Visa for Avalon
by Bryher, with an introduction by Susan McCabe
Paris Press, 157 pages, $15.00 (paper)
The novella-length fiction Visa for Avalon by the writer who called herself Bryher was first published in 1965 and was reissued by the Paris Press in 2004, before the US presidential election of that year. Since it is set in the future—a future in which violent mass movements are causing uproar and a controlling government is restricting the freedom of ordinary citizens—it was seen by both its publisher, Jan Freeman, and by its introducer, Susan McCabe, as a book with a lot to say about the squeeze being put on liberal democracy by such draconian measures as the Patriot Act in the United States, and by similar tendencies elsewhere.
The Paris Press is “a not-for-profit press publishing work by women that has been neglected or misrepresented by the literary world.” For this exemplary aim, Bryher is a strong candidate: few twentieth-century women’s lives were more interconnected with their own era, and few others displayed her edgy bravery and intellectual curiosity, but she is little-known today.
Bryher was born in England in 1894, thus living through the First World War as a woman in her twenties, through the intellectually exciting 1920s in her thirties, and through the Second World War in her fifties. Her birth name was Annie Ellerman; she renamed herself after one of the Scilly Isles, a place that—in her inner geography—stood for remoteness, adventure, and freedom: as a child, she longed to run away to sea and become a cabin boy. Her family was well-to-do, which gave her the opportunity to develop her many interests.
At the age of twenty she encountered Ezra Pound and Imagism, and through them, the poet H.D. Bryher and H.D. formed a lifelong friendship and sometime partnership, although they did not always live together. The two of them took up psychoanalysis in the 1920s, and Freud and his teachings remained important to Bryher throughout her life. She was a poet, a supporter of the modernists, and a foster mother of the experimental writers and filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s. With the rise of fascism she foresaw the coming horror, and when it came she devoted herself to rescuing Jews and intellectuals, using her home base in Switzerland as a transfer point. When Switzerland expelled most foreigners in 1940 she went to England, where she lived through the blitz. After the war she published a series of historical novels that were widely read at the time; but from these, Visa for Avalon is a departure.
Bryher was seventy-one when Visa for Avalon was published. She had eighteen years yet to live—she died in 1983—and several books left to write; still, anything produced by an author of this age cannot help but be retrospective in mood, and Visa for Avalon has something of an autumnal feel to it. As the hand of Death readies itself for the definitive knock on the door, the writer toils even harder: Wait! Wait! I have just this one very …