Often associated with the likes of B.S. Johnson, Ann Quin is allowed to occupy to company of some very illustrious writers, but she is seldom mentioned as a genuinely innovative writer in her own right. I would argue that Quin's talent was enormous and that if allowed, her star would shine every bit as brightly as the brilliant Johnson - perhaps she could do with a revelatory biography to revive her among the literary world. But I digress. Three is a major book by a major writer who is all too easily forgotten.
Three is an awkward number and Quin conveys the strangeness of it throughout the novel. The focus of everything is the relationship between Leonard and Ruth, an almost stereotypical middle-class couple and S, a young woman who had lived with them (in an ambiguous arrangement which is never entirely clarified to the reader). S has apparently committed suicide, but her spectral presence continue to haunt Leonard and Ruth as their own relationship becomes increasingly complicated by the traces of S. There is an inherent murkiness to the novel that prevents us from ever truly understanding what has happened, which gives the reader an immediate challenge. Echoing like-minded contemporaries like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Christa Wolf, Quin gives a restricted view of the novel's 'action' which largely unfolds through documents - mainly recordings and diaries of S - and the memories and impressions of Leonard and Ruth. It is very hard to truly express the power of Quin's writing in a short review, but reading her work really does feel like entering an intense psychological world which belongs to somebody else. Naturally, this is a disorienting experience, but Quin's writing allows aesthetic rewards at every level. There is something very poetic and semiotic about the work, particularly when it slips into S' perspective; Quin's work is at its strongest when it moves beyond the 'objectivity' and 'sense' that may be expected of the novel. By eschewing traditional narrative ideas, her writing can access areas of thought which cannot be reached by realist writing. Poetic, psychological and emotionally wrought, Three is a very under-rated novel which forms one of the greatest achievements in post-war British literature.
A bickering middle-aged bourgeois couple go through the belongings of their lodger, a young woman, who has apparently committed suicide. They listen to her tapes and read her diaries, most of which consist of her observations of their lives. Aspects of the psycho-sexual relations between the three characters emerge from different standpoints. In typical 1960s style Ann Quin’s four novels get progressively more experimental. The first “Berg” is still in conventional modernist territory, with overwrought mythical subtexts & symbolism, while her third & fourth novels got increasingly lost in formal “postmodern” experimentation. But in her second book, “Three” she gets it just about right. Maybe there’s still some Pinter/Beckett-type influence, but Quin definitely finds an original voice. The narrative switches back and forth between characters & the tapes/diaries, thus different perspectives & versions of episodes accumulate, going back & forth in time. As with her friend/rival B.S.Johnson, Quin’s idiosyncrasy lies in combining these “nouveau roman” techniques with a very English tragi-comedy of social manners (& as with Johnson there also is an explicit sense of suicidal hysteria informing the writing). However Quin’s writing has a highly charged visionary, sensual & lyrical quality not found in Johnson. If Johnson was trying to capture reality, Quin was trying to capture the reality of fantasy. All these elements make “Three” an uneven but fascinating and moving novel, which has ceased to be a period piece and once again come to life. Note: These excellent (American) Dalkey Archive reprints of Quin’s novels are good quality, well-produced editions.