Berg, by Ann Quin
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
That’s the opening sentence of Ann Quin’s 1964 novel Berg. It got my attention from the start, and that’s good because Berg was a novel I had to pay attention to. It was dizzying, at times confusing, and stylistically demanding. Berg is a novel that made me work.
Plotwise Berg is very simple. It’s really mostly there in that first sentence. Berg is a travelling hair tonic salesman who lives with his mother. He comes to an unnamed seaside town (clearly Brighton) intending to kill his father who abandoned him and his mother years ago. To get close, he changes his name and moves into the same rooming house. Only a thin partition wall separates him from his father, and his father’s lover Judith. At night he lies there hearing the partition shake as they have sex.
We’re in Oedipal territory here, and Freudian too of course. Berg wants to kill his father, he’s very close to his mother and before too long he’s sleeping with Judith literally taking his father’s place in bed. It all sounds terribly heavy but it’s not. It’s weirdly and wonderfully funny. Blackly so. It’s utterly serious and utterly ludicrous at the same time. It’s absurd and more to the point, absurdist.
The plot then isn’t what makes Berg a challenging book to read. What makes it require attention is the style. Quin writes in an impressionistic flow which make a nonsense of subjective and objective experience. There is no distinction made in the text between dialogue and description or between internal fantasy and external experience. The line between Berg’s and the authorial voice is fluid and shifting.
Quin is often described as an experimental writer. It’s not a term that works well for me. It suggests that she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing – that she’s working it out. The language here though has a precision and a craft that makes it anything but experimental. It’s just not naturalistic.
Time I think for an illustration of that style. This is from fairly early on in the novel. Berg reflects on his childhood then encounters his father:
A sticky sickly child, who longed to be accepted with the others, by those who were healthy, tough, swaggered in well cut suits, brilliantined hair. Your stained, rat-bitten cuffs, and collar, patched behind, the mud squelching through your shoes. But once on your own when you lorded it with beast and flower, striding the hills, welcomed by a natural order, a slow sensuality that circled the sun, rode the wind through the grass-forests, then nothing mattered, because everything comprehended your significance. He swayed in the middle of the road, looking into his father’s eyes; eyes that rolled inwards, joined by a thread through the bridge of his nose, run off from the mole on his right cheek with its one dark hair. Berg stepped back, away from the smell of alcohol and stale tobacco. The old man tottered a little towards him, trying to roll a cigarette. Hey wait a minute, aren’t you the chap who’s taken the room next door, Number 18? Yes thought it was, had a bit too much yourself I see, well why not I say, gives a chap a break doesn’t it? Tongue along paper, a lizard hesitating, then flick, flick of a tail, gone.
Berg is a distinctly English novel. The trappings here are ones that would be recognised by Patrick Hamilton and Julian Maclaren-Ross – seedy boarding houses and seaside towns; tenants hiding from landladies and behind on the rent; down at heel travelling salesmen; chancers, idlers and cheap women no better than they ought to be.
Quin takes those ingredients and mixes them with a suffusion of shadowy sexuality. Berg’s room faces across the street to a dance hall used for casual pickups and easy encounters. He is surrounded by sex with the partition shaking behind him and couples sidling off from the “illuminated palace” opposite.
Once he had ventured across, and brought back a giggling piece of fluff, that flapped and flustered, until he was incapable, apologetic, a dry fig held by sticky hands.
Berg’s own sexuality and sexual ability is questionable. A few pages after that quote above he reflects gratefully that he’s not impotent (it’s quoted in the title). The only potency he shows though is with Judith, it’s only when taking his father’s place he rises to the occasion. At other times there are hints he may be homosexual, but without himself knowing it. Whatever his sexuality it is distorted – dammed up and overflowing into odd outlets.
Berg’s potency is doubtful in other ways too. I won’t say whether he does kill his father in the end or not, but he certainly has lots of opportunities early on and he keeps failing to consumate those too. He considers suicide, but that too evades him. Sex and death are both omnipresent but he struggles to bring either to completion.
As Berg secretes himself into his father’s life his own becomes steadly more brutal and surreal. He kills a cat in a horrifically unpleasant scene and in another is blamed for the untimely death of a budgie. He becomes go-between in his father’s battles with Judith and gets enmeshed in the slowly escalating mutilation of his father’s ventriloquist’s dummy. At one stage Berg disguises himself as a woman (taking great pleasure in wearing Judith’s clothes) but his father returns home drunk and grapples him onto the bed…
In the background, underlining the feeling of Greek tragedy staged by Joe Orton, are a group of unspeaking tramps who seem to increasingly haunt Berg and to frustrate his designs. Here he first encounters them, not realising how much they will come to feature in his life:
He leaned against the boat, his eyes closed, feeling the salt from the spray already in his mouth, and a few grains of sand in his eyes. Smells of seaweed together with oil and tar drifted by him. He waited until the couple had gone before walking back. Past the huddled shapes of tramps moulded into their lumps of rag and newspaper, twitching and squirming under the pier.
I thought Berg a tremendous work. It’s extremely well written. It’s stylistically imaginative and it’s a novel which believes that the novel still has something to say. There’s a tendency to confuse naturalism and the novel, but novels don’t have to be naturalistic. They can be anything that the novelist wants them to be. Quin wrote with a voice which I haven’t heard before, and that’s not so unusual. What is unusual is that it’s a voice largely unlike others that I have heard.
Every few months I see an article about the death of the novel; is the form obsolete? That sort of thing. The novel is not dead. It’s not even particularly poorly. Naturalism will probably be the default style of the novel for decades, centuries even, to come. It’s the style I find most rewarding myself, like most readers. But naturalism is not the only fruit and part of what keeps the novel fresh and keeps it alive is people taking it seriously enough to push it to see what it can do.
Ann Quin took the novel seriously. She tried to write in a new way and wrote about people that even now aren’t best represented in English fiction (though Hamilton, Rhys and Maclaren-Ross have certainly all done their part). She wrote about life in a way that wasn’t naturalistic but that was still recognisably true.
While writing this I found two articles by Lee Rourke talking about Berg, here and here. I agree with his comments in both, and it was actually Lee Rourke who put me onto this novel in the first place, so if Lee sees this then thanks for that recommendation.
Lastly, I’ve not discussed here the influence on Berg of the nouveau roman movement and of Robbe-Grillet. That’s simply because I don’t know the movement, or his work, well enough to competently do so. The Dalkey Archive Press edition I read did come however with an excellent and admirably spoiler free introduction by Giles Gordon which discusses all of this (at least to a degree).
Berg. Quin was a contemporary of BS Johnson and arguably part of the same literary movement. I’ve yet to read Johnson, but an excellent writeup of his The Unfortunates can be found here in case anyone wants to follow that connection up.