‘Motherlogue’ by Ann Quin

If Ann Quin were a man would her writing have fallen into obscurity in the UK? Impossible. Her books would never have been out of print. Her comedy hailed. Her death would not be the first thing mentioned in articles about her but her writing would have lead. ‘Motherlogue’ is a brief example of how funny Quin is. This could easily have been a Nichols & May sketch. The story is a monologue from a hypercritical, and nosey, mother figure. A character type that is overused but with Quin all her jokes hit, and there’s a loneliness in ‘Motherlogue’ that elevates the story beyond mere parody. 

First published in Transatlantic Review 32, 1969. Reprinted in The Unmapped Country & Other Stories, And Other Stories, 2018

‘Every Cripple has His Own Way of Walking’ by Ann Quin

If you haven’t read Berg, you should try it. Quin is often touted as an experimental writer, which speaks for the conservatism of much of publishing. Certainly, there is a startling quality to her work but it’s experimental in the way that life, and especially childhood, is experimental. I love the way she builds this story, assembles it piece by piece, like we are there, touching the things she describes. It’s such a physical experience. In a lot of writing, you can forget that the characters have bodies. Maybe we even do that with ourselves, as if we are avatars or just floating perspectives. At the same time, anxiety and uncertainty perpetuate the tale, so that all those solid things we have touched are not solid at all but are capable of shifting. I’m not sure how successful I was in Inventory, which is a book based on objects, but I wanted to examine that tension between the tangible and intangible that Quin does so well, and particularly the idea of entering a world already populated by others and trying/failing to make sense of it. I feel drawn to Quin, maybe because of overlaps in background (Catholic, working class etc), but she is always off in the distance. 

First published in Nova, 1966. Collected in The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018. Available to read at Music and Literature, here

‘The Unmapped Country’ by Ann Quin

I owe the discovery of Quin to the conjunction of an interest in B.S. Johnson and an article by Lee Rourke, although as the editor of this collection, Jennifer Hodgson, has said, the  association of Quin – and other writers of the period – with Johnson may be loose at best. 

Better known, if known at all, for her debut novel Berg, the stories and fragments collected in The Unmapped Country show the work of a writer adept at a range of styles. The contents were written in the sixties and seventies, so certain details are necessarily of their time, but the writing itself feels intensely modern. 

In the titular story, Sandra finds herself in a psychiatric ward following a breakdown involving what sounds like a dissociative episode. Her lover, Clive, visits briefly and even then, only from a sense of duty. Sandra’s days are filled with interactions with the other residents and the doctors, with whom she is at odds, a situation made clear from the outset:

‘Good morning and how are we today?’
‘Bloody rotten if you must know.’
‘Why is that – tell me more?’
 Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man.

Sandra’s antipathy is reasonable. In the ward her activities are scheduled like a schoolchild’s; the nursing staffs’ manner with her and the other patients is similarly infantilising and their prescribed treatment has damaged an essential part of her:

Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language, and that of those who attempted communication… Had ECT done that – damn them?

As well as a critique of institutional care at the time, ‘The Unmapped Country’ is a model of what the short story can be: experimental yet accessible, funny and sad, everything and more. Quin herself once wrote to her publisher, ‘The short story medium is something new, exciting…’, much like the stories that make up this collection.

From The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018. ed. Jennifer Hodgson

‘Leaving School – XI’ by Ann Quin

Something of a cheat, this one, as it is a posthumous collection and one that the author knew nothing about. Oh, and that the opening story isn’t really a story at all, but an autobiographical fragment. But what a fragment, and what a collection! For this we should give thanks to the diligence and tenacity of Jennifer Hodgson

Collected in The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018

‘Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails’ by Ann Quin

Since her death in 1973 it has been really hard to get hold of Quin’s short pieces: credit for their reissue is down to Jennifer Hodgson, who also has an academic work on Quin in preparation. This is writing from the inside, which is to say that any superficial realism is only there to provide an arena where another, far subtler struggle is taking place, almost not articulated at all. In this story, An unspecified threat runs through the piece. As every event occurs, and there aren’t many, dangerous further possibilities appear without having been written. Death is never far from the action. I have already been sniffy about plot: there is a plot here, but it’s been messed with, as if parts of it (particularly the dénouement) had been excised. Good.

(1968; now in The Unmapped Country, due in 2018 from And Other Stories.)