‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room – dimensions rarely touched by the sun – Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dance hall opposite.’
When I discovered Ann Quin, in November 2012, I was living in Brighton in a house not far from the sea front. The house had no central heating and, mysteriously, never appeared to get the sun at any time of day. I was living with my two housemates, Nick, the artist/postman who enjoyed bird-watching, and Miguel who filled our fridge full of chorizo sausage and had very loud sex with his girlfriend on Sunday mornings.
When I recall that winter, I remember the smell of the storage heater in my bedroom and the cries of the seagulls at six o’clock in the morning. I remember the rain, and the snow that covered the beach in January. I remember battling with my umbrella as I walked to work along the front, and I remember the cold. It was always cold. What I also remember about that winter was my encounter with a strange novel called Berg, and with Ann Quin.
Berg is a novel to be read for its language, its atmosphere. Reading Berg is like stepping inside a psychedelic work of art, a horror film, or someone else’s nightmare that you know can only have sprung from the darkest and most intimate recesses of the dreamer’s mind.
Ann Quin was born in Brighton in 1936 and died there in 1973 at the age of 37. Francis Booth in his book Amongst Those left, The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980 wrote of her death: ‘A fisherman saw her on the beach at twilight, taking off her clothes and entering the water.’ Ann Quin’s body was found several days later.
She had four novels published in her lifetime. Berg, her first (although the third novel she wrote) is her most successful. She was was known in the 1960’s (and still today) as an experimental writer. She is often compared to other writers of the time such as B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns, and Eva Figes (I had heard of none of these writers before discovering Ann Quin). She is said to have been influenced by earlier Modernist writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woof and Samuel Beckett. She said: Crime and Punishment and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, made me aware of the possibilities of writing.’
Although the seaside town in Berg is never named, as Ann Quin lived in Brighton for most of her life it was most likely her source of inspiration. She not only wrote of Brighton but of Brighton at its dreariest. Her depiction of the bleak seaside town is a far cry from the beach on hot summer days, shopping in the North Laines and the lively bars which the tourists flock to. This wasn’t just Brighton this was my Brighton, or at least my experience of it that winter. I believe, now, that this is why Berg resonated so deeply with me at the time. I was cold, I was going through a traumatic break-up, my job was dull and, like Berg, I felt a long way from home and was wondering where, in fact, home might be.
It was also around this time that I decided to write my first novel. There in the cold house by the sea, in my bedroom sitting at the tiny, cheap desk that Nick had helped me drag back from Argos, I wrote the first sentence:
‘I saw her in July on the lawn in the square.’
When I think back to the literature I was reading at the time and what may have inspired me to begin the writing of my own book, a few novels quickly come to mind: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and, of course, Ann Quin’s Berg. Quin being the lesser known novelist in the above list, inspired me to create a sense of place in my novel and to utilise the city I was at that time living in.
Berg’s first publisher in 1964, John Calder, said Berg was: ‘Very different from the run of British fiction. Set in Brighton during the off-season, the seedy atmosphere is beautifully described and three characters, Berg, a young protagonist, his father and his mistress weave around each other in a situation where sex and violence are always present.’
Phillip Stevick in his essay on Ann Quin, ‘Ann Quin: Style and Consciousness,’ writes: ‘Physical surroundings tend to be perceived in the way in which one sees them on a trip. Features of the landscape are seen as being strange and unaccustomed, their shapes and textures foregrounded.’
Although my fiction is in no way similar to Ann Quin’s in terms of style, (my prose is far too orthodox), I do recognise her influence in my work at that time. Although part of my novel is set in the summer months, many scenes, such as the passages below, are examples of the bleak, off-season, seedy Brighton found in Berg.
‘I brush the snow from my gloves and walk in the direction of the pier. I make my way up towards the Pavilion. There are one or two people out but otherwise Brighton is quiet, deserted, out of season. There are no students reading or playing their guitars by the fountains, no caressing couples in the Pavilion Gardens, just a still, cold, quiet night, broken by the sounds of winter boots crunching through snow, and faint screams from a snowball fight. There is an abandoned bus in the Steine. The snow is piled up against its wheels. The driver’s seat is dark and empty.
I walk on, up to the Level. I think of Lottie, warm and safe at home by the Aga, washing up at the sink using too much washing up liquid, scrubbing the pattern off the plate. I think of her pouring water from the kettle and making a drink before bed.
And a later passage:
We both stare at the waves, neither of us saying what needs to be said. The beach is deserted, the wind and the sea spray just a little too fierce for a stroll along the pebbles. The sea is a muddy grey. White foam caps the rolling waves. The tide is coming in. The water swirls at the supporting pillars of the pier. Almost devoid of colour, the sky, the sea, and the pier are like a scene from an old photograph. The only colour is the faded red and blue of the helter-skelter.
There are many novels in which I believe place and setting are as much a part of the narrative as the characters themselves. Think, for example, of the the bleak heather-covered Yorkshire Moors in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; Charles Dickens’ Kent marshes in the opening of Great Expectations, and Graham Greene’s war-torn London in The Ministry of Fear.
I may not have adopted Ann Quin’s experimental prose style, but I am certainly grateful to have read her, to have experienced and considered the novel’s sharp immediacy, its vividness of style, and the intense atmosphere Quin creates, not only through the disturbing characters, but the novel’s profound sense of place; of a cold and windy seaside town in the winter months when the salt from the sea spray stings your eyes, the cafes are empty, and the song of the merry-go-round doesn’t play.