Friday, May 06, 2016

Ann Quin, Berg (1964)

Ann Quin was a British author who published four avant-garde-ish novels in the sixties and seventies and then committed suicide at the age of thirty-seven. Boy, THAT'S not a very uplifting story, is it? Well, I suppose if we can find anything to be cheerful about here, it's that those goddamn heroes at Dalkey Archive have reprinted all four of her books, so that, obscure as she is, she's not going to just fade away any time soon. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Dalkey Archive? 'Cause I do. For a long time I just took their existence for granted, but there's no reason to do that--they're a non-profit publisher, and without them there would be a VAST swath of vital but non-commercially-viable literature that would just be wholly unavailable. I mean no disrespect to similar presses like New Directions, but somehow, I'm just constantly finding myself thinking "huh, what's that book, that looks interesting, I should read it, oh look, Dalkey Archive again!" The only inconvenient thing about them is that--whether for practical or philosophical reasons, I don't know--they don't release their stuff as ebooks. Whatever! They're still my favorite publisher! Is it weird to have a favorite publisher? Well, I do.

Berg is her first novel, and I'll say this for it right from the start: it truly does have one of the best opening lines I've ever seen: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father..." And we're off to the races. That basically describes the plot: Berg, incognito, intent on killing pa for unclear reasons, rents a room next to his father, spies on him, passes up a number of very good opportunities to kill him, becomes involved with his mistress (obvious congruities with both Hamlet and Oedipus here), thinks he's done the deed when he's actually only stabbed his father's ventriloquist's dummy, evades angry mobs, and on until the end, interspersed with bits of letters from his mother. All written in a very free-associative, stream-of-consciousness style.

It's sort of inevitable that a plot description is going to make Berg sound zanier than it really is; it's a bit zany, but the narrative is pretty firmly in the modernist tradition. No one familiar with Joyce or Woolf is going to feel too at-sea here. I hear tell that Quin's novels get progressively more wacked-out. We shall see.

As for Berg itself, I'm genuinely torn. There's a lot to say for the novel, really; the writing's good, and there's a kind of propulsive momentum to it that propels you onward even though the text is relatively difficult. So I liked it. It's just that I think, on balance, I perhaps wanted to like it more than I did. I hate to say it, but you do kind of get to the end and think, huh. That thing I just read--what was the point of it? And you know I like experimental jazzing around, so I'm not inclined to say that about just any ol' book on account of excessive weirdness.


Post a Comment

<< Home