ISBN 978 0 7206 1123 6 7
Fiction
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Asylum Piece

Anna Kavan

‘If only one knew of what and by whom one were accused, when, where and by what laws one were to be judged, it would be possible to prepare one’s defence systematically and set about things in a sensible fashion.’

First published sixty years ago, Asylum Piece today ranks as one of the most extraordinary and terrifying evocations of human madness ever written.

This collection of stories, mostly interlinked and largely autobiographical, chart the descent of the narrator from the onset of neurosis to final incarceration at a Swiss clinic. The sense of paranoia, of persecution by a foe or force that is never given a name evokes The Trial by Franz Kafka, the writer with whom Kavan is most often compared, though Kavan’s deeply personal, restrained and almost foreign-accented style has no true model. The same characters who recur throughout — the protagonist’s unhelpful ‘advisor’, the friend/lover who abandons her at the clinic, and an assortment of deluded companions — are sketched without a trace of the rage, self-pity or sentiment that have marked more recent prozac memoirs.

‘Pervaded by a sense of intolerable oppression, lit by sudden shafts of delight in the natural world, their concise artistry proclaims how consumately she knew and rode her devils.’ – Guardian

‘Anna Kavan charges the space between her words and the reader’s mind with a continuous crackle of electricity.’ – New Statesman

‘A writer of unusual imaginative power.’ – Edwin Muir

‘An artist of great distinction.’ – L.P. Hartley

‘A classic equal to the work of Kafka.’ – Anaïs Nin


ANNA KAVAN, née Helen Woods, was born in Cannes — probably in 1901; she was evasive about the facts of her life — and spent her childhood in Europe, the USA and England. Twice married and divorced, she began writing while living with her first husband in Burma and was published under her married name of Helen Ferguson. In the wake of the collapse of her second marriage, she suffered the first of many nervous breakdowns and was confined to a clinic in Switzerland; she emerged from her incarceration with a new name — Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her 1930 novel Let Me Alone — an outwardly different persona and a new literary style. Her first novel in this guise was Asylum Piece, and it achieved for her a certain recognition. She was a long-term heroin addict and suffered periodic bouts of mental illness, and these facets of her life feature prominently in her novels and short stories. She died in 1968 of heart failure soon after the publication of her most celebrated work, the novel Ice.