young woman." OMG this stuff is priceless!
I loved Berg. I'm now reading Quin's second novel, Three. In the introduction, Brian Evenson writes: "Quin might be seen as suggesting an alternative to today's British novel, an indication of where the British novel could have gone had an interest in innovation been encouraged to flourish."
* Dalkey Archive Press has reissued her novels.
Posted by Sofia at 6:15 PM