Passages by Ann Quin
As one reads Ann Quin's Passages a kind of language serum is injected into the system is a potent as any intoxicant. The end result is akin to an experience of literary drunkenness. I simply stopped caring that I didn't know who Quin meant when she wrote “I” ,“She” or “He”. And, although I was perpetually confused as to what the emotional storms her narrators were experiencing were all about, I was immersed and too “drunk” on her language to care. The concrete, literal reference points stopped having meaning. I was content to simply luxuriate in Quin's emotional pool of words and allusions, of poetry.
Among other definitions of the same word, Merriam Webster Dictionary defines passage as a): “an usually brief portion of a written work or speech that is relevant to a point under discussion or noteworthy for content or style b): a phrase or short section of a musical composition or c): a detail of a work of art.” Many critics and reviewers I respected weren't as impressed by Quin's dazzling book as I was. In many reviews I have now read, (I was cheating, I'm ashamed to admit because, “drunk” on Quin's use of language, I had no idea what Quin was really talking about literally. I was getting anxious to find out precisely what the actual “story” was and so read reviews that would tell me) it could be that these critics might have overlooked Quin's deeper intentions. I think that by assuming Quin's title Passages was used to literally mean life's passages, (i.e. life's growth stages, the traveling of the self and flesh through actual time and change), much of the work was missed.
This novella is better grasped if one, instead, takes Passages to mean the written paragraphs, the written language and voices. Quin's novella is about writing and language in themselves. Nobody in this novel ever really grows or follows traditional character arcs of wants and needs and direction, nor actually “passes” through a life stage.
Passages also means passageways, labyrinthian tunnels. Passageways hidden behind castle walls that go on endlessly, but maybe never get anywhere. The dizzying effects of reading about characters stuck in these hidden “passageways” contribute to the mounting state of drunkenness in the reader, too.
Quin's novella was first published in 1969. For many of us who see much of “modernist” and authentic “post-modernist” work vanishing from the publishing marketplace, Quin's work is a Godsend -- exemplary, glowing with all we have missed. I saw, in Quin's work, the traditional modernist still at work. I was eventually able to piece together the actual events in the novella. A woman and man, as two lovers, travel in search for the woman's brother who has been arrested and suspected murdered by a fascistic government regime somewhere in the Mediterranean region.
The novella is divided into two different narrative voices. The first section is the woman's voice. Wildly imagistic, a kind of pouring out of the heart, this voice is psychically charged, but often opaque and impenetrable for the reader. The narrator switches between narrative persons: “He” to “I” to “She” alternately. The passages are melodic, rhapsodic and visually stirring, but don't give us much literal reality or grounding.
This is, then, the first round of drinks (if I can be permitted to continue my analogy!) at Quin's very full bar of literary liquor bottles and spirits. An example is when she writes in this first section:
...wooden fish, mobile, its shadow a crescent moon spinning. Black underwear, boots, whips. A leather strap strapped round each arm of the chair. A large melon broken open. Red seeds in heaps on the multicolored floor...
In direct counterpoint to the woman's dense, imagistic, emotional, and urgent language the second section of the novella is executed by her male lover -- a self-conscious, often self-indulgent, but emotionally remote “diarist”. This voice is astute, but cold and encyclopedic -- full of fascinating, but wearing academic allusions to various myths and archetypes. He is also overwhelmed by fears of being engulfed by his lover's alternate chaos and “madness”. His counterpoint of Apollonian logic and sobriety resists the woman's Dionysian sense of abandon in the first narrative. This second section and voice is rational and dry, yet no less engrossing and engaging than the woman's. This begs the question: wasn't Ann Quin really trying to write a portrait of love and violence in male and female counter-voices to showing us how the gulf and fears of the “other” between genders alone contributes to the chaos in the world ? Wasn't she, as Woolf did in The Waves, exploring the porous boundaries of personality, how characters (like real people) absorb each other, how they struggle to differentiate from one another?
Perhaps Ann Quin, like earlier modernists, wanted to explore, through language and voice, the interchangeable and permeable nature of boundaries between her characters, the polarities “gender” imposes on intimacy and love itself insofar as it dissolves clarity about who we are and what we feel. Here, presented in two separate sections are two people who are both stagnant, who can't even figure out themselves or what their love or lack of love and feeling for each other is all about. They merge into another other at the same time they threaten each other's stability and emotional lives.
Writing about a female in the first section, a male in the second, Quin also shows us a woman and man searching out the female and male counterparts of themselves. Further, it isn't even clear who the woman means as her “lover”. Was the male she was seeking her lover or her brother? Or as the diarist in the book at last points out:
Can any one of these, according to whim/projection. What is it/shall it be for today? lover, husband, brother, father guardian, prophet, mystic writer, addict, demigod...
An act of being erotically whipped is repeated thematically and held in like a whisper throughout the novella, in both sections. And as the novel nears its finish, the images of “whipping,” of submission are repeated, in syncopation with the passages about the military torture and execution of state subversives, among whom the woman narrator's brother might be, arrested and detained and subjected to state sadism. The acts of cruelty, an immersion in sadistic action, alternate with the removed, remote, and highly intellectualized passages of the woman's male lover who continues to make parallel texts in his diary entries and ably emotionally escapes into ideological rhetoric and musings. But, as pain and pleasure are so much a part of the dynamic Quin is navigating novelistically, the reader, too, begins to feel a bit “tortured, even ”whipped” by her writing.
Quin is both tender cruel to us, part of undeniable intoxicating pleasure one gets from her work is that push and pull. All at the same time, we are bewitched linguistically, with her modernist's toolbox of emotive and sensual charges. The self creating and reinventing its “self” through literature draws up a very different contract with the audience. This is a tradition of beauty and emotional depth, if not a tradition of comfort for the reader who can not rely on known truths and logics as they enter the writer's unique, idiosyncratic world.
As I've said, much of Quin's novella reminded me of Virginia Woolf's undulating wave imagery in The Waves. And how Woolf herself had challenged dogmatic narrative structures by substituting for a linear narrative arcs, “waves” of personalities and merging boundaries between them; characters undifferentiated from one another, likened to the sea's formation and reformation of rising swells and crests. Perhaps reading Quin warmed my heart because I miss this in today's writing: the power of Passages in themselves, prose paragraphs full of the lyrical and raw human dreams, fears, and feelings; in short -- a self-contained, self-defined, language-created universe.
From a collection of essays entitled: Framed by Language: Elfriede Jelinek, edited by Jorun B. Johns and Katherine Arens there is an essay, Jelinek and Post-Modernism by Allyson Fiddler. In this essay, Mike Featherstone's lucid definition of modernism is quoted. Loosely re-quoted here, Featherstone says: “The modernist esthetic is in some way organically linked to a concept of a unique personality and private identity, a unique vision of the world and to forge its own unmistakable style”. It doesn't -- as Featherstone suggests much of contemporary work does -- “contribute to the celebration the surface depthlessness of the culture” or to the ”effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life” but retains a belief in the “subjectivity” of the author over a dissolution of such subjectivity for an assumed objectivity.
No other writer I have encountered recently exemplifies this more than Ann Quin. Reading her is being injected with something intoxicating. And this “something” appeases one's longing for a genuine modernist writer whose work can once again be brought to the lips , guzzled down and splashed through the nervous system like a fine, aged single-malt whisky.