I recognize some of my own influences in all of Quin’s writing. Her literary taste and aesthetic enthusiasms were European—Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute—and I’m guessing she must have read Freud and R. D. Laing.
I know how lonely she must have felt in Britain at the time she was writing. No wonder she scarpered as soon as her debut novel Berg (1964) had earned her a ticket to travel to Europe and America. I know she understood she was on to something new and that she took herself seriously, in the right way; she had a serious sense of her literary purpose.
Quin had worked as a short-hand typist for a while, just like my own clever, book-loving mother. Both women were born in the 1930s, and again, like my mother, Quin (apparently) applied to enter University as a “mature student.” It was hard for a working-class woman to get herself an education. Even Virginia Woolf found it a struggle to achieve a formal education, though her father had a well-stocked personal library. Presumably Quin made use of public libraries—and she would have read everything that John Calder, her heroic publisher, might have slipped her way.
Quin was reaching for something that was hard to pull off in each of her four published novels—the effort and exhilaration of that reach must have sustained her when life was tough. It is not vulgar to comprehend that she was ambitious for her work. Obviously, she put in the hours to design composition and cadence, to find a conceptual scheme to hold her ideas, to explore new possibilities for satire, shifts of viewpoint and voice; that’s what writers are supposed to do.
It would be progress if we could stop the rhapsodizing of Ann Quin and just read her books without having to defend them. It’s hard not to defend them, though. The tweedy male literary world of her generation was not exactly waiting to garland her contribution to literary culture. Few critics gave her books the respect of a close reading. It was as if Quin was culturally forbidden to actually possess a coherent literary purpose.
The word “experimental” kept her nicely in her place. All the same, I understand that being described as an “experimental writer” was more dignifying for a woman than some of the rancid versions of femininity available to her.
When I gaze at photographs by the artist Francesca Woodman (I could call them self-portraits), I can see that Woodman is her own subject, yet she is embodying many other subjects and one of them is representation. Quin was, in part, playing the same game in her writing. As it happens, I believe that if she had managed to swim back to the cold pebbles on Brighton beach that day she drowned, she would have gone on to write books that were nearer to herself, more emotional (why not?), less strained, perhaps less predictable in their avant-garde behavior. I want to know more about what it takes to want to swim home and I know Quin could have told me.
Deborah Levy is the author of six novels, including Swimming Home, Beautiful Mutants, and Swallowing Geography. Her latest novel, Hot Milk, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Banner image from "Berg," an art installation based on Quin's debut novel.