Anna Kavan’s dominant theme, the isolation of the individual in contemporary society, is usually expressed through intensely personal tales of loneliness, mental anguish, and despair set against ominous foreign or institutional backdrops. Her characters, often nameless or merely initialed young women, are psychologically unstable, existing in a vague world where the bounds of dream and reality continually shift. The themes of madness, drug addiction, repressive authority, lost love, and loneliness weave a common thread through each volume of her stories. Although often criticized for speaking to her personal despair rather than to a more universal humanity, Kavan’s fiction cannot help striking a deeply responsive and sympathetic chord in the reader.
The stories in Asylum Piece, and Other Stories explore various states of madness, paranoia, and estrangement from the inside out. In the first story, “The Birthmark,” a nameless narrator, away from home for the first time, develops a strong affinity for a girl, known only as H, whom she meets at boarding school. A typical Kavan character, H has “a face unique, neither gay nor melancholy, but endued with a peculiar quality of apartness” which is further accentuated by her peculiarly shaped birthmark, “a circle armed with sharp points and enclosing a tiny shape very soft and tender—perhaps a rose.” Despite the attraction they feel for each other, neither can overcome her sense of “apartness” to form a bond with the other. Years later, while touring an ancient fortress in a foreign country, the narrator believes that she sees H, whom she has never forgotten, imprisoned in a subterranean cell, but feels powerless to help her. Typically, the gulf between the two is too great to bridge.
“Going Up in the World”
“Going Up in the World” also involves an alienated figure, here a lowly petitioner who begs her Patron and Patroness to “share a little sunshine and warmth.” The unnamed narrator can no longer bear her “lonely, cold and miserable” existence and petitions her “patrons” to admit her into the inner sanctum of their luxuriously warm world. Typically, the exact nature of the Patron and Patroness’s authority over the narrator remains vague. Possessing the power to banish her to a miserable existence, they speak like scolding parents exhorting their child to “give up [her] rebellious ways.” Well-dressed, smug, self-satisfied figures such as these, whether doctors, parents, or unspecified “officials,” appear regularly in Kavan’s stories, issuing capricious orders that can ruin a life in an instant.
“Asylum Piece,” the longest story of the volume, is divided into eight parts, the first of which presents an outsider’s view of a mental institution, which looks deceptively like a scene “upon which a light comedy, something airy and gay, is about to be acted.” The setting is pastoral, calm, and beautiful and “flooded with dazzling midsummer sunshine.” Part 2, however, shifts the perspective to that of a patient, a frightened young woman committed against her will, and the succeeding sections shift to an omniscient view of the inmates’ daily lives.
An atmosphere of impotence, imprisonment, and isolation predominates in these sections. In one, a young man, determined to row across the lake to freedom, comes to realize that he is trapped, not just by the physical boundaries of the asylum, but by the boundaries of his own mind. In another, a young woman, perhaps the narrator from part 2, is committed by her husband who “longs to disassociate himself from the whole situation.” Lonely and deserted, she is briefly comforted by a sympathetic young cleaning woman. In a later episode, a young woman (again perhaps the same one) spends a holiday from the asylum with her visiting husband, a stern and inflexible man who cannot wait to end the visit and return home. Crushed by her husband’s rejection, the young woman is left to the comfort and understanding of a fellow inmate. Unlike many of Kavan’s stories, “Asylum Piece” holds out some possibility for human contact, however brief and transitory.
“There Is No End”
The volume comes full circle with the last story, “There Is No End,” which harks back to the motif of imprisonment from “The Birthmark.” A nameless woman, imprisoned by “unseen and impassable” walls in a place where there is “no love nor hate, nor any point where feeling accumulates,” wonders if it is “life then, or death, stretching like an uncolored stream behind and in front of me?” For this narrator and for many of Kavan’s characters, prison is only an outer manifestation of an inner sense of isolation, from which no escape is possible.
I Am Lazarus
I Am Lazarus continues the themes of psychological turmoil, paranoia, and isolation introduced in Asylum Piece, and Other Stories and explores the devastating effects of war on the psyche and the cruelly dehumanizing techniques employed by mental institutions to “rehabilitate” their patients. In the title story, set in an idyllic pastoral sanatorium,...
(The entire section is 2149 words.)