June/July/Aug 2007

Asylum Seeker

A new biography charts Anna Kavan’s bouts with psychosis and drugs

Geoff Nicholson


On March 23, 1966, the publisher Peter Owen sent a letter to Anna Kavan, not quite rejecting, though by no means accepting, her manuscript The Cold World. He also sent along a reader’s report that described Kavan’s writing, pretty correctly it seems to me, as a cross between Kafka and The Avengers. Kavan immediately wrote back, with some spirit and what on paper, anyway, looks like good humor, saying, “This expresses quite accurately the effect I was aiming at. Considering Kafka’s reputation and the success of The Avengers, I can’t think why you don’t want the book as it is!”

This anecdote appears in D. A. Callard’s 1992 biography The Case of Anna Kavan, published by Peter Owen; it does not appear in A Stranger on Earth: The Life and Work of Anna Kavan, issued by the same firm. Jeremy Reed omits it, I suspect, because it suggests that Kavan really wasn’t such a stranger on earth after all. According to Callard, she not only knew who the Avengers were but also was a fan of Doctor Who. She ran a small company that renovated properties. She went to the London theater and drank in a notoriously festive West End gay pub called the Salisbury. Science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss found her “friendly and welcoming.” Admittedly, these ordinary facts of life sit uneasily with much of the rest of Kavan’s story. She is one of those people blessed and cursed with a remarkable life that threatens to overwhelm her remarkable writing.

That life was undoubtedly tough. Her wealthy British parents were cold and largely absent. Her father died, possibly committing suicide, when she was fourteen. She loathed her mother but could never be independent of her, least of all financially. She had two bad marriages, the first in 1920 to Donald Ferguson, a man twelve years her senior, who worked as an engineer on the Burmese railways. He may have been her mother’s ex-lover, and there’s some suggestion that marital rape occurred. They lived unhappily for a while in Burma and produced a son who was killed in World War II. The second marriage, perhaps only a common-law version, to a drunken would-be painter called Stuart Edmonds, was predictably brief. There were bouts of depression, nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts, periods of mental illness, and genteel incarceration.

Most surprisingly, given the era and Kavan’s social class, there were also four decades of heroin addiction. She apparently developed the habit in the south of France in the mid-’20s, while hanging out with racecar drivers. She endured regular, fairly halfhearted attempts at detoxification. When she was found dead, in 1968, at home, with a syringe in her arm, the Scotland Yard Drug Squad said there was enough heroin in her flat “to kill the whole street.”

Click to enlarge

Anna Kavan’s illustration for the short story “A Visit,” from Julia and the Bazooka, and Other Stories.

Anna Kavan was the pseudonym of a woman born Helen Emily Woods in 1901. Upon marrying, she became Helen Ferguson, a name she wrote under long after the marriage ended. Between 1929 and 1937, six Ferguson novels appeared. Callard describes Goose Cross (1936) thus: “It is meticulously plotted and has affinities with John Cowper Powys in the way that landscape and history are seen to affect the present.” Here’s that book described by new biographer Reed: “Goose Cross aligns landscape and history with the present, making it an early precursor of psychogeography, as well as an ethno-fantasy novel that shared affinities with John Cowper Powys in bringing the myth of place alive through imaginary re-creation of the potency of archetypal symbols.” Oh dear.

Asylum Piece, and Other Stories, the first book by Anna Kavan, was published in 1940. But Anna Kavan wasn’t just a pen name. It was also the name that the former Helen Woods/Ferguson/Edmonds would subsequently use in her daily life, in addition to her writing, and the name of a character in the Ferguson novel Let Me Alone (1930). She not only changed her name but radically changed the way she wrote. Ferguson was the conventional novelist, Kavan the thoroughgoing avant-gardist, even if at times they drew on much the same autobiographical material. Asylum Piece contains twenty-one slices of prose, very few of which constitute stories in the ordinary sense. Some are two- or three-page fragments. Eight of them take place in a shadowy establishment that is, in fact, referred to as a clinic rather than as an asylum. Quite why the inmates are there is left ambiguous. Certainly they’re suffering, but there’s very little sense that those in the outside world are suffering any less.

Asylum Piece is sui generis. There are echoes of early Beckett, and one is reminded of Last Year at Marienbad, although that movie wasn’t made until twenty-one years later. The prose owes much to Kafka, though some of this seems a bit facile: Pieces have opening lines such as “Somewhere in the world I have an implacable enemy” or “It is three days since I received the official notification of my sentence.” Yet the best of the stories, such as “Birthmark,” are genuinely unsettling and leave a residue of unresolved and unresolvable mystery.

The cover of the current paperback of Asylum Piece shows what might be a stock photograph of a creepy, bald German doctor. In fact, it’s a photograph of Karl Theodor Bluth, an actual creepy, bald German doctor, who first treated Kavan in a London psychiatric ward in 1943, five years after she changed her name. According to Reed, Bluth saw himself and Anna as “two members of a future post-human species—two mutants under the influence of the cosmic ray.” The biographer says they had an “intimate friendship.”

There was one very good reason why Kavan didn’t want to be separated from Bluth: He prescribed her all the heroin she needed and quite a bit more besides. Bluth accepted Kavan’s assertion that her sensitivities and suffering were so acute that taking heroin was the only reasonable remedy. Reed is equally happy to buy into this. For my money, it sounds too familiar to be convincing. Kavan’s pain was real enough, and it inevitably affected the way she wrote and what she wrote about, but is there really anything very unusual about an addict who says that their particular pains necessitate and justify their particular self-medication?

I don’t think I’m oversimplifying when I say that Reed believes that all art comes out of suffering and that since Kavan suffered greatly, her art, too, must be great. But then, Reed is addicted to the crashing, jejune, not-quite-logical aesthetic pronouncement. He tells us, for example, “Like most highly imaginative artists [Kavan] had psychotic experiences without being generically psychotic.” Most? But not all, eh? So what about averagely imaginative artists? Do they not have psychotic experiences? Or are psychotic experiences the way we can spot high imagination? It all gets even worse when Reed starts analyzing Kavan’s paintings, which he finds “violently explosive,” rather than nonviolently explosive, I suppose.

Still, at least the biography sends you back to the fiction. Kavan’s work is seldom easy reading, and some of it indeed reads like a parody of avant-garde prose, such as this gem from Sleep Has His House: “It is the duty of every whatsit one of us to make himself familiar with a few simple whatsits for whatsit. Remember that a whatsit’s whatsit may depend on your whatsit. Whatsit now.” Reed tells us “she was incapable of writing a bad sentence.” Then, just a few pages later, Kavan kicks into gear and seems to be anticipating, possibly channeling, William Burroughs: “The Hanged Man swings from a black tree; he is looking at something unseen in the air; spinning slowly in the wind with desolate bone creaking. . . . Mist wraiths coagulate, hover lugubriously, disintegrate, among dark shapes of bushes or tombstones or crouching things.”

A posthumous collection of Kavan’s prose, Julia and the Bazooka, and Other Stories (1970), makes an accessible and representative introduction to her work. “Bazooka” was her own term for a syringe, and there are a couple of pieces in here than deal directly with drug use. One of the best stories, “The Mercedes,” was evidently inspired by her relationship with Bluth and suggests that there was something rather more complex than inseparable friendship going on. A man and a woman wait for a car to arrive to take him back to his wife. The car simply appears before them, and the man gets in and drives away, leaving the devastated woman behind.

But if you’re going to read only one book by Anna Kavan, it’s likely to be Ice (1967). The book is part Ballard-esque science fiction, part existential surrealism. The world in the novel is simultaneously undergoing global conflict and ecological disaster. As the planet freezes over and wars threaten, a male narrator makes a series of arduous journeys to find and rescue a certain sylphlike blonde woman, “over-sensitive, highly strung. . . . Her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother.” He keeps finding her and losing her, not least because she doesn’t much want to be found or rescued, but also because she’s in thrall to a brute known, sometimes, as “the warden.” There’s Kafka again, and there’s some rough sex of the Pauline Réage school. The book is truly odd, a patchwork of not quite matching or satisfactory narratives, but there’s also something steely and concrete about the way it evokes imaginary landscapes and dream states. It lingers in the mind in a way that’s extremely rare for experimental fiction.

Reed, improbably, calls Ice a “metaphysical thriller” (Callard, just as improbably, calls it that, too), and Reed adds it was “the novel that crystallized her private obsessions into a cryo-fiction in which her nameless characters remain frozen like the bodies or preserved heads suspended in liquid nitrogen awaiting resurrection at Alcor.” At times, Reed writes as though he, too, is a stranger on earth, or at least a stranger to coherent, logical, comprehensible prose. (I have a terrible feeling that he will regard this as a compliment.) Kavan surely deserves better than this, but what genteel, tortured, drug-addicted existential surrealist doesn’t?

Geoff Nicholson’s novel What We Did on Our Holidays (Hodder & Stoughton, 1990) was adapted for the screen by W. Scott Peake. The film is currently being shown at festivals.

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