Tag Archives: Dalkey Archive Press

You love life. I covet life.

Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes and translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

A few years back or so Lee Rourke kindly sent me a review copy of one of Dalkey Archive’s books. Vlad was popped in as an unexpected extra on the basis he thought I might like it. This shows two things: firstly that Lee has an eye for interesting books; secondly that I’m a terrible person to send review copies to because literally years can pass before I get to them.

Vlad is a strange one. It’s a cross (an unholy contamination?) between literary fiction and horror. Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, comes to contemporary 21st Century Mexico City. As he notes, licking his lips, it’s home to “twenty million delectable blood sausages!” Where better for a vampire to hide and feast?

At the same time it’s a surprisingly compassionate novel about class, sensuality, life and loss. That’s the thing about vampires, as myths go they’re very flexible.

vlad

Yves Navarro is a successful law firm partner. Zurinaga, the legendary senior partner of his firm, asks him to take care of a European client as a personal favour. Zurinaga is old school, Mexico City’s elite. Navarro is delighted to be able to help him.

The mandate is a simple one. The client is a Central European count who wishes to move to Mexico City and has a particular kind of property in mind. Navarro’s wife Asunción works in real estate so Navarro can handle the legals and she the house-hunting and between them it’s a complete service.

The Navarros are a perfect middle class couple. They have good jobs, money, and a 10-year-old daughter Magdalena whom they both adore. By day they’re sober and responsible, and at night they delight in each other’s bodies with a passion their daytime professionalism never hints at.

Life is good then, but no life is ever truly perfect. Some years past they lost their other child, their son Didier, to a drowning accident. They’ve survived his loss as a couple and as a family, but the absence stays with them. Didier’s body was never found, a fact Navarro was grateful for and which Asunción felt robbed her of a chance to say a proper goodbye. It’s an old wound, never healed but which together they’ve learned to work around. Didier’s gone, but always present:

Didier dissolved into the ocean, and I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean…

Zurinaga’s friend has some odd stipulations for his new house. There must be no neighbouring properties. It must be “easy to defend”. It needs to have a ravine out the back, and a tunnel between the house and the ravine. Oh, and there must be no windows …

Navarro is a polite man, urbane, he facilitates without asking questions. Asunción finds a suitable house and Navarro manages the paperwork and before long the count has set up home together with his peculiar hunchback servant and apparently a little girl around Magdalena’s age.

The count is a grotesque. Ancient, wrinkled, bald. His ears are curiously malformed and he wears mirrored sunglasses even in the shower. He takes an interest in Navarro who acts as if everything is normal even when he notices that every room in the house has a gutter built into it; even when he finds a picture of Asunción and Magdalena tacked up inside a cupboard.

The whole motif of a lawyer at the home of a mesmeric but malignant count is of course a shout-out to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. Fuentes knows his source material. However, Vlad also works as social commentary. Part of the reason Navarro asks so few questions is that the count was introduced as a friend of Zurinaga’s. He comes with the highest possible social pedigree and introduction.

Most people on finding themselves in a house with the windows bricked up and gutters along the walls would be looking to leave immediately. Most would have questions if they then found a photo of their family. Navarro is too polite, too professional. He also lives two existences: at night one of passion with Asunción; by day one of bloodless professionalism.

Vlad is in places very funny. There’s a scene where the count invites Navarro over to dinner and Navarro finds him still in the shower. The emaciated and disturbing figure of the count emerges, absolutely naked, and launches into conversation quite ignoring Navarro’s discomfort:

Standing next to a naked Central European count who liked to discuss the philosophy of life and death, I tried to lighten things up a little.

Despite Navarro’s efforts things quickly darken. Magdalena sleeps over with a schoolfriend, but days pass and Navarro doesn’t see her. There’s a plausible explanation from everyone he speaks to but no matter how many good answers you get there comes a point you start to worry. The count asks Navarro “Do you know where your children are?”; Navarro misses the horror implicit in the plural. Soon after Navarro finds his comfortable life and assumptions sliding ever-quicker through his fingers. Control was only ever an illusion.

By the end we’ve left comedy far behind and we’re into questions of mortality and the price worth paying to preserve your child’s innocence. It’s a descent into horror that terrifies more through temptation than intimidation.

Vlad is a short novel. My copy is a physically small hardback with comfortably sized margins and even then it’s only a little over 100 pages. Really it’s more of a novella, but it packs a lot into its space. It unfolds after reading and leaves an impression greater than its size would suggest.

As you’d expect, the count dominates proceedings once he arrives. It’s always the monsters who bring the glamour. But Navarro’s failings are human ones and it’s that which brings the interest. Come for the black comedy. Stay for the melancholy compassion.

Other reviews

Grant reviewed this at his 1st Reading’s blog here. I also found online this fascinating review by an Australian professor of political economy who discusses the book in the context of Mexico City’s politics and urban geography. It’s a short piece and more readable than that makes it sound. I recommend it.

Separately, Stu reviewed Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagles’ Throne here. I included it because I thought it illustrated Fuentes’ range, and because it’s worth linking to  Stu’s blog which holds an absolute treasure-trove of Mexican literature worth exploring.

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Filed under Fuentes, Carlos, Mexican fiction, Spanish

“What can I do for you?” said a new character as he executed a bow.

The Attic by Danilo Kiš, and translated by John K. Cox

The Attic by Danilo Kiš, and translated by John K. Cox

The journey of the young writer, from aspiring novelist to published author, is one of the most widely told stories out there. It’s the only story every novelist has in common. The details may vary, as may the difficulty of the path followed, but by definition every one of them has done it.

It’s a story I tend to I find particularly uninteresting, because often it’s literature talking to itself instead of to the world. What could be more insular than novels about writing novels? Steampunk fiction actually, but I risk totally digressing in my second paragraph so let’s pretend I didn’t mention that.

The Attic is a Serbian novella written back in 1962. It’s a first novel about writing a first novel. It’s even called The Attic (the original could just as easily be translated as The Garrett or The Loft), as if to underline the airless subject matter. It has though that one quality which trumps all others, it’s well written.

The Attic

Orpheus, the narrator, is a young writer living in a mould and cockroach infested garret apartment with a friend he calls Billy Wiseass. These aren’t, of course, their real names.

Orpheus falls in love with a girl he names Eurydice, although it’s fairer to say he falls in love with an idea of a Eurydice that he clothes a girl in.

Back at the time I think I first met her, I was feverishly demanding answers from life, and so I was completely caught up in myself – that is, caught up in the vital issues of existence.

Here are some of the questions to which I was seeking answers:

– the immortality of the soul

– the immortality of sex

– immaculate conception

– motherhood

– fatherhood

– the fatherland

– cosmopolitanism

– the issue of the organic exchange of matter and

– the issue of nourishment

– metempsychosis

– life on other planets and

– out in space

– the age of the earth

– the difference between culture and civilization

– the race issue

– apoliticism or engagement

– kindness or heedlessness

– superman or everyman

– idealism or materialism

– Don Quixote or Sancho Panza

– Hamlet or Don Juan

– pessimism or optimism

– death or suicide

and so on and so forth.

These problems and a dozen more like them stood before me like an army of moody and taciturn sphinxes. And so, right when I had reached issue number nine—the issue of nourishment—after having solved the first eight problems in one fashion or another, the last addition to the list turned up: the question of love . . .

Orpheus tells Eurydice of his adventures in the South Seas, though they’re plainly a flight of fancy and it’s doubtful he’s ever left Belgrade. Soon after is an entire chapter which mimics a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (I only know that because of the incredibly helpful foreword, thanks John K Cox). His friend Billy gets a girl pregnant and needs help with cash for an abortion, and Orpheus is keen to help because as he notes with concern a baby would mean “voilà, a new character!

What’s going on here? It quickly becomes apparent that The Attic isn’t just a novel about writing a first novel – it’s a novel about writing this particular first novel. It’s a literary ourobouros that becomes a kind of metafiction in which the characters are aware that they are characters and the novel is aware of its own artificiality. This isn’t a book which imagines a world, but which then pretends that the created world has some form of objective existence (the standard approach for the vast majority of fiction). Rather this is a book which expressly addresses the act of its own creation (though of course, the novel titled The Attic which is being written inside the novel I read titled The Attic may not be quite the same The Attic, in fact can’t be).

Soon I was giving [English] lessons to the sluts of the port. Never before had I had pupils who were more diligent and compliant. And they paid me regularly. In kind, to be sure. How else? Then I stopped giving lessons to those girls who lived by the Bridge of Sighs, as we referred to them. Every day their madam had brought me coffee with a great deal of sugar and milk, just because once I’d said I liked it.

[They discuss his smoking, which the madam thinks excessive. She refers to “some great disappointment in your past…”]

“No, no” I said. “But I prefer a bitter cigarette to sweet coffee with sugar. It’s simply…”

Then she said suddenly: “Listen, it’s not nice of you to make your café latte sound even sweeter than it is, just so I’ll end up coming across as all the more insipid. You reporters are all the same. It goes without saying that I’m mentioning this in your interest.

If all this sounds arch and pretentious then for a fair part of the book that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The early passages are breathlessly adolescent (check out that list, above). The style is deeply self-indulgent, but then the technique becomes surer, the conceit less overwhelming. What becomes apparent is that The Attic is not merely a novel about writing a novel, but a novel that reflects in its very style and structure the process of becoming a novelist.

It opens up excitable and even amateurish. It veers off into unbounded flights of fantasy. It then faithfully follows the path set down by an earlier great writer. Only after all that does it start to find its own voice, to convince in its own right.

What is all that if not the young author’s path? Learning their craft; learning how to structure so that the text doesn’t just fly off in all directions. In the foreword to Fugue for a Darkening Island, Christopher Priest talked of how he was over-influenced by his then literary heroes, and that’s what’s happening here when the text apes Mann’s text.

At about the half way point I was close to abandoning this book. Actually though, what it’s doing is genuinely clever. You aren’t just told how a novelist learns his trade, you feel it as the novel itself makes mistakes but improves as it progresses. The novel begins to embrace something beyond its own artifice, its own influences, just as within the fiction Orpheus as a writer develops his own craft.

The Attic then isn’t insular at all, even if it often seems so as Kiš plays with words and images like a child let loose in a toy store after closing time. Rather, it is about emerging from that attic of self-referentiality and breaking through to the world beyond the writer, writing about the external and not just the internal.

“So anyway – how are you amusing yourself these days?” asked Osip.

“I am writing The Attic,” I said.

We were walking toward the fortress along the edge of the Danube because Osip had resigned himself to the fact that Marija wasn’t going to show up for their date.

“That’s bound to be some kind of neo-realism,” he said. “Dirty, slobbery children, and laundry strung up in the narrow gaps between the buildings of some suburb, and dockside dives, shit-faced railroad switchmen and, hookers…”

“There’s some of that in it,” I responded. “After all, the title itself suggests as much. But it remains a horribly self-centred book…”

I don’t want to oversell it. It’s clever and it’s fun and most importantly of all it’s well written but it isn’t a weighty tome of sombre European insight. It’s not Thomas Mann (not that he’s particularly sombre now I think about it). Then again, why should it be? It’s a first novel after all.

Some other reviews I found interesting can be found here (and that article includes a useful career overview for Kiš) and here. There are also some more quotes here.

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Filed under Kiš, Danilo, Novellas, Serbian fiction

Dried stains on sheets.

Three, by Ann Quin

Ann Quin’s second novel, three, is superbly written. It’s a book as much about its own form and structure as it is about story, although here form and story cannot be separated. It’s less than 150 pages long, but is distinctly not a quick read.

Leonard and Ruth are a middle aged couple. Until recently they had a younger woman identified as S living with them. S is dead, drowned, though whether by suicide or accident is unclear. Leonard and Ruth speculate as to what happened, and their conversations intertwine with excerpts from S’s diary and audiotapes which she left behind. The language is frequently confusing, intentionally so, and requires extremely close attention to tell who is speaking. Sometimes, often, I would have to backtrack to find the thread of a conversation. This is not an accident.

Here’s the opening couple of paragraphs:

A man fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of Peskett House,

an office-block in Sellway Square today.

He was a messenger employed by a soap manufacturing firm.

Ruth startled from the newspaper by Leonard framed in the door-way. Against the white-washed wall. A wicker arm-chair opposite the Japanese table. Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens. A bronzed cockerel faced the house.

What’s the latest then? Fellow thrown himself out of a window. Ghastly way to choose. But Leon her wasn’t like that – I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch. No one can be blamed Ruth we must understand that least of all ourselves. Yes yes I know and one could say it was predictaable her sort of temperament. I don’t know. You mean you don’t really care Leon? Ah you should know the answer to that my love.

Here the prose acts as a camera, panning across the room “Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens.” The viewpoint slides across, yet in staccato fashion. The dialogue here can be worked out, Leonard and Ruth speak alternately, but it requires a little thought before that becomes apparent. This is not prose one can lose oneself in.

Ruth and Leonard try to comfort themselves, and they go through the rituals of married life. Their surface troubles are quotidian ones. Underneath though is the question of what S meant to them, how she fitted into their lives and what she brought that they couldn’t provide for themselves. Their conversation ends and Leonard goes out to the greenhouse to inspect his orchids while Ruth goes upstairs to look through S’s cupboards.

What follows is three pages of sustained erotic charge. Leonard strokes the fat leaves of his orchids while Ruth wanders through upstairs rooms naked and searching through piles of clothes. The prose builds up, becomes frenzied, then peaks and tails off. Here’s a taste:

Still murmuring he reached up, brought one down, parted a layer of tiny leaves, and looked in. His fingers trembled. His body sloped. Face flushed in the one stream of light. He pressed the earth in, smoothed over. Paused longer at some, peered into centres, ran a finger along stems, pink against pink laid there.

Breathing slowly, he listened with the plants that sucked, dripped around and above.

She went from room to room, closed windows, doors, cupboards. Tried on clothes, shoes too narrow, hobbled to mirrors. Squeezed into dresses, struggled out, touched the material, traced the design. Folded, unfolded blouses, cardigans. Slipped them on, off, until the bed, floor were covered with layers of clothes. Into which she flung herself, motionless, face buried.

She powdered her flushed face, neck, brushed her hair.

As I say, three pages. It’s prose written in the rhythms of sex, but there is no sex. What replaces it is a sense of frustrated desire, of sex reaching out and infusing the house. As the novel continues there are some actual sex scenes, but they are brief and Ruth refuses when she can. She services Leonard as marital duty, on his relentless insistence (or, on one occasion when she says no, his outright force). It’s not that Ruth’s without desire, it’s that the only desire Leonard cares about is his own.

Against this are the fragments left by S. Most challenging of these are what I took to be the audiotapes, which become prose poems the meaning of which is at first unclear (and much of which never becomes wholly clear). S is recording emotions, impressions, and some of it can be understood in the light of her diaries, but it would I think take several readings of this book to understand most of them and an unreachable kernel would always remain.

This is one of the more accessible audiotape sections:

Surrounded by chairs. Animals released. Octopus faces gullet

corridor. Float from island to island. Inherited from both sides

Sofa. Flora-pregnated

Chippendale chairs. Unchipped. Upholstered in blue.

They call turquoise.

Persian rugs. Second skins. For them.

Warm napkins.

Silverware pawns. Salt-cellar dominates.

Rooms soundproofed.

Paintings

not hung

too small. Not small enough. But still-lifes that she used to do.

Burglar-proofed.

China plates

on the wall. Glass doors. Concealed lighting. White curtains

transparent.

Nursery done in egg.shell blue. Empty.

A special place for the cat. Never used.

Visitors. Change of linen. Every other day.

Existence bound by habit. Hope. Theirs. Nothing to contend

with.

The worst effort not to contradict their next movement

At first.

Again there’s that sense of prose as camera there, but this is more an exploration of significance than space. It’s reasonably easy here to understand what S is saying and what it means to her, but other sections are far more opaque.

This then is a novel of shadows. S played games with Leonard and Ruth in which they would all wear masks and improvise dialogue in mini-plays. Leonard and Ruth fight a pointless battle to keep ramblers off their section of the beach, which they privately own. Everywhere there is ambiguity and boundaries that shift or are ignored.

The Dalkey Archive edition of Three comes with a dismayingly perceptive introduction by writer and academic Brian Evenson. Dismaying because it leaves little for me to add. The best review I could write would be to type out his words. Evenson, rightly, points to Quin’s refusal to resolve the book’s strands. He points too to how the structure unsettles the reader, leaving them with doubt and a lack of finality as to what really occurred. He talks of the book “dragging readers into the text, demanding they plunge into the experience the characters find themselves in. The book refuses to stay at a comfortable distance.”

That’s exactly right. Here Quin forced me to engage closely with what she had written. I had to,  because otherwise I didn’t even know who was speaking let alone what was being said. She brought me into an emotional post-mortem in which the only judgement is an Open Verdict. She infected me as reader with the uncertainty of her characters.

The result is a difficult and often disquieting book. The rewards though match the effort, and unless I have a truly exceptional 2012 or some terrible fate befalls me between now and the end of the year I will be very surprised if this isn’t the second Ann Quin novel to make one of my end of the year lists. Quin has been overlooked, but she shouldn’t be and if you’ve any interest in modernist or experimentalist (a term I dislike) fiction then she deserves attention.

By way of balance I found a more negative review online here, and another positive review here. There’s also quite an interesting general overview of her work here, which to their credit the negative reviewer also linked to.

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Filed under Modernist fiction, Quin, Ann

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.

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Filed under Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Quin, Ann