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...
(This entire section contains 230 words.)
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 forget that Woolf and Barnes are especially rich in wit (unlike Kavan or Nin, who never allow us a giggle) and that their wit arises from this interpenetration of interior and exterior worlds…. The total effect of [Kavan's] work is powerful, but for peculiar reasons: the reader is moved most by the sad fact that while the writer cared deeply about her art, she was at the same time in the grip of forces that prevented her from practicing it.
The final and most convincing statement of her madness lies not is the success of the stories, but in their failure. All her fiction, including her science-fiction novel Ice …, shows the writer spinning her wheels in the same groove: paranoid fantasies give way to a drugged numbness that in turn allows the heroine to inflict pain on others. Either she imagines herself hit by a car or she fantasizes that the onlookers are drowned in her blood. She is unreal; others are unreal.
None of this is especially new in the literature of madness, but what is fascinating is the strain of trying to bring it across when even the demands of fiction must seem unreal. The imagination is so trapped that whenever the heart wishes to cry out about its pain, it cannot invent a name for it. Cliché must suffice when Kavan's enclosure prevents inventiveness…. Most painful of all is the realization that there is a literary world sentimental enough to encourage her limiting self-indulgence when it might have pushed her in the direction of art—an unwitting literary conspiracy on behalf of the "subjective-feminist tradition," which, if she'd thought of it that way, might have made paranoia seem justifiable.
Elizabeth Turner Pochoda, "Trapped Imagination," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), September, 1975, p. 42.
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 Eagle's Nest cannot help but be vague whereas the book, funnily enough, is written precisely. It is set in a paranormal world, yet the picture is sharp in detail. Her vocabulary is not esoteric, her characters are disturbing rather than lunatic, nor are the events very improbable in an age of Charles Manson and Howard Hughes. The transforming element is of course in Kavan; and in her day the [National Health Service] guaranteed the supply of heroin. With emotions in silhouette, the attention momentarily unbugged, her hands were free to move through the endocrine swamps. Drabble, McCarthy, Murdoch, Spark: will they ever make it through the french windows? One cannot write properly with nappy pins in the mouth, however metaphorical they may be. One thing an authoress cannot afford to be is effeminate. Anna Kavan takes no chance, writing in the first person as a male. He is not very rectilinear, he flinches among nettles, but has nevertheless established a precarious gite in the outskirts of psychosis. (pp. 16-17)
Duncan Fallowell, "Anima and Enema," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 31, 1976, pp. 16-17.
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 this hideous twilight world of hallucinatory imprisonment is impossible. (p. 43)
Anna Kavan possessed artistic integrity; of that there can be no doubt. Her stories are direct; there is no prostitution of contemporary trends or fads, no deviation from that extraordinary combination, peculiar to herself, of conversational ease and the loose, almost wild, imagery of some of the descriptive passages. But I am afraid, for me, there is in her work a dividing line on the one side of which she gives the best of her powers, leaving on the other a grim example of the truth of at least some of Baudelaire's warnings [of the negative implications of drug addiction]. This is unfashionable…. [I am] sure her disciples, with their customary passion for the lugubrious, the humourless, the portentous and the dull, admire her for her depressingly nihilistic snippets of self-pity, for the obtuse parabolic tilts at totalitarianism of her science fiction, rather than for her earlier, more conventional, for me more satisfying, work.
I am Lazarus conveniently shows a mixture of early and late Kavan. Some stories, echoing an earlier collection Asylum Piece, deal effectively and movingly with sanitorium life and mental derangement; others venture into the territory of the desperate sub-conscious, retiring from the world to cope wholly with inner fears, disturbances and threats. Here we are, inevitably, in the domain of Kafka; psychological turmoil, uncertainty, take the form of paranoiac terror, of fantasies woven around vast impersonal bureaucracies, forces shifting slowly but unavoidably against the unknowing individual unequipped to deal with them. Appointments are broken, orders given then mysteriously rescinded, soft voiced officials interrogate without reason, 'advisers' are sinister and unreliable; all this is familiar country, at times verging upon the imitative.
These visions were clearly, in Anna Kavan's case, founded upon a hideous reality, yet this reality was itself limited by being the product of individual fantasy. Here we should return to Baudelaire, to his strictures on the necessity of preserving some form of objective viewpoint and how a drug induced notion of terror, because it is an experience confined to a personal deranged imagination, is of little artistic value beyond its purely aesthetic appeal as a pattern of words, colours or sound. This for me, illustrates the limits of this side of Anna Kavan's work. (pp. 43-4)
Kafka's message was new; Anna Kavan's is not. Her fantasies of looming catastrophe and bureaucratic nightmare are occasionally vivid but rarely disturbing. Perhaps this is partly because they obviously represent a fevered artificial vision, partly also through their obvious debt to a great and original predecessor. Kafka's parables seem to speak for humanity; Miss Kavan's represent only an addict's personal despair. (p. 44)
Max Egremont, "The Twilight of Anna Kavan," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Max Egremont 1978; reprinted with permission), June, 1978, pp. 43-4.