I am currently reading Berg by Ann Quin, a famous British experimental writer, and having a hard time understanding some of her prose. Although I realise that it is written in a vague, stream-of-consciousness style, using poetic/abstract language, I’m unclear about certain bits as to whether they are supposed to be taken literally, or are metaphors that I’m simply missing. Either way, their meaning evades me.

Here are some examples (I’ll try to provide as much context as possible):

Time meaningless for you exploring the mysterious regions of mountains, lakes, jungles within a blanket territory. I pull my eye through a keyhole, on a string the days are declared; thoughts are switchbacks uncontrolled.

I’m sure the surreal image of pulling one’s eye through a keyhole is conjured up for some poetic/semantic effect (unless it’s a phraseologism I’m not aware of), but I’m missing what it is, same for the days on a string.

Here’s another example from the beginning of the book, describing the main character and setting:

...Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dance hall opposite.

English is not my first language, but generally I don’t have any trouble comprehending literary texts, even the more nuanced bits. It is my first encounter with experimental literature however, so any advice would help.

1 Answer 1


This is difficult writing, even for native English speakers, and not all of it is meant to be decoded:

Quin […] attempts ‘to convey the artificiality and estrangement of the conditions of modern life’. That impression of estrangement is achieved via a narrative that blurs the distinctions between fantasy and reality, irrationality and rationality, past and present, moving in and out of Berg’s twisted consciousness and oscillating between third and second person and a kind of free indirect narration, in a jumble of images and thoughts that sometimes fails to cohere into sense.

Kaye Mitchell (2017). ‘Post-War Fiction: Realism and Experimentation’. In Clare Hanson and Susan Watkins, eds. The History of British Women’s Writing, 1945–1975, vol. 9, p. 31.

But I think that in the examples in the post we can get some poetic sense out. The phrase ‘strung between heart and clock’ suggests that Berg is torn between the internal demands of his heart (his wish to daydream about the dancers in the hall opposite) and the external demands of the clock (his need to kill his father before he has to leave the boarding house).

The other example starts by alluding to the phrase ‘looking at life though a keyhole’, that is, having the feeling of being an observer but not a participant in one’s own life. Then ‘on a string the days are declared; thoughts are switchbacks uncontrolled’ contrasts the way that days follow each other one by one, like beads on a string, but recollection jumps from one event to another without sequence. This introduces a page of reminiscence in which Berg’s memories skip about in time.

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