ANNA KAVAN (1901–1968) was born Helen Woods, in Cannes. She spent her childhood in Europe, the USA and Great Britain. Her life was haunted by her rich, glamorous mother, beside whom her father remains an indistinct figure. Having begun her carer under her married name Helen Ferguson, it was only after she had a nervous breakdown that she became Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her 1930 novel Let Me Alone, with an outwardly different persona and a new literary style.
‘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.’ Thus does one of Anna Kavan’s characters describe herself in an unpublished short story, and we know that, as in much of Kavan’s writing, she was describing herself. An enigma the author remains, but her talent was none the less remarkable, and her works have been compared to that of Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka and acclaimed by writers from Anaïs Nin to J.G. Ballard.
Kavan suffered periodic bouts of mental illness and long-term drug addiction – she had become addicted to heroin in the 1920s and continued to use it throughout her life – and these facets of her life feature prominently in her work. She destroyed almost all of her personal correspondence and most of her diaries, therefore ensuring that she achieved her ambition to remain a mystery. She died in 1968 of heart failure, soon after the publication of her most celebrated work, the novel Ice.
‘Anna Kavan’s life was another metaphysical adventure, often of a dangerous kind. The sliding panels of her fiction had their counterparts in her life. She was more than one personality and the shift from one aspect to another can only have been accomplished at real cost. Like her unnamed heroines, she was little girl, witch, and victim all at once.’ – Brian Aldiss