Anna and the Bazooka

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I can drop Anna Kavan’s name among the most literary of my friends and their brows furrow and they confess that, even though thirteen of her books are still in print, and a second biography of her life, A Stranger on Earth, by Jeremy Reed, came out this spring, they’ve never heard of her, let alone read a word by her.

Anna Kavan wasn’t her real name. She was born Helen Woods but changed her name to Helen Ferguson. Then, when she married, she became Helen Edmunds, but after her divorce (or was there a divorce? Everything about the woman is so mysterious) she destroyed all her diaries and papers, and invented a new birth date, a new physical appearance 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,’ she wrote.

In fact she turned herself into such an enigma that she’s been nearly forgotten, though it’s not as if people haven’t discovered her. They discover her endlessly. When Jonathan Cape published Asylum Piece, her first book written as Anna Kavan in 1940, she wrote: ‘At last I did produce something really good, something quite out of the ordinary, if I say it myself. The preliminary reviews were first rate, everything seemed set for success. You’ve really brought it off this time, Jonathan said. Then the war started. That was the end of that.’

She worked for Cyril Connolly at Horizon in the ’40s; Anaïs Nin described her as ‘an equal to Kafka’; Doris Lessing rediscovered her and so did J. G. Ballard; Brian Aldiss declared her to be a truly great science fiction writer and voted Ice, a metaphysical thriller, the Best Science Fiction Novel of 1967; and then, twelve years ago, David Callard wrote the first biography of her, The Case of Anna Kavan. But despite being discovered so often, despite being one of the most original English female writers of her generation, Ann

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I can drop Anna Kavan’s name among the most literary of my friends and their brows furrow and they confess that, even though thirteen of her books are still in print, and a second biography of her life, A Stranger on Earth, by Jeremy Reed, came out this spring, they’ve never heard of her, let alone read a word by her.

Anna Kavan wasn’t her real name. She was born Helen Woods but changed her name to Helen Ferguson. Then, when she married, she became Helen Edmunds, but after her divorce (or was there a divorce? Everything about the woman is so mysterious) she destroyed all her diaries and papers, and invented a new birth date, a new physical appearance 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,’ she wrote.

In fact she turned herself into such an enigma that she’s been nearly forgotten, though it’s not as if people haven’t discovered her. They discover her endlessly. When Jonathan Cape published Asylum Piece, her first book written as Anna Kavan in 1940, she wrote: ‘At last I did produce something really good, something quite out of the ordinary, if I say it myself. The preliminary reviews were first rate, everything seemed set for success. You’ve really brought it off this time, Jonathan said. Then the war started. That was the end of that.’

She worked for Cyril Connolly at Horizon in the ’40s; Anaïs Nin described her as ‘an equal to Kafka’; Doris Lessing rediscovered her and so did J. G. Ballard; Brian Aldiss declared her to be a truly great science fiction writer and voted Ice, a metaphysical thriller, the Best Science Fiction Novel of 1967; and then, twelve years ago, David Callard wrote the first biography of her, The Case of Anna Kavan. But despite being discovered so often, despite being one of the most original English female writers of her generation, Anna Kavan remains, to most people, a puzzle.

One of the problems is that she’s no Joanna Trollope. Not for her cosy scenes of domestic harmony and disharmony. No one lives happily ever after in a book by Anna Kavan – and they didn’t live happily ever after in the more family-orientated books she wrote under her earlier names, either. She writes of being locked up in mysterious asylums, surrounded by deranged people; she writes of paranoia, of suspicion, of chilling loneliness and imprisonment. Hers is a terrifying inner landscape of death and evil – in which her only friends are animals or birds who come to comfort her. In one of her stories the hero is incarcerated in a cruel prison where the guards play table tennis with rats instead of balls, and in many ways her writing is reminiscent of Kafka, from whom she derived her pseudonym.

Often a short story of hers involves waiting for a reprieve or a punishment that never comes. ‘To whom can one appeal when one does not even know where to find the judge? How can one ever hope to find one’s innocence when there is no means of knowing of what one has been accused?’ she wrote in ‘At Night’, a story in Asylum Piece. In another two-page story, ‘A Certain Experience’, Kavan tells of a bitter-sweet experience.

For instance, it can be stated plainly that I was condemned, that I was imprisoned, that I had given up hope, and that I was then delivered and set free without stipulations. I can describe the courtyard with its high, spiked walls, where shuffling, indistinguishable gangs swept the leaves which the guards always re-scattered to be swept again. I can describe the peep-hole in the hookless door, the hard, unsleeping eye-bulb in its cage. I can describe the smells in the corridors, the sounds ambiguously interpreted, the sights from which eyes were averted hastily. I can describe the hands under which I suffered; I can describe the visitor with the rolled umbrella who announced my release.

But she never is released; and that is one of Kavan’s happier tales.

I love her books partly because, having suffered acute depression myself, I know the territory she’s talking about. I’ve never been in asylums like the ones Anna Kavan frequented but, like her, I know the interface between reality and hell. And because she writes of it with such simple honesty and elegance, her books are curiously reassuring to a fellow-sufferer.

Anna Kavan was born in Cannes in 1901 to a mother who was far more interested in socializing than in looking after her strange child. She was dumped on nannies and aunts, and then sent to boarding schools in America and France, and finally to Malvern Girls’ College, which she hated. (At school, she later wrote, ‘One day when I combed my hair in front of the mirror, my mother looked out at me with her face of an exiled princess. That was the day I knew I was unhappy.’)

Her father was a remote figure who jumped overboard to his death from a liner bound for South America, and Anna’s mother was left so badly off that even though Anna begged to go to Oxford, she refused, preferring to push her into marriage with one of her own cast-off  lovers, Donald Ferguson, an engineer on the Burmese railways. (He apparently beat rats to death with a tennis racquet, and became the model for the ghastly guards in the prison.) Living a wretched life in Mandalay, Anna spent her time writing.

The books she wrote as Helen Ferguson are, on the surface, just humdrum Aga-sagas. Their plots involve strict fathers, love-affairs, unhappy marriages, unrequited love, spinster sisters, but read any one of them and you’ll find that they’re completely unlike the domestic novels of today. Threading through them are a horror and a cruelty that are menacing and claustrophobic. Clearly they reflect how Anna felt in her wretched marriage in the Far East.

Eventually she fled, leaving behind her young son, and fell in with a group of racing drivers in the South of France. ‘I liked them because they were honest,’ she wrote. ‘Not one of them ever told me life was worth living.’ It was these self-destructive men who introduced her to heroin. She was halfway there already, having been recommended cocaine by a tennis coach ‘to improve her serve’.

It’s not surprising that the next husband she found, the artist Stuart Edmonds, was an alcoholic. By now, her son Bryan had returned to her, and they all lived a chaotic but reasonably happy life in Buckinghamshire. Anna had, during one period of her life, spent time at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and had been taught by the charismatic Ukrainian teacher, Bernard Meninski (a hero of my father, who was also taught by him and who went on to teach alongside him in the ’40s – I often wonder whether he ever taught Anna Kavan).

In Buckinghamshire, Anna wrote and painted. But slowly Stuart drank more and more; and no doubt Anna used heroin more and more. Their marriage ended with the first of her three suicide attempts.

She wrote of one attempt in her book My Soul in China:

All at once, despair coils itself neatly inside my head, leaving no room for any other feeling. I snatch a steaming cup of tea from somewhere and with the utmost haste I start dissolving in it tablets of veronal, tuinal, sodium amytal, etc, etc. As if I were catching a train and hadn’t a second to lose. I keep stirring more and more tablets into the hot tea, until the contents of the cup are solid like blancmange; this nauseous mess I cram into my mouth with a spoon.

These suicide attempts always resulted in a visit to a clinic – but detoxing never worked for Anna. Before a few days were out, she began using again. ‘Heroin has saved my life and kept me from madness,’ she wrote. Her gear she called her ‘paraphernalia’, and her syringe was referred to as her ‘bazooka’. Indeed one of her collections of short stories is called Julia and the Bazooka, and the first story in it is about a young woman being discharged from a detox clinic – and being terrified once she’s faced with the streets of London.

But Anna wasn’t the kind of down-and-out addict that we know today. After her marriage to Stuart collapsed, she moved to a fashionable house in Campden Hill and devoted her life to writing, painting, doing up houses – and taking drugs. Though heroin was illegal, it was easily available on the black market. Luckily, during one of her many unsuccessful detoxes, she met a psychiatrist, Dr Karl Theodore Bluth, with whom she had an intense but platonic relationship (he was married). It was then that she abandoned her past identities and turned into Anna Kavan; and it was Dr Bluth who persuaded her to register with the Home Office as a heroin addict – there were only around two hundred registered addicts in 1949 – so that he could supply her legally. He became, in effect, her dealer.

Bluth’s death in 1964 caused Anna intense grief but also raised the immediate problem of how to supply her habit. In 1961, an inter-departmental government committee had recommended that heroin addicts should attend out-patient clinics to get their fixes. Terrified that she might be forced to undergo compulsory detoxification, Anna Kavan frantically stockpiled her supplies.

So why do I love this gloomy and hopelessly addicted author, who once wrote that ‘I have an unhappy nature and there is something incomprehensible about me which invites misfortune.’ Perhaps because she suffered such a terrible sense of alienation and despair. When Anna Kavan writes of a nameless heroine who goes to beg for mercy from mysterious superiors who are punishing her for a crime she cannot name but of which she knows she is, in some way, guilty, I know exactly what she is talking about. ‘I am freezing with cold and loneliness down there in the fog,’ she says. ‘Please be kind to me. Let me share a little bit of your sunshine and warmth. I won’t be any trouble to you.’

Anna Kavan died of a heart attack in the winter of 1968, on the very evening she was due to attend a Notting Hill party given by her publisher Peter Owen to introduce her to her greatest admirer, Anaïs Nin. She was found lying on her bed, her head on the Chinese box in which she kept her drugs. Later, the police admitted that they found enough heroin in her house to ‘kill the whole street’.

Though her writing is more surreal, Anna Kavan had a lot in common with Jean Rhys. They were both addicts, albeit of different substances, and both were paranoid, damaged, alienated. In many ways, too, she is reminiscent of those self-destructive stars of the screen and stage – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin.

Nevertheless, she continued writing till the end, sending her stories to her publisher pinned together with a hypodermic needle.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Virginia Ironside 2006


About the contributor

Virginia Ironside is best known as an agony aunt with the Independent. She has written over fifteen books, and has been instrumental in organizing the gravestone for the writer Julian MacLaren-Ross. Her No! I Don’t Want to Join a Bookclub, a fictionalized diary about being 60 and a granny, was published in 2006.

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