The Comic Tragedy of a Narrator with No Sense of Self
Danielle Dutton Close-Reads Ann Quin's Berg
It’s hard to imagine a book that clashes comedy and tragedy quite so blatantly as Berg, Ann Quin’s 1964 reimagining of the Oedipal myth (read an excerpt here.) Rare enough is a book that begins by stating its intention—
A man named Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
—rarer still one that proceeds to do seemingly everything it can to avoid following the path its intention has laid. True, Quin’s novel teems with violence, but it’s violence offered as a substitute for a patricide that never quite takes place, and this substitute violence is almost entirely, even hysterically, absurd.
Take the scene in which Berg drops his father Nathaniel’s beloved pet bird, still in its cage, down several flights of stairs as his father looks on. On the face of it, this act is frankly cruel and violent; yet the bird was already dead when Berg dropped it, and he knew it was when he did. In fact, Berty the budgie had been previously starved and/or strangled by Nathaniel’s mistress, Judith, in retaliation for Nathaniel’s crime of accidentally letting out her cat, Sebastian, who was then killed, perhaps accidentally, by Berg, though no one knows Berg did it, and he didn’t know it was Judith’s cat when he did. So while Berg doesn’t set out with intentions to hurt Judith or her cat, he winds up killing the one and upsetting the other; and while he professes a desperate desire to murder his father, instead he drops a dead bird down some stairs. Throughout the novel, Berg’s violence is a joke (if not so funny for the cat), and moreover was set up as a joke from the beginning, an Oedipal one-liner with the sing-songy rhythm of a syllogism.
Rather Sad and Seedy
The effect of all this farcical violence standing in for the ultimate act of killing the father is to denature the Oedipal myth to the point of rendering it no longer tragic. Traditionally, of course, tragedy offered its audience an opportunity for catharsis by exploring suffering, activating our pity and fear, and thus what made a story or its characters tragic had to do in part with qualities of power, nobility, and passion, which lifted the story and its inhabitants above the everyday, rendering it and them larger-than-life, admirable, even terrifying. The characters in Berg, however, far from being powerful and ambitious, are confined to a kind of decentered quotidian world with all its banality, comedy, and petty happenstance; they are merely an unlikable group of ridiculous people in a sad, seedy, seaside town off-season.
Quin’s first deflationary gesture, then, is to place us in such mundane circumstances—a true bourgeois tragedy—even while setting up a fair amount of tragedy-aspiring desire, which Berg himself frequently considers in elevated language: “I, the son, have every justification, people will sympathize, might even be considered a hero.” In fact, throughout his ongoing interior monologue, Berg, much like the ever-tragic Hamlet, harangues himself for his hesitation or failure to act, for being full of desire rather than decision. But this state-of-suspension-prior-to-action is also where Berg chooses to dwell.
Continually rallying himself to the call of “supreme action,” and again “ACTION!”, yet he revels in constant deferment: “Action alone gives you away; what I think, what I may dream can cause no alarm, no fear either side.” While on the one hand he professes his desire to kill his father, sleep with his father’s mistress, and avenge his mother, Edith, as “in a Greek play,” ultimately taking “his father’s corpse back home to Edith—the trophy of his triumphant love for her!”, it is all in at least one sense nonsense, in that he remains throughout a bumbling coward, aspiring mostly to shelter and comfort. In other words, he is, despite his tragic aspirations, a figure of modern comedy in the Beckettian sense, where the comedy is that “tragedy” has lost its steam—which is also the tragedy.
The Death Scene
Eventually, the book’s preoccupation with heroes and action is brought to a preposterous climax (or nadir) with the “death” scene, which occurs almost exactly at the midpoint of the novel. What is particularly interesting about this long-awaited scene is that, for all intents and purposes, it fails to appear, an excellent example of action being subsumed in Quin’s formal and syntactical play—for if Quin denatures the mythic quest, it is not only through her treatment of dramatic content, but also through the stylistic ambiguities that envelop and even partially, and at times comically, obscure the action.Berg wasn’t teasing us by leaving out the important details of the murder; likely he was unsure of them himself.
So, at the end of one chapter, Berg takes his father into his room to kill him, and, at the outset of the next chapter, congratulates himself on having acted: “At last I can rest in peace amen”; “At last action has supplanted idea and imagery.” Meanwhile the reader waits to know what happened in the space between the chapters: “The action, last night’s scene,” Berg thinks, teasing us, it seems, “let it take on a gradual formation.” Yet “last night’s scene” never does take on much “formation.” In place of action, or even the retrospective recounting of that action, we get a confusion of Berg’s self-questioning analysis interrupting the third person narrator’s account:
there had been a gasp, yes I remember now, like gas escaping, afterwards—after I had let go, and the head fell back, the eyes, remember the eyes? Glass-staring, it had been those you couldn’t face, that you had to cover up. Fortunately no one any the wiser, at any rate not yet. They hadn’t followed, no one had noticed him coming up the stairs, not even Judith—yet hadn’t she been calling? How vague that seemed now…
This emphasis on impression over clarification, over plot, is characteristic of Quin’s style in Berg, and it’s this impressionistic style that allows Berg to dwell in indecision rather than action without the character or the book sliding into an oppressive tedium (or becoming merely ridiculous). That is, we come to understand that the action is in the narration at least as much as in what’s being narrated. It’s not a style we would often call “comic,” but a strange and hauntingly beautiful dance of idea and imagery that leaves the reader suspended alongside Berg.
Action and the World
As we wade through Berg’s many questions and considerations, the world—or a world—comes to us as if in glimpses, a Modernist effect made strange by how Vaudevillian those glimpses can be. We begin to understand that after unknowingly “murdering” a life-sized dummy (which his father had made and dressed in his own best suit), then wrapping the dummy in a rug and carrying it around town before leaving it at the train station, returning home, and secretly dressing himself in his father’s mistress’s clothes (to disguise himself post-crime) only to be confronted in Judith’s at by his own drunken father, who, mistaking him for Judith, pushes him onto the bed and runs his hands up Berg-as-Judith’s legs before quickly passing out on the floor, Berg, beginning to suspect he did not kill his father after all, must walk back through town to the train station to see what it was he left there wrapped up in the rug:
Crossing the park: a subterranean world surreptitiously risen; here a million star-fish pinned on the forelocks of a hundred unicorns driven by furious witches… Even as Berg made his way the wind shifted the snow between the trees, leaving divisions as in a map… At one point a light flashed though the semi-darkness, straight into his eyes, then out again, as though a photograph had been taken… He walked on, past the many shapes, and forms that rose and fell, or crawled towards him, pulled his hair, tugged his clothes, and in the distance the whispering of an orchestra without a conductor, playing no familiar piece, so it was hard to tell if it was the wind, or the distant throbbing of the sea, as against the more distinct tones of human beings.
It’s a quest for clarification in which nothing becomes clear. Instead, shapes and forms beset Berg, they “pull his hair, tug his clothes.” And how are we meant to read these shapes and forms? As vagrants? As lampposts or shadows or ghosts? Whatever they signify, it’s clear they happen to Berg, and are characteristic of Berg’s complicated relationship to the world. Berg wasn’t teasing us by leaving out the important details of the murder; likely he was unsure of them himself. At one point he even asks himself, “Is there still a world outside this area?” and he or the narrator replies, “Of course there is, you fool, you can’t expect to be a god and switch life on and off like an electric light. No it’s far simpler, you just allow it to drift on, if lucky enough you drift with it.” And so the murder plot, which constantly struggles toward the tangible, always seeming to want to return to the forefront, nevertheless continually loses ground to idea and imagery, to impression—yet this is not a case of the book itself losing its way.
Woolf & Pater
The immediate touchstone here is Virginia Woolf, who in her essay “Modern Fiction” writes: “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day… receives impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.” And it’s these impressions, coming at us from all sides, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” that form, Woolf argues, our experience of reality. In her own fiction, moving away from traditional/Victorian modes of omniscient narration, Woolf worked to capture this lively “shower.” The narration in Mrs Dalloway, for example, is a vast web of past and present, of joy, worry, errands, people entering or leaving rooms, even clocks striking, as when Clarissa stands on the street corner waiting to cross the street and Big Ben strikes:
There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh.
Woolf’s own aesthetics drew in part on the ideas of 19th-century art critic Walter Pater, who in 1877 argued that the world outside cannot be got at other than through a “thick wall of personality.” “The whole scope of observation,” he wrote, “is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind,” predicting both the ebullience of Clarissa Dalloway’s taking-it-all-in on a corner in Westminster, as well as that quality in Berg in which the exterior world, which we come to through Berg-as-filter, is itself as active as Berg, is a world in which shapes themselves might be imbued with malevolent or sympathetic agency for as long as Berg’s consciousness falls upon them.
In one of my favorite passages, Quin writes: “The furniture, knick-knacks, artificial flowers rearranged, moving between it all were plants, tall, thin, short, fat rubbery plants as though released suddenly from their pots”; then suddenly those same rubbery plants “twisted either side of [Berg], sticky, clinging, one bent smothering him until he thought he would collapse, another pulled him back to the couch; tendrils catching his legs, arms up, until somehow he managed breaking out, landing in the middle of the room on his hands and knees.” It is as if the flickering, unstable world of impression, Woolf’s “shower of atoms,” in Berg becomes a whirlpool into which we are sucked and tossed about. Pater writes of the world as a series of impressions, “of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world,” but for Berg this dream is a nightmare. Whereas Clarissa Dalloway seems somehow aware of her ability to create her own experience of life “every moment afresh,” Berg is unable to make anything of the impressions he receives, unable to deal with a house plant, much less life and death.
Nor Even Storytelling
In some strange way, then, Berg is no more or less real to himself (or to us) than the shapes in the park, the dummy, the rubbery plants. Quin takes Woolf’s notion of life-as-impression and transforms it into self-as-impression. Berg is forever confused, forever unsure, and the reader is left there with him, a little hazy as to the events that have or have not occurred. As critic Phillip Stevick writes (in his essay “Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin”), this confusion, this act of narration lacking a clearly defined story, stems from the fact that Quin operates from “a private conviction that the mind not only does not ordinarily tell stories—it doesn’t even try to.” Pater’s once-radical sense that we cannot truly see the world because we are trapped in our own personalities or minds is further complicated by a mind unable to make sense or story out of what it sees.
Even the Narrator
Which brings us back to Berg’s parodic nature—a parody of myth and in many ways a parody of narrative itself, for example in the ways in which Berg’s interior voice mingles with the narrator’s. It’s a mode of narration not quite like any I’ve seen before. It would be fair to say the book makes heavy use of free indirect discourse, yet it feels more confusing (or claustrophobic) than that.
Back along the Front, he passed a boy fishing. Any caught? Sullen response. Understandable: twenty years back, truant the only release from scheduled days, the caning afterwards a small forfeit to undergo; the jaunt through the woods, trout fishing, tadpole catching, and later on in the season, blackberry picking, scrubbed down shyly by Edith, who had a permanent blackberry patch—hidden. Watching through a crack in the door, were other women the same? Babies come out of the breasts. No, they don’t, I know, they cut’s ’em open near the navel, I know ’cos my sister’s got a scar there. Don’t be silly they comes where they piss. Confirmed, convinced, until a handy illustrated book, torn from cover to cover, followed by girl-in-the-town boastings, experiencing every position, until he felt sick, and aware of an urge to destroy something.
It’s often difficult to pinpoint where and when the stance of the narration, the point of view, shifts from without to within. It’s almost as if (that is, it can feel as if) the book was indeed written in first person, the narrator merely an extension of Berg’s own de-stabilizing self-talk, or as if the narrator is a part of, or trapped in, Berg’s own considerable limitations, rather than one we can turn to for clarity or truth.
No End at All
Berg essentially negates the possibility of truth-making (or myth-making) altogether, offers us an impossible world in which the hero cannot act, the facts are unknowable, the father cannot be killed, the mother has a double (Edith vs. Judith), and the hero seems rather to want to become his father’s lover (dressing up in her clothes, for example) than to love her himself (though, to further complicate matters, he desires her too). It is a comedy of non-arrival, a tragedy with no catharsis, a novel of impressions that ends with an ellipsis.
First appeared in Music & Literature, Issue 7. Used with permission of Music & Literature. Copyright © 2019 by Danielle Dutton.