Latest News > The Singular, Undeniably Unusual Life of Anna Kavan
Below is an article which initially appeared in The Nation magazine, written by Audrey Wollen:
Machines in the Head gives a glimpse into a writer whose work and career upended conventions around fiction, opioids, and biography.
In the foreword to the new collection of Anna Kavan’s short stories, Machines in the Head, the book’s editor, Victoria Walker, argues that “Kavan’s deliberate neglect of fictional plot…seems to have encouraged an impulse to embellish her life story, and during the fifty years since her death her biography has been expansively embroidered.” A statement like this usually leads to an assurance that the author’s exciting or tragic life was actually not that exciting or tragic: She was ordinary, disciplined. She worked, we promise; she didn’t just live. I admit I rarely find this a comforting prospect. However, what follows Walker’s framing caveat—this life is not as unusual as it has been made out to be—is a detailed description of one of the most singular, undeniably unusual lives I’ve ever encountered, ricocheting between capacious mundanity and extreme risk, faithfully untethered to place, people, or name.
The character Anna Kavan was introduced as the protagonist of the 1930 novel Let Me Alone, by the writer Helen Ferguson (née Woods). A grim semiautobiographical story, it follows a young woman’s traumatic, itinerant upbringing marred by her father’s suicide, British boarding school ennui, and her volatile marriage to an older administrator posted in colonial Burma. Anna Kavan is a great name for such a character: wide-eyed ahhs bridged by sturdy, architectural consonants, whittled into a sharp point. A name that splits open, cleaved along an invisible seam. Let Me Alone is astonishingly gloomy in content but formally conventional, a rote bildungsroman. At the time of publishing, the author was known personally as Helen Edmonds (a name I can describe only as floppy). She was 29 years old, in a crumbling second marriage after her father’s suicide and a failed union at 19 with Donald Ferguson, an older administrator posted in… well, you can guess.
Between marriages, she was introduced to heroin, allegedly by a congenial community of race car drivers on the French Riviera, by her tennis instructor (he said it would improve her game), or by a doctor who prescribed it for unrelenting depression. There’s an assortment of mercurial origin stories for what would become the most fixed element of her life and her work. After the death of an infant daughter and the swift adoption of another, a suicide attempt, and her hospitalization in a Swiss psychiatric clinic, she left her two surviving children in boarding schools in order to move between Europe, New York, California, Mexico, the Dutch East Indies, New Zealand, and various waylaid ocean liners. In 1940, Asylum Piece was published, a collection of strange, brittle short stories that circle the drain of psychiatric internment. She settled into a routine of heavy drug use, brief hospitalizations, sobering stints of romantic bliss, sudden departures. She bleached her hair alabaster blond. And she began to introduce herself as Anna Kavan, her formerly fictional proxy—a copy of the copy.
All the stories in Machines in the Head were written after Helen Woods/Ferguson/Edmonds was shed, a glassy crumple on the floor, and Anna Kavan slid out. This marked a major transformation in her writing as well as her person. Plot lifted, like a weight. Dreamscapes became more than interludes, offering permanent residence. Kafka—rather than her previous favorite, D.H. Lawrence—presided as the reigning influence. Machines in the Head is a greatest hits album, a welcoming primer for the uninitiated, chosen from her post-1940 story collections—Asylum Piece (1940), I Am Lazarus (1945), A Bright Green Field (1957), Julia and the Bazooka (1970), and My Soul in China (1975)—plus one previously unpublished piece. Kavan died of a heart attack in 1968, at 67 years old, after 25 years of continual heroin use. The projected mythologies of 20th century junkie lit (dangerous boys, dying young) falter over the image of the little old lady who carried a boiled reusable syringe in her handbag and renovated rental properties for supplemental income.
Another reason Kavan glitches under the category of more lionized drug writing—like her contemporary William Burroughs, whose genre-defining Junkie came out in 1953—is the impossibility of romanticizing the psyches and situations of her characters. She pushes “bleak” to its superlative edge; as a character declares, “I am the enemy of this indestructible, pitiless hope which prolongs and intensifies all my pain. I would like to lay hold of hope and strangle it once and for all.” Sometimes this also seems to be the aim of her writing. A recurring scenario, especially in the earlier pieces, is a desperate person pleading for help and being deemed unworthy of it because of mysterious or arbitrary criteria. A “fatal pale-blue notification” arrives in the mail; an “Adviser” or “Patron” shakes his head with admonishment; a man with a briefcase appears to take her away. Strip away the layers of deadening, mystical fog or the unnamed labyrinthine city that holds many of her stories, and you hit the bare reality of survival hinging on profit-based bureaucracy. Machines in the Head is filled with small fragments of a treatise on doom, half-paranoid, half-realist, sunk in “the end without end,” “a garden without seasons.” Repeatedly, a character leaves the house to unexpectedly discover that spring has arrived. This is taken not as a pleasure but as an affront. Even flowers can be evidence of despair.
As the collection progresses, Kavan veers toward specificity, spinning out into the soft, cold crush of narrative. These footholds allow a wider reach of nuance, and we even glimpse her self-aware humor, twinkling in the expanse. In my favorite story, “Ice Storm,” an afflicted young female writer living in New York City visits a couple in Connecticut for the weekend, her inner monologue intercut with headlines about an incoming nor’easter (a classic Kavan landscape). The writer asks, “Is it possible that this is really happening to me?” (a classic Kavan inquiry) and is answered, in cheeky bold, “PEOPLE WERE SURPRISED AT THE WEATHER,” “COUNTRY SLAPPED IN THE FACE BY BEAUTIFYING YET MOST DESTRUCTIVE RAIN SLEET,” “STORM-NUMBED PIGEON FOUND WITH FEET FROZEN TO PARK BENCH.” After she arrives, they are quickly snowed in. Her friend’s girlfriend, with “a vinegary kind of smile,” dismisses her agony, “I don’t understand you…. If you really feel as badly as you say, how can you be so articulate about everything and write about everything the way you do?” All the pieces are in place for a moment of epiphany—extreme weather, existential crisis, rude acquaintance—but in the end, our narrator simply returns to the city. “Except that I had seen the ice storm everything was exactly the same for me.” I felt sharply moved by Kavan’s obstinacy. In her stories, no one shall ever, under any circumstances, feel better.
Kavan’s later stories, particularly from Julia and the Bazooka, are missives from deep within entrenched opiate addiction. Inverting convention, their narrators see the outside, nonusing world as blanched by an aura of science fiction. Time thrums and shudders. Every piece pulses from a magnetic center—the “bazooka,” as Kavan called her syringe—and the characters maintain ceaseless orbit, rotating toward and away in their small situations but always within its system of cosmic organization. It’s rare to encounter explicit descriptions of heroin use that are not written from the vantage of eventual sobriety (and implicit redemption), especially from a woman. Today, Jade Sharma’s inimitable novel Problems (2016) and Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life (2017) glow with the same quivering honesty. I don’t think it’s a coincidence Kavan’s work is being reissued in the midst of the opioid crisis and its echoing devastation. Her writing pulls up the roots of today’s emergency, the pale arterial web of context, and offers essential political perspective. Her refusal of treatment did not preclude her from writing or living; in the language of contemporary harm reduction, she was met where she was. Reading her late work, I can only wish that Sharma, who died last year at 39 years old, could have written for three more decades.
And how did Kavan make it into her late 60s? It wasn’t luck, fortitude, or restraint. Her survival was purely structural. From 1926 to the late 1960s, the United Kingdom was unique in its system of medically prescribed heroin for state-registered addicts. A doctor—for Kavan, it was her close friend and psychiatrist, Karl Bluth, an anti-fascist who fled the Nazis to England in the 1930s—could legally administer safe amounts of heroin to those determined physically dependent. In the United States the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which outlawed medical opiates for addiction management, was passed in 1914. Afterward, the black market bloomed, and heroin use became purposefully wedded to criminality in the public imagination, building towards the cataclysmic war on drugs decades later.
In the United Kingdom, Kavan was able to access her supply without risking her immediate safety. When Bluth died in 1964, this tenuous security collapsed. Simultaneously, shifting attitudes, under pressure from the United States, were chipping away at her legal protections, and Kavan was forced to go to a public clinic to receive her dose. Panicked and grieving, she began stockpiling heroin, fearing the state would alter or rescind its policy altogether (which it did in 1971). After she died in her apartment in 1968, the repeated legend has it that police found enough heroin to kill the whole street—which is still seen as evidence of a death wish rather than urgently anticipated precarity. Her perennial sense of alienation and mistrust was mutely confirmed.
Happiness—or even liberation—was never Kavan’s aim. In the story “At Night,” she writes, “No, there’s no justice for people like us in the world: all that we can do is to suffer as bravely as possible and put our oppressors to shame.” Her stories are often described as plotless, which maybe reveals how our traditional understanding of narrative arc relies on a curve of absolution: We dip into bad feeling, bad behavior, only to pull out again. Kavan holds the note, winding that bend into a spiral, a knot. Climax loops. This commitment to stasis forgoes the temporal for a more spatial mode. For Kavan, life was a place, a landscape that can be described but never moved through. Frozen, as if under snow.