Latest News > In deep with Anna Kavan
A lengthy and perceptive feature review by Leo Robson in the New Yorker magazine of 23 March 2020 focuses on the British author Anna Kavan and Machines in the Head, a comprehensive new anthology of her writings published in late 2019 by Peter Owen in the UK and available in a US edition. It was edited by Victoria Walker, one of the foremost scholars on Kavan’s life and work.
Peter Owen recently republished Ice, Kavan’s celebrated 1967 novel, in its Cased Classics series. This remains her best-known work, and its fans include the singer Patti Smith and a range of novelists associated with science fiction, including J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Doris Lessing, Christopher Priest and Jonathan Lethem. Its reissue has coincided with a rise in appreciation for the extraordinarily original writer, who died at home of a heart attack in 1968 with a huge stash of heroin under her bed.
The New Yorker article states, ‘Her preoccupations – opioid addiction, extreme weather, female oppression, psychopathology – have become topics of burning interest. And a growing appetite for expressionist techniques and hybrid forms – and for a submerged tradition of postwar English modernism – suggests that literary culture is on her side.’
The feature charts the author’s transition from Helen Woods at the time of her birth in 1901 to the self-invented persona of Anna Kavan in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. She had a miserable childhood with a negligent mother, several failed marriages and the death of a daughter in infancy, leading to a succession of breakdowns and long-term opioid use. She became Helen Ferguson at the time of her first unsuccessful marriage at an early age, which was when she started writing, publishing a series of novels under that name.
Robson compares Kavan’s later, less conventional style to that of Franz Kafka, with his nameless characters alienated from heartless, often anonymous state and societal structures, as well as the confessional writer and poet Sylvia Plath. Indeed, the name ‘Anna Kavan’, which she adopted shortly after being discharged from a Swiss sanitarium, was chosen, in part, ‘because it echoed the name of the writer who inspired the shifts in literary approach that accompanied her change of identity: Franz Kafka’. This came as part of a personal reinvention, purging her past, and over the next few years Kavan was prolific, with an outpouring of essays, reviews and stories accompanying her work with traumatized soldiers in wartime and a job as contributor to the literary journal Horizon. Peter Owen’s UK anthology includes a representative series of her book reviews and other journalism from this time, which are not included in the US edition.
Robson makes the point that ‘Kavan’s icy heroines, or antiheroines, are never alone: there’s always someone else – usually a suitor, sometimes a sister – determined to defrost them’, and he highlights how Sylvia Plath’s ‘personal mythology shares a variety of symbols with Kavan’s: drugs and dreams and doubles; leopards and Lazarus; bad mothers and dead fathers and marital miseries’, adding that ‘Both Kavan and Plath initially felt a degree of suspicion about confessional writing, then recognized self-scrutiny as their natural mode.’
Much of Kavan’s work from this period and later is included in the Peter Owen anthology of short writings by Anna Kavan, including some previously unpublished stories, and the UK edition is illustrated with photographs and a variety of Kavan’s own paintings, which have a remarkable intensity of their own.
Her literary transition, however, was not a total break with the past, as, while there were to be no more ‘bulldogs or country houses or husbands or children’ in her writings and she destroyed many of her letters and diaries, clear elements of her later persona were already present in the work of Helen Ferguson. Robson suggests that her work under both names ‘reads like variations on a case study’ with alienated protagonists in evidence from early novels. The difference was more in Kavan’s approach: ‘What changed was not the underlying theme or impulse but the trappings. Kavan specialized in the first-person short story, a form and a voice she never employed as Ferguson.’
The reviewer further suggests that from the early 1940s to the 1960s Kavan ‘was spurred by Kafka’s example to create a bare yet vibrant fictional universe and a series of stunning, if slightly melodramatic, nightmare scenarios’, and evidence of this may be found frequently in the anthology. There is a also link to another of our authors, as Kavan has been compared to Anaïs Nin (1903–77) who tried to establish a friendship with her in the late 1960s and who celebrated Asylum Piece in The Novel of the Future (1968). It cannot be denied, however, that Nin’s turbulent and revealing confessional journals and diaries, also published by Peter Owen, were to achieve greater fame and, indeed, notoriety.
On 24 November 1968, just over a year after Ice appeared to general acclaim, Kavan wrote to her publisher Peter Owen and explained that she had been working on an ‘autobiography in the form of short stories with a connecting thread’. Tragically, little more than a week later, she died of heart failure.