‘The Awful Force of Inanimate Things’

Untitled; painting by Anna Kavan
Haines Collection/Peter Owens Publishers
Anna Kavan: Untitled, date unknown

“I can’t keep on all my life writing in the same way,” the extraordinary novelist who called herself Anna Kavan wrote in 1966 to Peter Owen, the publisher whose commitment to her work in her later years helped rescue her from oblivion. Yet from the imprisoning walls and sadomasochistic rituals of her finest novel, Ice (1967), to the range of stories selected by Victoria Walker for Machines in the Head, it is clear that the restlessly experimental Kavan was never willing to keep writing in the same way.

It’s tempting, but misleading, to read the playfully sinister “Starting a Career,” a slight work published for the first time in Walker’s selection, as betraying an enigmatic writer’s love of secrecy. Invited to a private meeting with “Lord Legion,” the narrator accepts a mysterious operative’s invitation to betray his country by assuming the dual personality of a spy:

Juggling identities with superb psychological skill, I would simultaneously present my consistently mediocre façade without a scrap of evidence that I’d ever possessed another.

I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be!

Well hidden though much of Kavan’s life remains, secrecy was never her personal goal, although a desire for privacy is apparent in the high walls of the garden she created for her West London house—she also designed the white-carpeted interior, complete with leopard-skin recliner—in which, in 1968, the newly celebrated author was found dead, stretched out on her bed, aged sixty-seven. Enough heroin was stashed about the property at 19 Hillsleigh Road (or so the police alleged) to kill the residents of the entire street. No one expressed surprise; Kavan had been injecting herself with what she fondly dubbed her “bazooka” for at least forty years.

“I know I’ve got a death-wish,” Kavan wrote in “High in the Mountains,” a late story that compares the captivating, indifferent mountains to her drug of choice: “A clean white powder is not repulsive; it looks pure, it glitters, the pure white crystals sparkle like snow.” She had tried to kill herself on several occasions, but death, when it came, was caused by a most untimely heart attack. A US publisher had just taken on Ice. It was not a moment that an ambitious author would have wished to miss.

Since her death, contradictions have proliferated in the fertile ground of dispute between Kavan’s life and the way she chose to portray and heighten certain aspects of it in her work. (She wrote twenty-two books, two of which were published posthumously.) There may have been more malice than affection in the decision, following her mother’s death in 1950, to place on permanent display at Hillsleigh Road a peculiarly hideous portrait of the…

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