Review by Helen Parry
Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of Ann Quin. However, I then read that the independent publisher And Other Stories was re-issuing her 1964 novel, Berg, and it sounded very interesting: according to Wikipedia, Berg was influenced by the work of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Anna Kavan, as well as the French nouveau roman. It was her first novel and it is extraordinary.
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
A travelling seller of wigs and hair restorer, Berg has the good fortune to rent a room (in the sort of seedy boarding-house you might encounter in the work of Patrick Hamilton or Graham Greene) right next door to his father, now living with a much-younger mistress named Judith. He bides his time, awaiting his opportunity. Berg and his mother were abandoned by Berg’s father many years ago, and it is never quite clear why Berg has now decided to murder him – at least, on a realist level. On a psychological level, it becomes very clear.
Berg has a complex and unhealthy relationship with his mother, to whom he always refers by her name, Edith. Although she has not accompanied Berg to this seaside town, she is a very real presence in Berg’s mind, constantly interrupts his thoughts:
I don’t understand you Aly, honestly I don’t, none of us can make you out at times, what is it you want, what do you think life owes you?
At a significant moment in the book Edith is linked with Judith, with whom Berg has become sexually obsessed. Berg’s father, meanwhile, is elderly, drunk, dishonest and physically repellent. Quin references Greek tragedies and it is clear that we are intended to think in particular of Oedipus Rex. Unfortunately, however, despite all his lusting and plotting, whenever Berg is presented with an opportunity to murder his father, compassion reflexively takes over and he cares for him instead of killing him, putting him to bed when he’s drunk, soaping his back in the bath. Will he ever succeed?
Events are refracted through the tug and swell of Berg’s perception. It is a perception that is keenly aware of the sag and rot of ageing flesh and infused with sexual disgust and repressed violence, permeated by memories of an unhappy and perhaps abused childhood. Berg’s world is full of double-entendres: the surging sea; a crumbling cigarette; a finger being put in the hole of a key, a hole in paper, a teacup handle; sucking a pencil end. He contemplates piercing a hole in the partition between the rooms to spy on Judith and his father and he is a voyeuristically watches women through keyholes and in neighbouring flats.
He unrolled a burnt-out cigarette end, crumbling the tobacco on to the floor. […] But use reason, be at least rational about the situation. Surely nothing is lost, not yet. Aren’t I miscalculating my own appeal, the two extremes that flatter the maternal instinct in women – the tender and the cynical? But then perhaps the old man is back, this very moment behind the partition – no, no don’t think of him, don’t think of them there, doing that, and if he is back? Well what’s stopping you from ousting him out […]
This passage shows the intensity of Quin’s prose and the way she brilliantly lets Berg drift, in loose, free-associating sentences, from he to I to you, breaking down the barrier between the inner Berg and the outer Berg, so that what is going on in his mind shares the same ‘reality’ as what he is doing with his body. It lifts the whole novel away from the ‘realist’ and into the same sort of plane as that inhabited by the characters of a Beckett play. The sea, the room, the railway line, a ventriloquist’s dummy, all acquire symbolic resonances and depth as the novel progresses with the logic and clarity of a monstrous dream.
This is a short but powerful book, a sort of psychodrama of the male soul; it is demanding and, at the risk of sounding like a total Miss Prim, at first I found it disquieting to be plunged into Berg’s misogynist mind. However, it is a novel that amply repays perseverance because, as well as being cleverly structured and stuffed with perfect descriptions, it embraces the mess, the farce of existence with great honesty. Berg becomes somehow heroic, his thoughts increasingly beautiful. Quin truly was an astonishing writer both technically and imaginatively, and on the strength of Berg deserves to be much better known.
Dreaming once I became a star, waiting to disintegrate, gradually breaking apart, splash a rocket across the Milky Way. Always this paramount desire to use up the shell – can the shape of the body be the soul, what outward manifestation ever reveals our innermost feelings? Yet there’s enough truth in these steps I take, this cigarette I light, that leaf pressed between a crack in the pavement, and the woman I’ve just left in tears. But once attached then I begin questioning, making demands. Surrounded by many blocks of flats: square eyes, sewn-up mouths, lopped-off trees, broken glass, and my shadow dribbling around corners.
Helen blogs at A Gallimaufry.
Ann Quin, Berg (And Other Stories: London, 2019). 9781911508540, 160pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)