‘A certain smoothness in day to day living. But never laughter’ – Josh Powell on Ann Quin

Josh Powell from Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy will be joining us to discuss Ann Quin’s Passages. Writing about Quin for the journal Textual Practice, Powell notes her interest in psychoanalytic theories, particularly the object relations theory of Melanie Klein. 

The article, entitled Ann Quin, object relations, and the (in)attentive reader, goes on to explore how object relations theory, which posits a schizoid position of libidinal pursuit and withdrawal, can be used to illuminate Quin’s characterisation. He presents a compelling analysis of how the Berg and Three feature characters who exhibit schizoid behaviour and the destructive, ultimately self-destructive ways that this manifests.

Powell’s article also comments on the way that Quin’s use of formal experimentation, which was dismissed entirely by certain early critics of her work, has often acted as a kind of stumbling block for the reader – to enter her world or to parse her fiction demands an act of effort and attentiveness that more traditional novels don’t require. In reading Quin’s work, he suggests, the reader risks sharing the inattentive mental state of her subjects:

‘…In ‘One Day in the Life of a Writer’, a short (seemingly autobiographical) text written towards the end of her life, Ann Quin recounts her reading of object-relations psychoanalysis. Soon after waking up on the day in question, the writer retreats into the ‘ex-tenant’s room’ and begins looking over the notes she has taken from ‘Harry Guntrip’s book on Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations, and the Self’. A transcription of the notes follows directly: ‘Patients become inaccessible emotionally, when the patient seems to be bodily present but mentally absent’. This content is undoubtedly intriguing for those familiar with the still under-investigated work and life of Quin. In view of the psychiatric treatment Quin received during her life (not to mention the circumstances surrounding her death), it is tempting to identify the writer with the patients that are described by Guntrip. It should be pointed out, however, that the Guntrip book is not being used for therapeutic purposes in this instance. Rather, the notes from the psychological text are primarily being used as a means to the end of writing. Quin has gone into the room to write and has turned to the notes upon confronting the ‘blank paper in the typewriter’. She is using psychological theory as a stimulant for her own creative work. Quin’s tendency to draw on the history of psychology will be obvious to anyone familiar with works such as the 1972 novel Tripticks, with its references to psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Wilhelm Reich. But the transcription in ‘One Day in the Life of a Writer’ illuminates a connection between Quin’s writerly interests and the psychoanalytic approaches that were being theorised during her lifetime. It allows us to see the degree to which Quin’s work shares with that of Guntrip, and by extension other analysts such as Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion, a concern with the experience of being ‘bodily present but mentally absent’. 

A sense of mental or emotional absence arises again and again in Quin’s fiction. Quin’s characters are able to perceive and play a part in the world that is immediately around them without seeming wholly present to it. This can be seen in the eponymous protagonist of Quin’s first novel, Berg (1964), who converses with others while all the time existing in what Philip Stevick terms a ‘mode of sullen introspection’ in which the mind is occupied by ‘scenarios of revenge and vindication’. It is also evident in the habitual existence of Leonard and Ruth in Quin’s 1969 novel Three where, as Ruth notes in her journal, there is ‘a certain smoothness in day to day living. But never laughter’. And it is perhaps most fully addressed by the male protagonist of Passages (1969) who reflects that while lying in bed: 

I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. 

In all cases, the characters are seen to exist in a space without being wholly there. When they are acting in the world, their attention frequently turns to what they are not doing and there is an incapacity to react to the external world emotionally.’

The full article, Ann Quin, object relations, and the (in)attentive reader, is available to staff and students of Cardiff University via LibrarySearch or, for everyone else, can be found here:

Ann Quin, object relations, and the (in)attentive reader

https://doi.org/10.1080/0950236X.2020.1729851

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