Anna Kavan Kavan, Anna (Pseudonym of Helen Ferguson Woods) (Vol. 5) - Essay

Helen Woods

Kavan, Anna (Pseudonym of Helen Ferguson Woods) (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.