As writers fall out of fashion, their books fall out of print. Ann Quin was one of the chief practitioners of British avant-garde fiction in the 1960s but until lately both her name and her work languished in obscurity. It didn’t help that she was unable to enjoy a long career, or indeed a long life: She ended it in 1973, aged only 37, swimming out to sea beyond Brighton’s famous pier.
Fortunately, UK publisher And Other Stories has been busy salvaging Quin’s reputation by reissuing her books. The success of “The Unmapped Country,” a collection of her short-form odds and ends, led to the republication of “Berg,” her enjoyably absurdist and blackly comic debut novel. Now comes “Three,” the second of the four experimental novels published during her short lifetime. It originally appeared in 1966 but it remains bold, fresh, vital and above all modern.
The title refers to the number of characters in the book. The main protagonists are British married couple Ruth and Leonard. The third is an elusive figure, a young woman known only as S. The novel begins with the pair discussing, and adjusting to, S’s recent death. Some time ago they opened the door of their summer-vacation cottage to her, offering up a place of retreat and a family life she never knew. Her stay with them came to an abrupt end when she disappeared and, seemingly, died by suicide — like her creator, at sea.
To understand what finally tipped their lodger over the edge, and maybe also to learn to what extent they contributed to it, husband and wife set about sifting shared and individual memories. They then trawl through S’s personal effects — journals, tapes, films.
“I’m sure what she’s put down or recorded can’t be a pretty story,” says Ruth. Painful discoveries come to light, but so too does the disturbing revelation that S was spying on her hosts. As Ruth and Leonard start raiding each other’s private confessions, and as sexual tension turns into aggression, trust is violated and an already strained marriage is stretched to breaking point.
Quin’s novel tells a simple tale in a way that is both formally daring and linguistically inventive. Dialogue flows freely, shorn of quotation marks and he-said-she-said clarity, and with speakers chopping and changing in the same paragraph. Some sentences are syntactically strange (“A life there perhaps we’ll find”), others arbitrarily punctuated. No sooner have we adapted to the curious rhythms of Quin’s prose than we find ourselves confronted with the fractured thoughts, feelings, impressions and descriptions that constitute S’s recordings.
“My certainty shall be their confusion,” writes S in her journal.
“Three” is indeed a challenging book in places, but it is also a stimulating one. It is heartening to know that another Quin novel is slated for release next year. Her singular talent, so prematurely snuffed out, burns bright again.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Ann Quin.
Publisher: And Other Stories, 160 pages, $14.95.