Berg, by Ann Quin, And Other Stories, 160 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-1911508540
“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.”
It would be difficult to discuss Ann Quin’s debut novel Berg without beginning with its opening line. One of the great first sentences in modern fiction, it is more than deserving of canonisation alongside: “Where now? Who now? When now?”; “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”; and “I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.” Displaced from the main body of the novel, the sentence acts as a framing mechanism establishing the central motive of the plot, all the while at play with disguise, uncertainty and reversal (not to mention the humour evidenced by Berg’s easily deciphered codename). It is also something of a red herring, a different kind of set-up: the semblance of framing anything like a conventional plot is just that, a fabrication, one quickly revealed when the reader turns the page and is plunged into a murmuring, obsessive world. “Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room.”
Berg was first published by Calder in 1964 and Quin has ordinarily been associated with the group of avant-garde British novelists that emerged in the postwar period, along with Christine Brooke-Rose and BS Johnson. This new edition, published by And Other Stories, following on from their excellent volume of Quin miscellany The Unmapped Country, constitutes the first UK publication of the novel in half a century. The premise, as we have seen, is simple: Alastair Berg, alias Greb, lumbers around a dilapidated seaside resort plotting to kill his father, Nathaniel, and/or seduce Nathaniel’s mistress, Judith. One drunken evening he finds his courage and commits the murderous act (an act left conspicuously absent from the text), wrapping the body in a rug. Despite this, traces of his father remain and it soon becomes apparent that the corpse is not all that it appears. A series of strange, disturbing, and often exceedingly funny events ensue.
What Quin achieves with the novel is anything but simple. Her writing is driven by a concern with the instability of identity and its relation to the transformatory space of fiction, a concern she explores through the mechanisms distilled in the book’s opening lines: disguise, overturning, bleakness, absurdity and black humour. Doubling and re-doubling are everywhere in Berg and acts of finality or resolution repeatedly come undone. A dead bird is buried and then dug up. Plans of escape are formulated and then abandoned. A corpse is disposed of and returns. Tissues of falsehood are constructed and destroyed. Business is always left unfinished. This power of transformation lends the novel a mythic/tragic quality, albeit one played out in a dirty landscape of murk and poverty.
Berg is an Oedipal figure: seeking revenge on his father whilst having sexual fantasies about his father’s lover, herself a stand-in for Berg’s own mother, Edith, two voices which are drawn increasingly close together as the novel progresses. However, where Oedipus was undone by a relentless striving for truth (a search which fulfils the prophecy it expressly sought to avoid) here the narrative has become degraded and any idea of truth has long departed, leaving behind only restlessness and failure. This restlessness is reflected at the level of the text. Quin’s prose does not so much flow as coagulate, clumps of tightly bound images press and weigh on one another with a stuttering exigency and dissolutive force. Under this pressure, language too is forced into a state of uncertainty where words no longer mean quite what they did, or else begin to tear under the strain of trying to mean too many things at once. Words contaminate one another, their proximity at once overlapping and undermining each other’s presence.
The doublings and falsehoods in Berg constitute a material presence of the imaginary, drawing attention to the fictional terrain on which they exist. It is a plane on which permanence can find no foothold, where form is always undergoing metamorphosis yet the language through which that re-shaping occurs is itself dissolving, collapsing, peeling away: a transformation “held occasionally in suspense”. Most illustrative in this regard is the treasured dummy owned by Berg’s father, who has designs on becoming a ventriloquist. Home-made and dressed in one of his best suits, the dummy is both a lifeless simulacrum of Berg his son, and of himself (resulting in confusion over whether the murder victim Berg has wrapped up in a bundle is his father or this rubbery creation). The dummy then is not only the totemic figure for the varying bleak, humorous, absurd components of the novel, not only testament to the failed plot of Berg/Greb, it is an expression of the failure of the literary work itself, of literature’s attempted imitation of life. The ventriloquist’s dummy is an inert object given the power of speech; this transformation however is an illusion, its words belong to another, its voice is a voice from elsewhere.
Berg’s self-reflexive gestures, the awareness of the falsity of the novel as form, are much more than mere metafictional posturing. They form an essential part of Quin’s efforts to understand human experience, an understanding of reality brought through the writing of the imaginary. The pressure exerted on language, like that which presses down on the pitiful figures of the novel, is driven, as Berg is driven, by desperation, poverty, mental illness and the continual weight of living out a task which can never attain completion. The creations of literature can never be done with, their suspension is inescapable. As such their hopes, their dreams, can never be realised. Their deaths, meanwhile, though ever-present in their fundamental non-existence, may never come to pass. What Quin does so well, and what makes Berg one of the best British novels published since the war, is to show that this repetitive, unyielding territory of failed transformation is not merely a mystical plane opened up by the work of literature: paradoxically (and with a heavy dose of sadness and black humour) it is the place where literature comes closest to life.
Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of Books, Gorse, Aeon, Music and Literature, and the Irish Post among others. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag.