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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