Anna Kavan Short Fiction Analysis
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,...
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Anna Kavan Long Fiction Analysis
Anna Kavan’s fiction displays a consistent development from the earliest novels through her last works. The early, less important, romances contain themes that are enlarged upon in the later material. As Kavan was obsessed with her own life, her fiction consists of a multitude of subtle variations on an unwritten autobiography. Power, evil, unreality, madness, isolation, asexuality, and the subconscious play an increasingly significant role in an often surreal landscape. Her short fiction tends to stress a number of additional topics—guilt, angst, dreams, and drugs—that are not as prevalent in the novels. Certain motifs recur again and again; the colonial rescuer who helps a young girl escape to Burma is especially prominent. The later fiction includes some excellent narrative innovation; the ambiguity of these experimental works is not nearly as disconcerting as the lack of resolution in the earlier, more traditional romances. Lack of motivation is also a major problem in a number of the novels. Franz Kafka’s perhaps negative influence is particularly noticeable: characters with only initials for names, overpowering bureaucracies, rumors, terrifying and inexplicable experiences, and victimization appear with great regularity. Indeed, the very name “Kavan,” under which she published all of her novels from 1941 to her death, was based on Kafka’s name.
From 1929 through 1941, Kavan wrote seven traditional “Home Counties novels,” as Rhys Davies has termed them. The plots of these novels generally center on complicated relationships between men and women. They are often long-winded, pedestrian, and uninteresting. Embedded in these early novelistic attempts, however, are the seeds from which the later works would grow. Kavan’s fiction is often discussed in terms of madness, dreams, and dissociated personalities, and it is certainly these pervasive themes that make her writing so stimulating, but two other recurring preoccupations, rarely mentioned by commentators, demand equal attention: Evil is palpably manifested in most of the novels, and virtually every longer work revolves around some form of power. In fact, this latter concept is the true driving force of Kavan’s work. Madness and unreality result from the abuse of power, both in individual relationships and within larger societal contexts.
The first two novels deal with domineering sisters: In A Charmed Circle, Beryl Deane is much stronger than the hesitant Olive, and in The Dark Sisters, Emerald Lamond controls Karen. The use of power to control is manifested by other characters as well. More significant is that in both of these works individuals succumb to a sense of unreality; Karen, for example, like so many of Kavan’s characters, escapes from unpleasant situations by dissociation—she much prefers her private dreamworld. Karen is also the first of Kavan’s cold, asexual heroines, women whom lovers and husbands find frustrating.
Let Me Alone
Let Me Alone stands out among Kavan’s early novels for three reasons. The first of these is the character of James Forrester, one of the well-developed eccentrics Kavan portrays so acutely. Forrester squanders his inheritance, marries, is widowed, retires to a small farm in Spain with his young daughter Anna-Marie, and spends his time brooding, reading, and writing in his journals. In order to teach Anna-Marie a lesson, he discharges his pistol at her. Although his eccentricities border on the bizarre, the reader regrets his premature suicide. Second, unlike the other early works, the plots of which often consist of insignificant social machinations and petty altercations, Let Me Alone unfolds a powerful and meaningful account of Anna-Marie’s marriage of convenience to Matthew Kavan, a colonial official, who is ostensibly sensitive and caring but turns out to be domineering and vicious. The couple returns to his Burmese post, which offers nothing but strife, sweltering heat, and tennis games in which rats are substituted for balls. Third, this is the only one of Kavan’s early novels in which virtually all of her later important themes and elements appear: the domineering and evilprotagonist; the isolated, asexual, and abused woman whose depression leads to madness and suicidal tendencies; the apotheosis of unreality; the flirtation with lesbian sex; and the incredible descriptions of nature.
Thus, despite frequent repetition, long-windedness, exaggerated reactions, and an unconvincing depiction of madness, Let Me Alone is both emotionally moving and important in the context of Kavan’s development. It is the chrysalis from which the later work emerges; the independent woman appeals to feminists, although it must be noted that Anna-Marie is certainly not faultless, since her refusal to consummate her marriage appears unmotivated to her husband, with whom she toys in order to see whether his gentle or domineering side will win.
A Scarcity of Love
Kafka’s influence was noticeable in...
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Kavan, Anna (Pseudonym of Helen Ferguson Woods) (Vol. 13)
Kavan, Anna (Pseudonym of Helen Ferguson Woods) 1904–1968
Born in France, Kavan lived in the United States, Burma, Norway, New Zealand, and England. A novelist and short story writer, she is frequently compared to Anaïs Nin for the way in which she weaves the fabric of her exotic personal life into her fiction, for her landscape of dream life, and her nightmare imagery. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
[In her foreword to Sleep Has His House, Kavan wrote:]
If human life be taken as the result of tension between the two polarities night and day, night, the negative pole, must share equal importance with the positive day. At night, under the influence of cosmic radiations quite different from those of the day, human affairs are apt to come to a crisis. At night most human beings die and are born. Sleep Has His House describes in the nighttime language certain stages in the development of one individual human being….
The book is, in effect, a sort of autobiography of dreams, charting the stages of the subject's gradual withdrawal from all interest in and contact with the daylight world of received reality. Anna Kavan's 'night-time language' is in no way obscure; on the contrary, her dreams are as carefully notated, as lucid as paintings by Dali or De Chirico; the stages of withdrawal are separated by short 'day-time' passages of information—here the subject's mother dies, here the subject goes to school, here to university, etc.; the book's direction is clear and its episodes are in chronological order.
Yet in spite of all this clarity, in spite of the sometimes powerful, sometimes delicate imagery of the dreams, one never feels any desire to read on, or having read on, to read back. This is surely because Anna Kavan has given too much importance to the negative pole, and thereby destroyed the tension between night and day. The incessant actions of these dreams are as weightless as the incessant rapes and murders in a crude thriller. The reader is surfeited with images and retains no more of them than the vague impression of a coloured-light show or of his own dreams after waking. (p. 385)
John Spurling, in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 16, 1973.
Anna Kavan is becoming known in this country at long last. Her death in 1968 deprived us of further stories, but the posthumous publication of her book Julia and the Bozooka brought her to the attention of reviewers, and hopefully, to a waiting public. Her Ice … is one of those rare books that has achieved an underground reputation. You may not find it in the s-f section, but in the "literary" section. Rightfully, it belongs in both.
It makes use of a standard science-fiction nightmare: the end of the world. But it becomes a study of impending catastrophe in human terms as two men (who may be the same man) pursue a passive, elusive woman. Kavan encloses them in a beautiful, deadly landscape: an encroaching glacial age. The woman, unable to free herself by passion or attachment from the two men who hope to haunt/save her is shown through the narrator's voice as his fantasies and cruelties center about her. She is the snow-queen, the elusive ice-woman. Past, present and future intermingle and the deliberate confusion of reality and imagination are chillingly present. Kavan's use of language has the heightened intensity of metaphor; passages, descriptions in the book make a surreal impact on the reader and the final beauty of the book is the beauty of ice: chilling, exquisite and deadly. (p. 4)
Adrianne Marcus, in Pacific Sun Literary Quarterly, May 15, 1975.
Anna Kavan, like Anaïs Nin with whom she is often compared, is a cult writer. Her work is treasured by people who enjoy its sensitive probing of inner states and who do not require much in the way of narrative technique, imagination, or linguistic richness. The rawness of her personal experience in its rawest unworked state is apparently enough to satisfy. Like many cult figures, her life story is well known (nearly every one of her books contains an Introduction describing her lifelong addiction to heroin and her lonely death in her late sixties) and can be read into every line of her slim narratives. This is fine. But the extent to which this sort of writing has been identified as specifically female is something else again.
While Anna Kavan's work is an interesting example of a minor genre, it hardly makes sense to compare her, as Lawrence Durrell does on the book's dust jacket, to Djuna Barnes and Virginia Woolf. What separates writers such as Anaïs Nin and Anna Kavan from Barnes and Woolf is that in their exploration of subjective states they have only tunnel vision. Work so committed to subjectivity ends by being repetitive and inert. But in the hands of writers like Barnes, Woolf, or Proust, the subjective state still allows for peripheral vision so that the mind's interior is simply one more avenue for coming at the world and saying something new about it. Durrell, in his talk of the "subjective-feminist tradition," seems to...
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On coming to what [Eagle's Nest] is about—plotwise—one has no option but to rely on the narrator himself, a distracted soul who never knows exactly what is going on either. For him the screen between real and imaginary actions was attacked by woodworm some good while before the novel began.
The narrator is first encountered behind a desk making Christmas angels out of papier mâché, loathing each one of them, and behind schedule to boot. From a successful career in business, redundancy has reduced him to the position of house artist to a departmental store. At first we presume him female. After a few pages he loses that and becomes indecipherable. But later on, when he is flirting with a hairdresser and exchanging psychotic reactions with a housekeeper called Penny, nothing jars. Kavan changes her sex with a fluency which suggests she must have transcended it, but impalpability is on her side as always and the cast not gregarious. There is hardly a conversation involving more than two persons in the entire book, unless one includes servants and at the house called Eagle's Nest one never does. Talk and action are at a minimum and the atmosphere is inebriating.
An extraordinary degree of suspense is achieved by imperceptible undertones never thrown away. Every sentence contains a mystery and as these accumulate so does the longing for at least one clear explanation. (p. 16)
A summary of...
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The dream encroached upon Anna Kavan's reality with such power as to submerge her ego. Yet, as Anaïs Nin has suggested in her introduction [to Neige suivi de mal aimées], Kavan's inner meanderings so unflinchingly delineated demonstrate an act of courage, even heroism.
Neige is an esthetic, psychological and metaphysical probing. In a series of exciting metaphors and disemboweled images the author reveals her own divided and tortured soul: iced, congealed, hard, brittle, white, as pure and as prismatic as crystal. The theme: a faceless and identity-less man longs for and is bedazzled by a beautiful, ethereal, silvery being, an anima figure,… whom he meets one summer evening in some spaceless area. She stands aloof and impervious in her icy frigidity to his inner cravings. His repeated attempts to liberate himself from this haunting being are to no avail. As he slowly succumbs to her impassible nature, so the snow-bound scenes increase in power and frequency, converging, smothering, freezing all in sight. Like the swan in Mallarmé's poem caught up in its own whiteness, immobility and impassibility, so the man is powerless in his attempt to possess the captivating being of his dream. As his fascination increases, so his horizons shrink; walled in by his phantasm, he is engulfed with tornado force in his own abyss, there to linger a while and finally diffuse into nothingness.
Mal aimées dramatizes the plight of Regina, a name perfectly suited to the protagonist, who commands the love of others but is herself cut off from the feeling principle. Tortured by her inability to experience but the most fleeting of relationships, by her compulsion to force men into submission,… she is a woman whose life becomes one long trial. Regina … always floats through existence incapable of responding authentically to others. (p. 102)
The constructs emerging as flesh-and-blood human beings in Anna Kavan's novels are captivating and terrorizing: captivating because of the evanescent and alluring beauty she invests in her descriptions; frightening because of the very real power they wield on the individuals involved. Both female protagonists are powerful vagina dentata types—possessive, domineering, death-dealing entities. The men are therefore impotent votaries. Anna Kavan's novels are fascinating for the psychologist but captivating also as artistic documents. (p. 103)
Bettina L. Knapp, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.
Anna Kavan's writing is inextricably tied up with the convolutions of her tragic life. Of course this is, to a greater or lesser extent, true of all writers…. Yet with Anna Kavan the stories and novels are so subjective in tone that it is as if she wishes, in reality, to write her own spiritual autobiography but, rather than do this, has dressed up her sufferings and longings in fictional terms. Often the short stories are little more than fragments illustrating individual paranoia or intense personal despair and, as such, are reminiscent more of pages from a psychiatrist's notebook than of works of imaginative fiction. These tales are maudlin, desperate in their evident knowledge that, for the narrator, escape from...
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Kavan, Anna (Pseudonym of Helen Ferguson Woods) (Vol. 5)
Kavan, Anna (Pseudonym of Helen Ferguson Woods) 1904–1968
Born in France, Anna Kavan lived in the United States, Burma, Norway, New Zealand, and England. She was a novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Anna Kavan's novel, A Scarcity of Love, is written with alarming intensity. Its fairy-tale touches and allegorical hints, combined with a structure which seems dictated by the progress of obsession rather than the conventions of a plot, suggest extraordinary violence and disorganization of feeling.
The story starts in a castle and ends with a dreamlike suicide in a jungle river, and the characters are seen clearly outlined, like a child's drawings, against frozen mountains, lush tropical gardens, vast mirrored hotels. At the centre of the story is a snow queen woman, who rejects her baby, forces her husband to suicide, and devotes the rest of her life to the worship and preservation of her beauty and the incidental destruction of men, who serve her as acolytes rather than lovers. The baby she abandoned is returned to her as a girl already mutilated by a loveless childhood, and the second half of the novel watches the girl grappling feebly for some possible life, disliked by her mother, spurned by a young husband, until she offers herself gratefully to that river in the jungle.
The landscapes of the book are projections of the girl's fogged, distorted perceptions, and the novel's considerable interest lies in what is a kind of territorial ambiguity, a constantly shifting uncertainty about the reality of the experiences which are so lucidly described and even explained. There is mindless cruelty on the one side, passive suffering on the other; or is this the way the world looks through tormenting paranoia? People, landscape, objects acquire monstrous and menacing properties. The more wraithlike and drained the girl becomes the more solid and bold become her visions of corruption and the characters who embody evil for her.
"Death by Drowning," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1971; reproduced by permission), February 5, 1971, p. 144.
Anna Kavan's Ice is labeled science fiction on its jacket, but its major quality is that surrealist murkiness so fashionable among the more abstruse literati of the past decade or so. What is so disconcerting to me is the unspecified nature of every character, location, and even event (proper nouns seem to be an unknown quantity to the author). An unnamed narrator returns to his unnamed homeland from somewhere else in search of a girl (thereafter referred to as "the girl," no emphasis on the). Over this country hangs some unspecified disaster (a nice ice age, perhaps; much is made of the constant cold and snow); there already seems to be a state of near anarchy prevailing. The girl, for reasons best known to herself, flees, followed by the narrator who pursues her to another unspecified place which seems to have no political or social ties to any locale…. Nothing much ever happens, and one is never told just why the world is in the state it's in. I can but admire the author for maintaining any kind of narrative with characters lacking names. It's a sort of tour de force, and Kavan does not lack other skills. The constant sense of gloom and cold is consistently conveyed. It's the only book my mind's eye has ever conjured up entirely in black and white. But the vague problems and conflicts of these nebulous characters in these mysterious locales simply did not engage me at all. (pp. 25-6)
Baird Searles, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (copyright © 1971 by Mercury Press, Inc.), October, 1971.
'And he ravished her. He simply took her body and ravished it.' It has been a long time since a fictional heroine had such a complaint to make and in such language, but Anna Kavan's novel [Let Me Alone] is 44 years old, a pioneering effort for Women's Liberation first published in 1930…. Let Me Alone will have a special significance for her fans because it is here that Anna Kavan first appears, not as an author but as the fictional heroine of the novel. Miss Kavan was born Helen Ferguson and wrote several books under that name, including this one. After Let Me Alone this unusual woman took the extraordinary step of renaming herself after her own fictional heroine, Anna Kavan, rather as if Dickens had changed his name by deed poll to David Copperfield. It is even more interesting when you consider that Kavan is not the heroine's original surname but the name of the hated and despised husband of the novel. Rhys Davies, in an introductory note, also points out that after the change of name Miss Kavan's actual appearance changed in a remarkable fashion….
Miss Kavan's style with its repetition of words resembles that of D. H. Lawrence. There are certain passages which also could be mistaken for Lawrence…. The spirit is Lawrence's too. Anna, the heroine, is disenchanted like Lady Chatterley…. She is a sort of reverse Constance Chatterley because she cannot stand to have her husband touch her. But the husband's brutish insensitivity is very Lawrence and the jungle which surrounds her house haunts her in a Lawrentian way and the natives are sensitive, delicate, natural men and women. This echo of the great English novelist is not a bad thing. Even the repetition of words works fine and makes you wonder, as with Lawrence, why we have acquired the odd notion that to use the same word twice in a sentence is a sign of bad writing.
Stanley Reynolds, "Jungle Dust," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 11, 1974, p. 55.
It's certainly not unusual to find yourself reading a novel by D. H. Lawrence when you thought that it was written by someone else, but it is unusual to find yourself responding with almost the same assent that you give to Lawrence, because the assimilation of his style is so completely successful. This confident assumption of a master's style, common enough in music and painting but rare in literature, would give Let Me Alone a secure claim to interest, if it did not already have a biographical claim….
Clearly, stress generated an intense animus, and Lawrence's impassioned iconography, his development of a highly selective, obsessive mode of characterisation, gave her just the technique she needed to express it. (p. 248)
Roger Garfitt, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974), February 21, 1974.
Anna Kavan's fictions were all done inside the wail: and they rarely went in for laughter. My Soul In China, consisting of manuscripts left unpublished at her death in 1968, does include a couple of stories that might be essaying the lighter touch, 'Gosh, I never expected the happy ending', exclaims the narrator at the end of yet another of Ms Kavan's bleak forays among ghastly freakers-out and assorted libbers: nor did the reader. Unconsolation is what's more usually settled for in this enclosingly anguished world of mirrors and fish-bowls. (p. 424)
Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 28, 1975.
["Julia and the Bazooka" is a collection of fifteen] powerful, pure, anguished short stories by an extraordinary English writer who died in 1968 at the age of sixty-seven. Anna Kavan's life, which is plainly mirrored in these stories, was one of almost unmitigated loneliness and despair. There were lengthy sojourns in mental institutions, several suicide attempts, and, for the last thirty years, an addiction to heroin, which she believed (and her doctors seem to have agreed with her) she required to keep going at all. None of these stories searches for any redemptive truths about the human spirit. All are bleak, angry records of a vision of life as a dangerous trap and the world as a menacing place filled with grotesque, cruel, remote creatures. Miss Kavan was a writer of such imagination and such chillingly matter-of-fact, unself-pitying vigor, however, that her vision transcends itself. Whether she is writing about a woman recently released from a mental institution who finds the outside world as much of a prison as the one she's just left, or a humid, erotic fantasy about a leopard, or a premonition of her own death, these stories have a wildness and beauty that are completely original and deeply moving. (p. 139)
The New York (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 28, 1975.
The facts of one's difficult existence do not guarantee literature. Anna Kavan is not interesting because she was a woman, an addict or had silver blonde hair. She is interesting because her work comes through with a powerful androgynous individuality and because the stories are luminous and rich with a fresh kind of peril. She knows how to pull us into her world, her dreams and nightmares—how to have all of it become ours.
She will remind you of John Fowles; other times, notably in the story "Fog" in "Julia and the Bazooka," she reminds one of Kafka. Her novel "Ice," a gorgeous amphetamine dream book with the games and elusiveness of "The Magus," also brings Baudelaire to mind. But Anna Kavan is as coolly contemporary as Joy Williams.
She holds her experience up to the light of her imagination like a sheet of plate glass and smashes it. The images stay there on the fragments like jigsaw bits of mirror, and the pieces will fit together. (p. 47)
Jill Robinson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1975.