‘…the question is not only what madness might mean, but what it does.’ – Nonia Williams on Ann Quin

Guest host Nonia Williams from the University of East Anglia will be leading our discussion of Ann Quin this week and has written about Quin’s work in an article entitled About/of madness: Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country for the journal Textual Practice.

Throughout her life, Quin experienced periods of mental breakdown and psychosis. Her final, unfinished novel, The Unmapped Country, set in a mental hospital, drew on these experiences. Previously a little known part of her oeuvre, the book has recently been brought back into print by And Other Stories.

Williams’ article discusses Quin’s use of the free indirect style to relate her protagonist’s actions and inner states and to imply comment on the possibility of writing about any lived experience of psychosis. The novel is explored in the context of a passage from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and the wider argument takes in such figures as R.D. Laing, Ken Kesey and Rene Magritte, as well as Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which we will be looking at in a few months. The essay offers some fascinating insights on madness and literature.

Foremost among Williams’ questions is the way that any narratorial voice is also itself a figure of spurious authority – ‘even a supposedly sympathetic third-person narrator is also always an agent of an apparently rational interpretative frame’. Quin, however, shows how irony, repetition and cliche can be used to create ‘maddening effects’:

‘…However – and this is my key claim – I propose that when we look more carefully, what is also at work in the extract is precisely a language of madness… the performance of the language here spills over and out of control – ‘skeins of coloured wool spilled onto the floor, dribbled yellow and red between flapping arms, someone croaked, another barked’. With this, the text unravels just as the knitting does, dramatising and infecting Quin’s writing process as it juxtaposes and interweaves sound and sense connections to create a knotty and tangled surface. Knitting is knotting with gaps; it produces a tangled order out of skeins of wool. This is an ideal metaphor for writing which spills over with meaning; indeed it had already been used as such by Quin herself in Three, as well as by one of Quin’s key influences, Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse. Elsewhere, knotting had been used as a metaphor for the patterning of madness and psychological binds: in Knots (1970), Laing claims that language is able to reveal such experiences – ones that cannot be articulated in the language of reason – through word patterns such as ‘knots, tangles, fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligigs, binds’. In these examples, as well as in Unmapped here, the images of knitting and knotting both invade the text and are the text – in Quin’s writing madness is generated at the point where the text, writing about itself, tangles up, knots and unravels.’

The full article, About/of madness: Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country, is available to staff and students of Cardiff University via LibrarySearch or, for everyone else, can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1080/0950236X.2018.1518924


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