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This seminar is a hybrid event, available to join in person or online via Zoom. 

Nonia Williams, ‘Life Writing, Death Writing: Ann Quin's 'That Same Sea'

Ann Quin’s autofictional novel Three seems to anticipate its author’s own death by drowning nearly ten years later. This resonance and apparent prolepsis is a fascinating aspect of the text. In Vagabond Fictions, however, Carole Sweeney reminds us to be cautious about assumed overlaps between writing and life in recuperative scholarly work on mid-century women writers, especially when it comes to writers such as Quin and Anna Kavan, who both died in dramatic circumstances. Like Claire-Louise Bennett, my reading of Three is drawn to Quin’s writing of the sea and the idea of swimming too far out, but aims to resist the narrowed interpretative lens that a focus on her death by drowning could produce. Instead, in this paper I aim to read between writing and life in ways that allow ambivalence to remain; an ambivalence that Quin's prose insists upon. I consider how Three disrupts the death drive’s narrative of inevitability and questions the possibility of a woman authoring her own death, as well as how Quin’s death and her wider writing of the sea might offer an enriching and complicating context for our reading of her work.

Nonia Williams is a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at UEA. Recent publications include: '(Re)turning to Quin: An Introduction’ (Women: A Cultural Review, 2022) and British Avant-Garde Fiction of the 1960s (EUP, 2019). Her 2023 book, The Precarious Writing of Ann Quin, thinks about precariousness as a way to describe the subject matter, forms and aesthetics of Quin's writing, as well as her unstable life and scattered archives.

Victoria Walker, “I was involved with the fate of the planet’: Anna Kavan’s Ice, the Anthropocene and Experimental Fictions’

In the past decade, there has been a resurgence of critical and popular interest in Anna Kavan’s writing, demonstrated by her increasing inclusion in studies of both late modernism and the post-war avant-garde, and in multiple new editions of her final novel, Ice (1967). A review of the novel describing it as ‘a haunting story of sexual assault and climate catastrophe, decades ahead of its time’ (New Yorker, 2017) argues a case for the significance of Kavan’s representation of an apocalyptic ice-age to contemporary readers. Drawing on Kavan’s thoughts on the ethical value of experiment expressed in her wartime journalism in Horizon, this paper will read her work in the context of mid-century debates around literary realism and experimentalism and consider how Ice anticipates the later concept of the Anthropocene.  Mindful of Thomas Davis’s caution that ‘transmissions about the Anthropocene from writers and artists during the last century who were working prior to its conceptualization in our century’ may ‘ultimately prove unsatisfactory’ (Davis, 2018), it will propose that beyond its representation of climatic change and planetary apocalypse, the experimental narrative strategies of Ice align it with the Anthropocene.

Victoria Walker has presented and published widely on Anna Kavan’s writing. She edited Machines in the Head: Collected Short Writing of Anna Kavan (Peter Owen, 2019; New York Review Books, 2020). Her recent book, Anna Kavan: Mid-Century Experimental Fiction (EUP, 2023), observes how Kavan’s fiction challenges perceived divisions between experimental and realist writing, late modernist and postwar literatures, and literary and popular genre, and reads it as indicative of trends of experimentalism in the mid-twentieth century.

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