The free-wheeling life and wild, weird fiction of the cult 1960s author Ann Quin

In her writing, as in her life, Quin was drawn to experiences of difference, extremity and disorientation.

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Ann Quin was of a rare breed in British writing: experimental, working class and a woman. The author of four novels and a prolific writer of short stories and fragments (as well as memoir, poetry, and radio and television plays), she was born in Brighton in 1936 to what used to be called an unmarried mother. In “Leaving School – XI”, a piece of memoir-writing, she describes her “sense of sin” and “great lust to find out” that took her to London, where she worked as a secretary by day and wrote her strange, singular novels by night – her typewriter clattering away into the early hours.

A newspaper profile from 1965 describes her “marvellously cluttered” bed-sitting room in Notting Hill Gate. The walls are a pasted-up montage of torn pages from magazines and art postcards – painters, playwrights, French film stars. The shelves teem with paperbacks; there’s her typewriter, of course, and a collection of esoteric knick-knacks.

It’s clear that her sights are set far beyond the hot water bottle, gas ring and candlewick bedspread of this L-shaped room. Like other restless English writers before her, Quin embarked on a search for the spiritual antipodes of her homeland, which she depicts in her writing as buttoned-up, repressed and mildewed around the edges.

Quin was part of a remarkable coterie of innovative writers who emerged in Britain during the 1960s, including BS Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Alan Burns, Robert Nye and others. Her stories and fragments are murky, voyeuristic and formally off kilter, filled with sudden blazes of intensity, occult images and erotic artifice. Stylistically, they run the gamut from expressionist renditions that blur memory, perception and fantasy to Burroughsian cut-up and montage.

Certain preoccupations, though, emerge again and again: mingled voices, tensions between thinking and feeling, dysfunctional families and transgenerational disquiet, febrile and free-flowing desires that are always in the end thwarted, conversations that seem to say nothing whatsoever but somehow reveal everything.

The stories in The Unmapped Country, a new collection of Quin’s rare and unpublished writing that I edited, span the course of her writing career. The earliest, “B.B.’s Second Manifesto” and “Untitled”, were written around 1962, prior to the publication of her debut novel, the seaside noir Berg (1964). They were ghosted on behalf of her then lover, the New Zealand pop artist Billy Apple, and reflect the art movement’s abiding influence upon her. At the time, she worked as a secretary at the Royal College of Art, where she encountered the British pop art scene that was incubating there among artists such as David Hockney, Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Patrick Caulfield and others. Pop’s phantasmic vision of America and its techniques of subverting the styles and iconography of the mass media would come to preoccupy her later work and especially the short stories “Living in the Present” and “Tripticks”, the latter of which seeded her final published novel of the same name.

Quin parlayed the promise and warm reception of Berg into an extraordinary freewheeling existence, living, loving and writing her own picaresque. She wrote three more novels in the years that followed: Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972). Perpetually broke, she lived hand to mouth off her publisher’s advances, and the occasional Arts Council grant or university fellowship funded extended trips to Ireland, Greece, the United States, the Bahamas and Mexico.

In the press profiles of her that appeared at the time, one can almost detect the licking of journalists’ stiff upper lips when confronted by this “Miss Quin”, with her “shapely legs” and candid reflections upon her peripatetic lifestyle, unconventional relationships and experiments with drugs. In the US, she immersed herself in the alternative living scene and found a sort of home in exile among the American post-beat poets, forming relationships with two of them (Robert Creeley and Robert Sward) and driving across the mesa from New Mexico to attend the Berkeley Poetry Conference.

In her writing, as in her life, Quin is often drawn to experiences of difference, extremity and disorientation. The stories “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails”, “Eyes That Watch Behind the Wind” and “Ghostworm” place her protagonists in landscapes at once sensuous and brutal, confronting alienatingly unfamiliar cultures, or else tasked with the dangerous and delicious risks of transgressing social prohibitions. They seek, as she writes in “Ghostworm”, “EXPERIENCE in caps period”, to “live beyond” the confines of the self. But equally, despite (because of?) her ambivalence towards home, Quin is peculiarly attuned to the grotesque details, to what she calls the “eggy mouthcorners” of ordinary life. “A Double Room” and “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, especially, are redolent of greasy mackintoshes, of milk skin, of bare, swinging light bulbs, of chintz and clag.

Increasingly, though, towards the end of her life, Quin found herself having wandered too far off the map. She died young, swimming out to sea near Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973 when she was 37. She had been expected, later that year, to take up a place on the University of East Anglia’s prestigious creative writing course. Suffering frequent and devastating bouts of mental illness, she spent periods in psychiatric institutions and underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Her final novel, The Unmapped Country, which remained unfinished at the time of her death, draws upon these experiences for its trenchant critique of mental health care. Elsewhere, her writing explores the risks and seductions of going over the edge; this final work is about the horrors of “going sane”.

In The Unmapped Country, the protagonist Sandra criticises artists’ and writers’ “need for posterity”. “How much better,” she decides, “to create like the Navajo Indians, beginning at sunrise in the desert, a sand painting that would be rubbed out by sundown.” But although partial to the romance of ephemeral art, Quin clearly didn’t intend a similar fate for her own work. As a “cult” author, her influence is difficult to point to with certainty – though China Miéville and Deborah Levy have recently paid homage to her. That said, there’s a kinship between Quin and some of the most audacious writing of the 20th century and beyond.

Her work bridges the world of modernists such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and Anna Kavan with what came after. She would have been quite at home among the women avant-gardists of the 1980s and 1990s such as Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus. And there’s something distinctly Quin-like about the riskiness, the subversive joy in confronting the subterranean aspects of human experience present in many of the most interesting contemporary writers: Eimear McBride, Claire-Louise Bennett, Anakana Schofield, Sheila Heti, Deborah Levy, and others.

In letters from the mid-1960s to her publisher, Marion Boyars of Calder and Boyars – whose list at the time comprised some of the most cosmopolitan and provocative writing of the period – Quin mentions “writing short stories at a fantastic rate”. It’s clear that she was energised by turning her hand to the form: “The short story medium is something new, exciting,” she writes, comparing the “curved shape” of the short story to the “spiral” of the novel, enthusing about the “space for readers to explore”. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this fiction writer who called herself a poet, and whose work is so much concerned with moments, glances, shifting moods, scenes flickering in and out of view, should find herself comfortable here, in the closer, headier confines of short fiction.

The stories collected in The Unmapped Country for the first time distil Quin at her wildest and often her most virtuosic. And collectively they demonstrate, in rare and unexpected ways, an imagination committed to pushing British fiction into weirder, dirtier and more anarchic places. 

“The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments” by Ann Quin, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, is published by And Other Stories on 18 January

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief