at least he wasn’t impotent.

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.



Filed under Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Quin, Ann

34 responses to “at least he wasn’t impotent.

  1. A terrific and tempting piece, Max. I like what you say about the term “experimental” and your comment on naturalism and the novel. I keep confusing Ann Quin with Anna Kavan for some reason, and I haven’t read either. You’ve moved Quin up the pile for me.

  2. The bit on experimental fiction isn’t original I’m afraid. It’s a point Giles Gordon makes in his introduction and which I found persuasive.

    She’s worth moving up the queue. I’d be very interested in your take.

    More later, I’m on my iPhone right now which makes commenting tricky.

  3. I’m sold. The style does indeed look tough, but at least the single protagonist alleviates the hardship. There’s something fantastic about Brighton (or other UK seaside reosrts) as a literary / filmic backdrop. That alone is a pull towards the novel for me. Reminds me – superficially perhaps – of Camus.

    Interesting to see Johnson mentioned too; a great writer. ‘Christie Malry’ is a fantastic starting point. I also adored Jonathan Coe’s biography about him, ‘Like a Fiery Elephant’.

  4. leroyhunter

    Great review Max. To add to what John and Richard have said, it sounds like there’s a fair bit of Beckett in there as well. Your comments on the novel as a form are particularly apropos given the festival of lunacy that has accompanied Edward Docx’s article about genre vs. literary in the Observer yesterday.

    I’ve also realised that I’ve mixed Quin and Kavan up in the past. Keen to read both though, Quin more so now.

  5. “cheap women no better than they ought to be.” Love your line there, Max.

    After reading the first quote, I can see what you mean about ‘experimental’ not fitting. When I read the quote (Berg’s “reflections on childhood”), ‘mental instability’ came to mind (rambling, bitter and self-focused) and that sounds perhaps correct given the rest of the review.

    It sounds marvellous (and connected to Of Love and Hunger). The bits about the cat and the budgie put me off….

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  7. This is a great piece if writing, and it’s always pleasing to see something about Quin.

    Happy I pointed you in her direction. This review should point far more her way.


  8. Richard,

    The reference to absurdist was a reference to Camus, so while not the strongest link it’s one I saw too. You’re quite right about Brighton. I’ve been watching Sugar Rush on youtube and Brighton looks absolutely glittering on it. It’s an alchemical sort of place, in the abstract anyway. It also features of course in the Bloc Party song Waiting for the 7:18 where the line “let’s go to Brighton for the weekend” is the saddest on the whole album (their sellout album, in the pejorative sense, for many though it’s not a view I share).

    Have you read Brighton Rock? It has one of the most powerful final lines I’ve read (Greene was a master of the final sentence) and is a work of sheer horror in many respects.

  9. Leroy,

    There’s definitely some Beckett. I’ve not read much of the Docx debate so far. I read his article which seemed to me to commit the classic error of comparing great literary fiction with mediocre genre fiction, but I’ve not seen the responses. I thought he was funny, which forgives much else in my book.

    I’m not really familiar with Kavan, what should I be looking at?

    Guy, Berg’s sanity is definitely questionable. Either he’s quite insane and probably sociopathic or he’s sane but the world isn’t. Whether that’s a real difference is here at least open to question.

    The scene with the cat is harrowing. It’s brutal and genuinely unpleasant to read. Like a lot of people I’m sentimental when it comes to violence against animals and I struggled with the scene. It serves a purpose, it shows that the threat of violence always present in the novel is real, but it’s not easy to read.

  10. Max, the final line of Brighton Rock is indeed a good ‘un, and was used by David Renwick for the title of an episode of One Foot in the Grave – the worst horror of all in that case being Victor getting a job.

  11. leroyhunter

    Max, the one that caught my eye is Ice, but I’ve not read her so am not in a position to recommend etc. To yet again give Lee his due, here’s a blog of his that first alerted me to Kavan’s name:

    I don’t think Docx says anything particularly contentious, but the comments are the usual mix of affronted fans of given writers (Lee Child-philes show up), ad hominem merchants and folks keen to share how boring, badly-written or unintentionally hilarious they found the article.

  12. Thanks for that link Leroy, very helpful.

    I do wonder at those on the Guardian who log on and post comments to blogs saying how pointless they found them. I often find particular blog entries uninteresting. I stop reading them. People are very prone to it on the fashion blogs in particular. It’s a fashion blog, were they expecting a treatise on the Chechen conflict?

    Some genre readers clearly do incorporate their love of their preferred genre into their sense of self, so that an attack on the genre becomes an attack on them. I don’t get that either. I like SF and crime both, but if Docx doesn’t rate them that’s ultimately not a big concern to me. Must he like everything I do? Is it that exciting if I rate a book and someone else doesn’t? Surely it creates a starting place for a potentially enjoyable debate, nothing more. I think Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? is a masterpiece. John Self I know read it recently, if he slates it then we disagree but I’ll live and I imagine he shall.

    I’m far from immune to genre arguments, but the passion some bring to bear is completely out of proportion to the subject. Skimming that thread it does look like there are some intelligent comments (I thought it was fair that someone pointed out that Larssen never got to properly edit his books due to dying before they were published, though that lack hasn’t hurt their popularity any) but I just don’t care enough to read over 250 of them…

  13. John,

    For me, the last line in Our Man in Havana is among his best, changing the whole genre of the novel from comedy to tragedy.

  14. I think Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? is a masterpiece. John Self I know read it recently, if he slates it then we disagree but I’ll live and I imagine he shall.

    We shall see… *rubs chin contemplatively*

  15. Well, if you don’t I shall miss you John, but literature must have its sacrifices.

    As long as I’m not one of them obviously.

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  17. leroyhunter

    The “sense of self” thing is spot on and accounts for the defensiveness on display. It’s one thing to want to passionately champion something you love & think worthwhile though; quite another to read personal slights & judgements into criticism of Steig Larsson or whatever.

    It’s always portrayed as “my good fun entertainment attacked & belittled by sneering intellectual elites” but in fact the internet seems to have reversed the equation: anyone commenting in anything other then the most glowing terms about “mainstream” culture is generally attacked and sneered at themselves before they can refresh the page.

    Are you going to go any further with Quin Max? I see Dalkey Archive have 3 other novels in their catalogue.

  18. Laurence Pritchard

    Hi Max,
    Excellent review.

    As you spotted a week or so ago, we were probably reading it about the same time. I haven’t read a lot of Orton but I was certainly thinking Beckett and the Pinter atmosphere of the Birthday Party.

    It is quite difficult to read at times because, as you say, of the mix of internal and external dialogue, but the humour, language and general chaos of the emotions make it worthwhile. In fact I didn’t mind re-reading parts.

    However, there were some sentences or phrases that were either too ‘purple’ or I simply didn’t understand what they meant. There weren’t many and I’m not saying they were ‘fatal flaws’ though. Take the example you quoted:

    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

    The detail and pace of this is outstanding, particularly the rat-bitten cuffs, but the following sentence:

    But once on your own when you lorded it with beast and flower, striding the hills,
    seems to me too “literary.” – ‘lorded it with beast and flower’???

    There’s another sentence, the second of the first full page of the narrative (i don’t have the book in front of me) which i re-read about eight times without fully grasping what was being said.

    Anyway, didn’t spoil it for me, will definitely track down the others.

    As for Anna Kavan, I’d try Ice for starters.

    I read a lot of Robbe-Grillet a while back. If I’d had a few more hours sleep last night i could probably say something intelligent about the differences between them, but i’d say that RG is less brutal and chaotic, more measured, if that makes any sense. I would recommend Jealousy or The Voyeur. The Erasers is good too.

    I had a quick butchers at the Literary Fiction vs Genre smackdown in the Guardian and it’s much too unfocused to provide any genuine debate, populated mainly with commenters saying stuff like ‘you’re a snob if you don’t like Dan Brown, although I think he’s shit’ etc. etc.

    I read the firt of the “Girl Who …” and didn’t think much of it, but as you say, comparing the best of one genre with the worst of the other is pretty pointless. I read somewhere that Camus was influenced by James M. Cain in writing The Outsider.

    look forward to your next post,


  19. I agree with everything you say Leroy, and yes, I do plan to read more Quin. Not sure which next though.

    Laurence, I had to reread parts quite often. I’d get lost, lose track of who the subject was. I think it was intentional though, I think I was supposed to be concentrating and occasionally rethinking where I was.

    There were I admit sentences I didn’t understand too, that annoys me with some writers (the use of discalced in The Road is the example that leaps to mind) but it didn’t bother me too much here. Funnly enough that example did work for me, the change in tone I thought signalled a move from his actual state to his sociopathic imaginings of consequence.

    Thanks for the Kavan tip. I’ll pick that up. Oddly enough I bought The Erasers today before seeing your post (and V). Thankfully I was warned off the Girl series by a client who was reading it and commented that for a thriller it was very flabby. That set off all sorts of alarm bells for me, after all if a thriller isn’t taut what use is it?

    I’ve heard that about Camus too.

    Next up is the Alma Cogan, which so far is excellent. I’m really enjoying it.

    Thanks for dropping by and the comments, particularly the caveats about Quin.

  20. “Experimental” is sooooooooooo twentieth century.

  21. Yes, Brighton Rock is indeed a fantastic book, and I agree re the final sentence. I think the way Greene used Brighton in The End Of The Affair is perhaps the popular view of Brighton – a jaded place, almost slipping into the sea, where people commit adulterous affairs. Patrick Hamilton lived there, and it oozes out of his writing. That and his relationship with London boozers. Domestic disharmony and alcohol-fuelled anxiety. Similarly, the film ‘London To Brighton’ was an effective – if horribly grim – evocation of the relationship between the capital and its nearest seaside escape, returning us the the gangland connection between the two places.

    Anyway, I’ve always enjoyed my visits there, especially the pub the Colonnade replete with its old photos of thespians. Saw Luke Haines drinking here too, which made a lot of sense. Brighton is very Luke Haines. Shame Saturday night in Brighton now is a rather grizzly parade of Hen Parties and vomiting students, but that goes for lots of places. At least it’s still got a few decent bookshops and record shops to potter around, which is refreshing in this age of Ebay and Amazon.

  22. I sometimes think experimentalism is 18th Century, does anything go further than Tristram Shandy did?

    Really I see it as a perennial refreshing of the novel.

    Richard, that makes sense about Hamilton, as you say it oozes out (a great word to use with Hamilton, ooze).

    Where now isn’t hen parties and vomiting students? Again I’m back to the 18th Century with gin soaked rabble rioting in the streets and protestors assaulting the monarchy in their carriages. We’re reverting in Britain to who we always were, after the brief Victorian illusion of propriety.

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  24. Hi there, excellent review and good to see someone else reading and enjoying the criminally overlooked Ann Quin. Here’s a short piece I wrote on Berg over at ReadySteadyBook Funnily enough I also read Berg because of that piece in the Guardian by Lee Rourke so I’ll second your thanks for the recommendation!

  25. Nice review Danny. Thanks for the link.

    Have you read any other Berg or any Johnson or Figes? I have Three (along with Burn’s Pocket Money) sitting in my Amazon basket at the moment though if I hit the LRB at the weekend I’ll probably buy them there instead – my rule of thumb is literary fiction fron indie bookstores, mainstream fiction from Amazon or thebookdepository, but it’s not a hard and fast rule either way.

  26. No, but they’re all on my list. I actually went on an amazon binge yesterday involving Bernhard, Josipovici, Berger and Handke, which ought to keep me occupied for a while. I notice you posted something about an ambition to tackle Proust, how did that go? I’m currently half-way through volume two – it’s wonderful stuff but not the easiest thing to follow when you’re on the tube

  27. I just bought a Josipovici the other day and his Whatever Happened to Modernism is also on my to be read pile.

    I’m a huge Berger fan these days. I’ve covered two here with more to follow.

    Which Handke? I’ve not read any.

    On Proust, I read and adored the first. I started the second but had to abort because I was reading it on the tube and it just killed it. I’ll return to it as soon as I have a free slot where I can read it in decent sized chunks rather than little bits every day.

    I should have learnt from that actually. I just finished V and it’s taken me weeks. Far too broken up by the daily commute, with the result that I missed a lot. Stupid, books of that length and density just don’t lend themselves to reading in that way.

  28. Will check out your Berger posts. I bought G (apparently not too far a cry from Tom McCarthy’s C), really looking forward to it. I’ve only read Ways of Seeing, fascinating stuff. Can’t believe it was a tv series in the 70s, shows how far we’ve sunk since, doesn’t it? The Handke is The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick – i’ve not read any either but I’ve heard good things.

    I know what you mean about Proust on the tube, it’s a bit of a travesty really. On the one hand I’m loath not to put my hour+ a day spent underground to some sort of beneficial use, but on the other there’s probably a threshold above which you’re doing a book a disservice by not reading it in a more favourable setting. I read Swann’s Way on holiday – far more satisfying.

  29. I just ordered Ways of Seeing. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll look out for your thoughts on Handke.

  30. Just clicked on your “random post ” link and came across this which sounds really interesting (I like Brighton based books as I often visit the city). The books sounds slightly it was written by John Berger.

  31. I love that random post comment. I wish it were used more often. There’s nothing nicer somehow as a blogger than older posts getting comments, so thanks.

    John Berger after he’d overdosed on a week of watching nothing but Joe Orton plays perhaps. It is very good. Not flawless, but ambitious and the flaws emerge from that ambition.

    I rather envy your often visiting Brighton. I hardly ever do and I’m rather fond of it.

  32. This is a very compelling review. I’ve intended to tackle Quin for ages, but you are right in your comment that her writing sounds just my kind of thing. Thanks for the reminder.

  33. I’m glad to have caught your interest. Quin seems a bit overlooked now. She deserves better.

    Three will be hard to write up, but then it was hard to read. Rewarding though. I understand each novel is less accessible than the last which is interesting. A talent cut short.

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