Many of us love maps, and many of us love to travel. Despite a superficial kinship, however, maps and travel are radically unalike affairs. While the former offer up terrains along with the illusion that we can read and understand them, the latter confronts us with all the things we don’t know and will never know about others and ourselves. The writings of English novelist Ann Quin hold much of travel’s power to disorient. As I read The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, I felt as cut off as I might on a first night in a busy new city. For throughout these fourteen pieces, Quin tears down the cartographic veil to reveal a human landscape that is both homogenous and fragmented, at once minute and vast. The resulting prose does force some introspection, and yet because it has none of the qualities of any particular place, it lacks the restorative potential of travel, leaving us without cartography, without geography and without world.
Jennifer Hodgson collects and introduces these stories and fragments, including several pieces that have never been published before, among them the eponymous fragment of a novel draft, which would have been Quin’s fifth. Quin is best known for her 1964 debut novel, Berg, a deft repurposing of the thriller genre that starts with this catchy elliptical phrase: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…” It continues in this vein, and it “cuts through the superfluous like acid,” as Lee Rourke wrote a decade ago in a piece for The Guardian entitled “Who cares about Ann Quin?”
Indeed, as Rourke’s title suggests, Quin’s subsequent novels, Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972) made less of a splash than Berg had. Though still possessed of a plot, Three started to stray from narrative form, revolving around the suicide by drowning of a third wheel and the attempt by the married couple she has left behind to assess the mysteriousness—or lack thereof—in this woman’s disappearance from their lives. Passages is a collage of dreams, memories and ruminations from alternating perspectives in what Kirkus refers to as “unidentified, variously exotic foreign climes (references to ‘almond trees’ and ‘dunes’ are intriguing but unspecific)”. And Tripticks is the madcap adventure of a madman, where not only place and self are undermined, but also time, leaving the reader very little to hold onto. Since her own unresolvable death by drowning at the age of only 37, Quin’s reputation has also fallen into a state of only intermittently attenuated disrepair.
But The Unmapped Country may be part of a larger resurgence. Hodgson’s curation shapes these short stories and autobiographical sketches and the unfinished Unmapped Country itself into a chronicle of someone slowly running out of steam. What is feisty, even cocky at the start will fade into exhaustion; experiments seem to yield few findings, and the attempt to understand what underlies the daily misunderstandings of modern life is frustrated and stops short in an incomprehension that comes to feel absolute.
Although mostly fiction, the collection is bracketed by two snippets of memoir, the first called “Leaving School—XI.” In it we read: “I went to see a psychiatrist, going more from curiosity, and spent a few hours entertaining the horrified lady. I decided to climb back out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.” The line between sanity and insanity is one Quin struggles to walk throughout, despite the line’s fraying and the perpetual shifting of the limits of the realms on either side. But the glib tone here comes undone in the collection’s final text, “One Day in the Life of a Writer,” which concludes with this paragraph:
Back home and nice tea dear. Start decorating and spend most of the time wiping off emulsion drops from parquet flooring, burn hole in carpet from cigarette, burn hole in table lampshade. Give up in despair and foul temper. Back to writing the tone is all wrong. I’m no longer capable of writing that’s why the Arts Council—they know you know. Watch tele. Watch myself watching and being watched by Mother in between her sleep, and her hear shudder as an old woman comes on. And so to bed.
This text is undated, previously unpublished; to end with it is almost too fitting, for it clarifies a trajectory that must have been murkier. Take, for example, Quin’s relationship to curiosity. Although she admits to having at least a little of it in the passage from “Leaving School” cited above, she quickly eradicates it from her writing, seeming to equate it later with sadism, rather than empathy. From the swirling, overwhelming conversation between a woman and her lover’s ashes in a hotel room abroad that forms the first half of “Ghostworm”:
If salt is put on a snail it is annihilated. Did you do that? Yes I can see you as a kid deliberately slowly pouring salt over the poor creature. Curiosity. That carried you through a lot.
As the woman struggles to rest with increasing desperation, she begs the voice of the lover to hush, but it responds: “No curiosity makes me stay.”
A similar condemnation pervades The Unmapped Country. Instantly nightmarish, the novel begins in a psychiatric ward:
Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man. She looked at the thin hair he had carefully placed over his yellow husk. Thin lips, almost no lips. Thick hands, bunches of spiders on his knuckles. He wrote or doodled, leaning forward, back.
“I don’t like your madness.”
“What do you mean by that, Sandra?”
Pen poised, ready to stab yet another record. She could not see his eyes, the light bounced, spiraled in his spectacles. Black tentacles crept from his nostrils. In the distance a woman screamed.
Perhaps it is this aversion to prying that provokes the patient’s further retreat into her own head; perhaps this is also why Quin’s prose stays vague, hovering over surfaces as though delving may cause too much pain. As Deborah Levy writes, “I believe that if she had managed to swim back to the cold pebbles on Brighton beach the 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 swim home and I know Quin could have told me.”
Quin is best at frenzy, great when she embraces the nonsense of sex, as in the thrilling “Triptick,” the story that would become her fourth novel:
Ah that bed, and others larger, smaller, narrow, wide around which we played our games. I the dwarf, she the Queen. She my sister. I was the President. She a slave
And myself a Pimp
We arrived at a point when even words were unnecessary. A record collection when each piece of music fulfilled the appropriate background. Head full of musical organs. Feet scaled the walls, the strips of light placed between the toes. Her ears were sitars blown by my carved mouth. Sitting in the shower spinning fantasies on to her face, plucking at myself, the feathers of geese and quail from thigh to neck. Upsidedown.
Here and elsewhere she succeeds in conveying the senselessness of found significance, like in Polish-Argentine author Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 Cosmos, written in a similar spirit. Conventions conceal, and in luring us around the hairpin turns of paths like interpretation, people’s codified ways of doing things in society will likely lead us terribly astray. What is real is the body, with its unmediated suffering and unmitigatable desires. In “Ghostworm”:
No. Not that. She moved over the side of the bed. On her belly, legs together. Spread. Over his shoulders. His tongue rotated fast in her. Make me big again. In the saying of it he was there.
Quin, so fond of triangles, triangulates sex, death and hypocrisy to powerful effect. Her more direct attacks on niceties and custom, on the other hand, fall short. Men tend to be deplorable; when they are dependable, they get boring and are soon dispensed with. Women are either competition or idiots. Every human institution—family, church, medicine, society at large, even language—is mere façade, and the ground on which these sham fronts rest is not ground, but rather water, eager to swallow up a world it can so easily seduce with its rhythm.
I do hope Hodgson’s collection sparks reflection on the histories of feminism and gender and literature and literary experiments and how these diverge and intersect. In her introduction, she calls Quin’s work a connector between Virginia Woolf, Anna Kavan and Deborah Levy and Sheila Heti. Whether Quin indeed fulfills this function or instead acts as a break in the link between modernism and now, Hodgson’s passion is enticing and certainly adds to Quin’s intrigue, while also giving us the (albeit fleeting) comfort of a map-like outline of her life and work.
“I lived in a dream world, and created dreams out of everyday situations until nothing ever seemed what it appeared to be,” Quin tells us in that first essay, “Leaving School.” It is a striking sentence, one that flummoxes our expectations of things no longer being what they once appeared. Instead, between the promise of the start of this collection and the lament at its conclusion, Quin is all reflective surfaces, and when I finished reading I found myself still yearning to reconnect with somebody or something, still waiting to wake up and set out again, into that busy new city, where I might make the modest discoveries every self-respecting traveler holds out hope to take home.
Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, Tin House, MacDowell, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa and is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review.