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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