“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 thrice-married beauty painted toward the end of her life by Vladimir Tretchikoff, the 1940s prince of kitsch. In the six novels that Kavan wrote between 1929 and 1937 as Helen Ferguson (her first married name), and in her later work as Anna Kavan, frequent references appear to mothers as monsters of control. “Victimization in childhood” and the tyranny of “a sadistic mother” are cited to explain the passive complicity of the skeletal girl-child in Ice, who allows herself to be brutalized by both her captor and her rescuer. “My mother hated and despised me for being a girl,” Kavan wrote in another late story, “World of Heroes.” How does one square that with the acknowledgment made in a diary, which Kavan briefly kept after separating from her first husband, Donald Ferguson, that without her mother’s attentive care, “I don’t think I could bear my existence. She has been most awfully kind to me”?
Anna Kavan, born Helen Woods in Cannes in 1901, was decidedly not the product of a happy home. An early attempt by her parents to start an orange farm in California proved unsuccessful; her father had already left his wife when he drowned himself in 1911. Serving time at a series of boarding schools to which she was dispatched at an early age, Kavan had scarcely known her father. Later she remembered having conferred upon this absent, mythical figure the gift of kindness: it was from him that she might have received, had he lived, “the affection I longed for.” In her fiction, father figures skulk in their studies or meekly nod agreement with their wives; mothers call the tune. Kavan’s mother allegedly regarded snagging a husband as of more value to a young girl than pursuing aspirations to scholarship. “It was my mother who insisted that I should get married instead,” Kavan wrote in Who Are You? (1963), an experimental novel with alternative endings that intrigued both Anaïs Nin and Jean Rhys.
Fiction or reality? It’s hard to reconcile the authoritarian, unimaginative women of Kavan’s fictional universe with her mother’s eagerness to send her talented only child to study art at Dresden. (She turned the offer down.) It’s equally difficult to dismiss Mrs. Woods’s lifelong provision of a generous financial allowance to her daughter, or her willingness to seek out and pay for those expensive Swiss clinics that safeguarded Kavan’s life during the anguished bouts of despair to which she was enduringly susceptible. (“Since the universe only exists in my mind, I must have created the place, loathsome, foul as it is,” she argued in “The Old Address.” “I live alone in my mind.”)
Long sojourns at these ostensibly luxurious retreats provided the source for some of Kavan’s most powerful fiction. It was following a nervous breakdown in 1938 and her subsequent stay at a private clinic in Switzerland that she wrote the remarkable stories that were published in 1940, to considerable acclaim, as Asylum Piece. It was also at that point that Kavan took for herself—both in life and in print—the name that she had given to a character based upon herself in two early novels, Let Me Alone (1930) and A Stranger Still (1935).
Generous though Walker’s selection from Asylum Piece is, inevitable omissions deprive readers of one of the most significant features of that meticulously constructed work. Absent here are all but one of eight unnamed episodes (numbered I–VIII) that form the title story, “Asylum Piece.” Based on Kavan’s sympathetic observation of her fellow patients, they present miniature scenes in which idyllic weather and a tranquil environment encourage the delusions of the restive inmates whose unachievable dream is always of a return to normality. In one of these, simply titled “VII,” an exhilarated young man follows his impulse to escape. Joyfully he rows away, across an empty lake. Nervously he eyes the approaching shore:
Yes, it all seems so simple, and yet he can’t bring himself to get out of the boat. What is it that prevents him from stepping ashore? What is it that tells him that it is safer not to think, safer to remain vague, to realize nothing?…
All the archness, the volatileness, has vanished with the smile from his face. He now looks much older, worn and dejected…. Slowly, wearily, with a deep sigh, his eyes empty and downcast, he takes hold of the oars and begins the laborious passage back to the other shore.
Childhood, however unhappy, offered little to nourish Kavan’s exceptionally vivid imagination. Later, pregnancy appears to have alarmed and disgusted the naturally plump young woman. (Heroin addiction helped produce the spectral thinness of the appearance-conscious author’s later years.) “Her stomach was flat and private again…. It was her own now. The nightmare was over,” wrote Kavan in the partly autobiographical novel Change the Name (1941), with which she followed Asylum Piece. There the unhappy married life in Burma that had taken center stage in Let Me Alone, and that would be more brutally treated in Who Are You?, is shielded from view. Its sole function in Change the Name is to produce, offstage, an unloved baby girl toward whom the protagonist, Celia, behaves with a callousness chillingly reminiscent of Kavan’s perception of her own mother. (The daughter, Clare, dies of grief after being married off through a cruel trick played upon her by her mother. Celia, who has become a successful novelist, sweeps off from the funeral to marry her rich and gratifyingly attentive publisher.)
Though it’s unclear why Kavan, aged nineteen, chose to marry an older man (although hardly, at twenty-nine, the “twice her age” of her fictions), life with Donald Ferguson, an engineer working for the colonial administration in Burma, provided a lurid setting and steamy climate with which to frame the first of many battles between thuggish men (the hirsute “Dog-Head” of Who Are You? entertains himself by whacking live rats with a tennis racket) and quietly superior wives. Raped (to obtain the child her husband thinks she owes him), Dog-Head’s young wife rushes out into the tropical night: “A black, boiling vortex, a ripping, rushing, thundering bedlam, in which she can’t stand, hurled along helplessly by the gale.” It’s surprising, given such convulsed passages, that more has not been made of Kavan’s apparent debt to another English novelist of metaphysical melodrama, Emily Brontë.
Home from Burma in the early 1920s, Kavan moved to the South of France. Fast cars always captivated her: an uncharacteristically whimsical late tale is titled “The Mercedes.” Another, “World of Heroes,” one of her finest, evokes the debonair and clubbish coterie of racing drivers (“born adventurers, with a breezy disrespect for authority”) from whom she began to take lovers during her years on the Riviera. It was among these audacious daredevils that Kavan acquired what would become an enduring reliance on drugs. Heroin was a deliverance from pain (she suffered from a genetic spinal condition) but also offered an escape from life, a release that she compared to the thrill of riding at high speeds on long-distance races:
I never had time now to think or to get depressed…. I loved it all: the speed, the exhaustion, the danger. I loved rushing down icy roads at ninety miles an hour, spinning around three times and continuing non-stop without even touching the banked-up snow.
Kavan was visiting a French village in 1925–1926 when she met Stuart Edmonds, the amiable and dandyish painter who became her second husband. Her mother approved of the marriage for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but Edmonds’s father, an English country squire, did not. The pleasure with which Kavan kills off her father-in-law’s alter ego in Change the Name is almost tangible.
It’s a shame that the US edition of Machines in the Head doesn’t include any of Kavan’s remarkable artwork.* Much of it was destroyed by her horrified executors. The few paintings that survive show that her subject matter, though occasionally playful, was often gruesome. (A clothed female figure is strangled by the bars of the tiny cage in which she is confined; a knifed and naked figure shown on all fours appears to be the victim of a murderous sexual act.) Nevertheless, Kavan’s less sensational paintings—her early works included two landscapes and an orchard scene—were accomplished enough to be exhibited in 1935 at the highly regarded Wertheim Gallery.
Edmonds, who took considerable pride in his work, remained an unremarked amateur; that uncomfortable shift of power helped to tip the balance in a marriage that—like Kavan’s first—went badly wrong. “Now and Then,” published in Julia and the Bazooka (1970), Kavan’s final and most laceratingly self-aware collection, nails Edmonds as “Oblomov” and charts his decline into alcoholism and sloth. Cold-eyed, she presents him here as the wife’s jailor and judge and finally as “an enemy…who has commandeered the house I live in.” Until, that is, with astonishing deftness and pathos, Kavan’s mirror is abruptly reversed to lay the blame upon the narrator. Why does nobody else notice her husband’s faults? “He is tolerated, and apparently even liked.” What has Oblomov’s disdainful, hypercritical wife done to reduce him to this wretched state?
The marriage to Edmonds ended with the breakdown and suicide attempt that took Kavan in 1938 to the Swiss sanatorium from which Asylum Piece emerged. It’s unclear how much she saw after this of Bryan, her son by Ferguson, or of the daughter, Susanna, whom she and Edmonds adopted after the death of their baby girl in 1935. There wasn’t much time, evidently, for family sentiments. Kavan had already become close to Ian Hamilton, a young journalist and playwright whom she rejoined—after a protracted spell of extensive traveling—at his adoptive home in New Zealand in February 1941. Kavan had spent the previous three months in New York as the guest of yet another younger lover, Charles Fuller (a romance spiced by Fuller’s aggravating insistence on maintaining his engagement to another woman).
Anywhere but home: this might seem to have been Kavan’s unpatriotic response to wartime, but such frenetic travel was also part of a heroic endeavor to break her dependence on drugs. By August 1940, she noted that she had covered about 25,000 miles, “in and between Norway and Sweden and America and Mexico and the East Indies.” While her stay with Hamilton in New Zealand inspired some of those desolate wastelands through which cars speed on mysterious journeys in her later fiction, it was the experience of a voyage back to England in 1942, via the Labrador Sea, that seems to have exerted the most powerful influence over Kavan’s future work. “The whole ship was coated in ice,” she wrote in “The Cactus Sign,” an unpublished record of her wartime travels:
Thick fringes and swags of icicles hung from the rails, a monstrous white torch of ice flamed astoundingly from the mainmast, the thermometer stood permanently at about twenty below. It was like some movie of a polar ship…. If I touched anything on the way to my cabin at night in the black-out the skin burnt on my hand.
In that challenging voyage, it seems, lie the origins of an imagined world unique to Kavan, in which impassable walls of ice arise from nowhere, while a “blanched mountain range” looks like “a ridge of clenched knucklebones.” Memories of a frozen sea must still have loomed in her mind while she conjured up the terrifying image of an entire world mantled in ice for her most famous novel: “Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer.”
Shortly after her return to England early in 1943, Kavan learned that her son was missing in action. (A year later, his death was confirmed.) “Lots of the things that happen to me I really can’t bear at all,” she observed in “The Cactus Sign.” “Then I write about them.” While submitting a series of characteristically original reviews and essays to Horizon—after Cyril Connolly, its editor, had published one of her stories in 1943—Kavan again began to draw inspiration for her fiction from psychiatric wards. Her work with soldiers suffering from the traumas of war produced some of the most moving stories in I Am Lazarus (1945), one of her best and most disquieting books. Five of them appear in Machines in the Head, including “Face of My People,” in which well-meaning doctors endeavor to prise from an afflicted young foreigner (“Oysters can be opened”) the horror—a mass burial—that has silenced him. Was Kavan thinking of her own lost son when she allowed the stubbornly mute Kling to think (but never to say), “the entire earth was no graveyard great enough for so many”?
The other stories chosen by Walker from I Am Lazarus show the writer employing distorted perceptions to illuminate a haunted mind. The young man in “The Blackout” notices in the gutter “a piece of sausage, grey, slimy, like the wrist of a dead baby” as he remembers a woman’s death for which he holds himself responsible. “The Gannets,” drawing upon a New Zealand expedition with Hamilton to view a colony of seabirds, depicts the tribal cruelty of children with a force that makes Lord of the Flies read like an Enid Blyton picnic. “Our City,” a record of wartime London, comes closest in mood to the stories that Kavan’s contemporary Jean Rhys was writing at that same time, pitting the narrator as victim (“I, the city’s outcast and prisoner”) against a hostile external world. People express their distrust of the protagonist with sinister glances, “as if they wished you were at their mercy.” As with Rhys, even an inanimate world can take up arms against those who live alone. “How everything in the rooms jeers at me then,” Kavan writes. “The walls shake with laughter. The painted houris sneer.”
I Am Lazarus was hailed as an extraordinary achievement when it appeared in 1945. Edwin Muir, the first English translator of Kafka, suggested a resemblance between the two authors when he wrote of I Am Lazarus that “we do not know the world in which these things are happening, and yet we feel their truth, and feel that they are telling us something which could be told in no other way.” Certainly her frequent use of dehumanizing initials for her characters and the reiterated emphasis on an unknown crime suggest a link to Kafka, just as the use of animated objects for ironic commentary—she once wrote to Hamilton about “the awful force of inanimate things”—connects her to Rhys. But Kavan resists most literary comparisons as easily as she eludes the frequent and misguided attempts to categorize her as a writer of science fiction. Cultured, widely read, and alert to the arresting new voices of Beckett and Genet in the theater—one of her closest friends was a drama critic who rented part of her house—she persisted in forging an independent path.
Today, Sleep Has His House (1948) deserves to be seen as her best work. Written in what Kavan calls “night-time language,” it presents a series of tentative and rapidly shifting dream sequences, each prefaced by a paragraph that describes an episode to which the corresponding dream appears at first to bear only the faintest relation. Beginning with a startling birth scene (“Utterly still, utterly alone, I watch the darkness flower into transient symbols. And now there is danger somewhere, a slow, padded beat”), it ends when B, the girl who appears to represent Kavan, finds herself trapped within one of the mysteriously formless houses inhabited by the anonymous “controllers” of her fiction:
How does a girl like B feel, you may wonder, alone in this great dark place? The question can be answered in four simple words: B is at home. And she’s not lonely either…. Long cheval glasses lean inquiringly in the bedrooms like strangers wishing to ask the way. In alcoves, in the passages, on landings, you will unexpectedly catch, just as you sometimes catch someone else’s eye in a crowd, the subdued and watchful gleam of a mirror. And in every one of these mirrors B recognizes the fair-haired girl who is her closest friend.
Reviews were almost universally bad. Diana Trilling, never one to hold back, pronounced the book (retitled The House of Sleep by its US publisher) “unreadable.” Kavan’s usual British publisher, Jonathan Cape, turned the book down. Writing to a friend from the unconsoling splendor of Monterey, her stepfather’s South African mansion (she drew unflattering comparisons with the overblown London hotel at which her mother grandly retained a permanent suite for infrequent descents upon England), Kavan was ready to give up her ambitions for good: “I shall never be a success at writing now.”
It takes more than hostile reviews to crush a vocation, but Kavan’s career had taken a beating. A sympathetic doctor, Karl Bluth, helped her through a period of breakdowns and further attempts at suicide while dispensing merciful supplies of the heroin on which she remained dependent. (Mrs. Bluth, snappily nicknamed “the Tigress” by Kavan, proved to be less than thrilled by her husband’s devotion to his patient.) Designing interiors for houses provided distraction as well as some welcome income during the 1950s, a personally bleak decade throughout which she earned next to nothing from her writing.
Kavan’s spirit remained undimmed. Eagle’s Nest (1956), in which the anonymous male protagonist travels to a Monterey-like mansion enclosed by mountains that resemble “a monstrous cemetery of colossal coffins,” was rapidly followed by A Bright Green Field (1958). In that book, while the persistent theme is of helplessness in the face of human cruelty (a voice in the title story explains how the use of pulleys attached to arms can increase the working speed of hard-pressed laborers—the “twitching marionettes” who mow the field), the savage wit of “All Saints” rips the cover off the fake gentility of funeral arrangements through the discovery of a rodent in the coffin of a sumptuously exhibited corpse:
Most unfortunate, profoundly desolating, but really, you know, nothing can be done…it’s absolutely essential to produce it before any action can be taken…you say the rat?…my dear madame, I’m extremely sorry, inconsolable, in fact…but there’s simply no provision made…
Kavan’s star had just begun to ascend again with the publication of Who Are You? when the death of Dr. Bluth, her closest ally and faithful provider of drugs, provoked another deep depression and suicide attempt. She had never hidden her addiction to heroin: in “Julia and the Bazooka,” “The Old Address,” and “Fog,” the state of “injected tranquillity” in which acts of extreme callousness become rational and almost comical is shown to be no less dreadful to endure than the violent imaginings induced by the process of drug withdrawal. “There’s only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered,” the newly discharged and supposedly drug-free narrator soberly remarks at the grim conclusion of “The Old Address,” “and needless to say I haven’t forgotten that.”
In her best work, Kavan fits Genet’s definition of genius as despair overcome by rigor. Ice, published (after many revisions) only a year before her death, was written, she breezily assured Peter Owen, her perplexed publisher, as an adventure story, “but in my own language and with my own symbolism.” Comparable on one level to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in its use of an icebound seascape and the twinning—a recurrent theme in Kavan’s work—of the pursuer and the pursued, the surreal settings and poetic elevation of the elusive and spectral girl into an object of romantic yearning and desire entranced its readers. “Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight,” runs an often quoted passage. “I saw the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.”
Kavan was apparently rather hurt when a dust-jacket image of herself, nude and as translucent as an icicle, was rejected. Her intention, perhaps, was to nudge the reader toward the view of her that she had put into a story in Asylum Piece, and that Walker includes in Machines in the Head. “There Is No End” seeks the identity of the mysterious nemesis who haunts Kavan’s work, only to reveal what the writer has always known. There is no enemy, she admits, but only “a sort of projection of myself, an identification of myself with the cruelty and destructiveness of the world.” It took courage to accept that truth and to locate it at the heart of a body of work that has yet to earn Kavan the recognition she deserves as one of the most powerful and original women writers of the twentieth century.