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More about Anna Kavan

Who Are You?

Anna Kavan

Who Are You? is a sparse depiction of the hopeless, emotional polarity of a young couple and their doomed marriage spent in a remote, tropical hell.

She — described only as ‘the girl’ — is young, sophisticated and sensitive; he, ‘Mr Dog-Head’, is an unreconstructed thug and heavy drinker who rapes his wife, otherwise passing his time bludgeoning rats with a tennis racket.

Together with a visiting stranger, ‘Suede Boots’, who urges the woman to escape until he is banished by her husband, these characters live through the same situations twice. Their identities are equally real — or unreal — in each case. With slight variation in the background and the novel’s atmosphere, neither the outcome nor the characters themselves are quite the same the second time. The constant question of the jungle ‘brain-fever’ bird remains unanswered — ‘who are you?’

The novel’s typical autobiographical bias can be traced to Kavan’s life in Burma during her first marriage. An experimental piece that clearly anticipates the nouvelle vague cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Who Are You? was reissued to widespread acclaim in 1973.

‘To write about this finely economical book in any terms other than its own is cruelly to distort the near-perfection of the original text. There is a vision here which dismays.’ — Robert Nye, Guardian

‘We are indebted to Peter Owen for reissuing Anna Kavan’s work . . . Who Are You? is accomplished and complete . . . so fully imagined, so finely described in spare, effective prose, that it is easy to suspend disbelief.’ — Nina Bawden, Daily Telegraph

‘Lots of fun to read, sprouts with a macabre imagination and is, no question, a classic.’ — Sunday Telegraph

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.