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Darkly funny Oedipal tale

The opening scene of the brilliant Berg by Ann Quin takes us to a post-war seaside boarding house, where Alistair Berg, hair-restorer salesman and furtive masturbator, lies uneasy in his bed. In the flimsily-partitioned room next door, Berg’s father resides with his flirtatious mistress, unaware of his son’s presence. A ‘scoundrel of the first order,’ the old man deserted Berg in babyhood, and now his vengeful son has come to kill him. In Quin’s 1964 absurdist cult classic, we follow Berg as his tendency towards vacillation causes his master plan to unravel, in the face of a string of farcical events and unhinged decisions.

Tracking his errant father to the seaside, Berg has checked into the boarding house with his  travelling salesman’s suitcase of hair restoring lotions and wigs, and a pile of letters from his mother, Edith. Although physically absent from the story, her presence remains large throughout, her words a recurring voice in Berg’s head.

‘…your father said he was popping down to the local and never came back. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I found bits of jewellery missing, my fur coat.’

Berg’s acute sense of being a fatherless son is compounded by fragmented memories of his childhood, some a source of profound shame. Peace will come only once his father is dead and buried, leaving Berg finally in the driving seat of his own life, or so he believes.

Their meeting is at once banal and momentous. His father swaying drunkenly in the street, querying whether Berg is the new chap from Room 18. This is the moment, Berg thinks, to take him down, smash his brain, maybe smother him.

A moment’s hesitation finds him playing the considerate neighbour instead. Ushering Berg Senior safely inside, he leaves him boozily comatose, and seizes the opportunity to introduce himself to ‘the mistress’. Judith is her name, and their meeting inspires her to remove her hairnet and offer him a nightcap. She’s a woman of the world and it occurs to Berg that a dash of philandering may make for sweeter revenge than murder.

Ann Quin was part of a circle of avant-garde writers in the 1960’s, her stream of consciousness style a reaction to the fashionable kitchen-sink dramas of the day. This is shown to tremendous effect in Berg’s interior monologue, as his mind skitters between thoughts, memories and intentions. His revenge plot will be derailed by some anarchic and darkly amusing mishaps, including a ventriloquist’s dummy, two deceased pets, more than one case of mistaken identity, and a very post-war kind of cross-dressing, in praise of nylon stockings.

Precise with detail, Quin’s boarding house is permeated with the aroma of boiled vegetables and semi-warmed by ‘the blue orange fangs’ of inadequate gas fires. Vivid too are the women. The dried powder on Judith’s cheeks, chipped fake pearls, ‘her scarlet mouth that yawned and yawned wider, nearer.’ As for poor martyred Edith, Berg fantasises about triumphantly presenting her with his father’s corpse. A trophy, ‘in a Greek play they’d have thought nothing of it.’

An Oedipal farce with a sad heart, Berg deserves to be rediscovered by a modern audience.

If you like this, see Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett.

Berg by Ann Quin is published by And Other Stories, 160 pages.

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