Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Mysterious Anna Kavan

I’ve been reading Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece. It’s a stunning collection, each story stranger and more intense than the last.

Anna Kavan is a new discovery for me. A mysterious reference on The Sharp Side piqued my curiosity and the bit of sleuthing that I did in response turned up her name. It’s entirely appropriate that I should have come to her this way given that she was very much a figure of mystery. She was born Helen Woods in 1901. Her first six books, two of which had a character named “Anna Kavan” at their centre, were published between 1929 & 1937 under her married name, Helen Ferguson. In 1940, after her second marriage failed, she changed her name to “Anna Kavan” and, in the words of her biographer: “she became someone else.”

Asylum Piece was the first of her books to be published under her new name and, although it’s the first that I’ve read, I gather that it represents a marked departure in style and substance from the ones that went before. The Helen Ferguson novels are generally described as “conventional” and Asylum Piece is most assuredly not conventional. It’s described on the flyleaf as “a study of various aspects of insanity” and it is popularly regarded as an autobiographical work based on a severe breakdown that Kavan suffered which led to a lengthy stay in a Swiss sanatorium. I usually object to assumptions of autobiography in relation to a work of fiction, but with an author who has recreated herself under the name of a character from one of her own novels, the line between the author and the work becomes rather difficult to draw. The stories in Asylum Piece are very dark tales, replete with vivid and disturbing images and laced with paranoia. But there’s an extraordinary clarity about them that makes them oddly uplifting all the same. Anais Nin summed up the book beautifully as one “in which the nonrational human being caught in a web of unreality still struggles to maintain a dialogue with those who cannot understand him.”

Here’s an excerpt from a story titled “A Changed Situation:”

When I first came to live here it was an entirely new house -- that is to say, it had certainly not been standing for more than ten or fifteen years. Now, at least half of it must have been built many centuries ago. It is the old part which has grown up during my occupation that I fear and distrust.

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hand; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

I’m adding one more item to my list of aspirations for 2006. I intend to read everything I can find by or about Anna Kavan. I may also read the novels by Helen Ferguson just to see if they strike me as books written by an altogether different writer.


Anonymous said...

This sounds really cool, Kate. I think I'm going to see if I can find some Anna Kavan here too.

RickyGrove said...

I thought her name sounded familiar. I've got a copy of her book "Ice" on my bookshelf. Supposed to be an interesting and off-beat science fiction novel. Thanks for reminding me about here. There seems to be quite a few of her books available at

Seoman said...

I've only just discovered Anna Kavan on a bookshelf in a nearby bookshop. You're tempting me to go out and buy. Great blog by the way!

R J Keefe said...

What an extraordinary conceit - the house getting older, much older, while she inhabits it.