:: Article

Missives from a Parallel Dimension

By Des Barry.

Anna Kavan, Machines in the Head (Peter Owen Publishers, 2019)

Anna Kavan’s writing defies genre. Her stories appear like missives from an alternate dimension. Her creative output was prolific. It’s almost impossible to write about Kavan’s work without taking into consideration her life because she drew on it for much of the material that she transformed into fiction: her physically lived life and her phantasmagorical interior worlds. From 1929 to 1939, the woman who was to become Anna Kavan had already published six novels with Jonathan Cape under the name Helen Ferguson. She had been born Helen Emily Woods in 1902. In 1920, she was pressured by her mother into marrying Donald Ferguson, an executive of a railway company in Burma. Anna Kavan first appears in 1930 as a character in the Helen Ferguson novel Let Me Alone, a fictionalised account of that failed marriage. In 1940, Anna Kavan emerged as the author of a collection of short stories and a novella with the publication of Asylum Piece. Anaïs Nin called Asylum Piece ‘A classic equal to the work of Kafka’. The adoption of the name Anna Kavan and the use of the name Kay for a protagonist for one of her novellas are undoubtedly acknowledgements of Kafka’s influence. Few writers in the English language were producing anything as radical as Kavan’s fiction. In A Stranger on Earth: The Life and Work of Anna Kavan, Jeremy Reed writes:

Nothing in Helen Ferguson’s work had suggested the stripped-down method and the naked poetic eye with which she captures detail in Asylum Piece.

That stripped-down method and naked poetic eye are evident in the prose that Anna Kavan continued to produce throughout her life.

Machines in the Head travels a chronological path through Kavan’s published short stories, selecting some of her finest fiction from Asylum Piece (1940), I Am Lazarus (1945), A Bright Green Field (1957), Julia and the Bazooka (1970), My Soul in China (1975), and a previously unpublished story. There is also a selection of her journalism and nonfiction writing for Horizon magazine (1944-46). The collection begins with eight short stories from Asylum Piece and an extract from the novella of that name. The first story, ‘Going Up in the World’, begins in a city whose lower reaches are swathed in fog. An unnamed narrator sets off from her dwelling in the lower city to appeal for help to her Patron and Patroness who live in a high rise building. The story works with a dream logic reminiscent of Kafka’s The Castle but its nightmarish fairy tale nuances are unmistakeably Kavan:

I am in a lift, being whirled up towards the skies. A man servant in white stockings and purple knee-breeches shows me into a magnificent room. Here one is above the fog, the sun is shining outside the windows draped in soft veils of net… The floor is covered by a carpet softer than moss…

This idyll of warmth and light soon turns to anxiety and cruelty as the Patron and Patroness humiliate her. What exactly does the narrator want? Why is her request for help refused? Of what is she guilty?

Used with the permission of Antonia Owen.

The protagonists of the stories from Asylum Piece are confronted with unnameable enemies, shadow people who persecute them, intimations of lost innocence, gardens outside of time. It’s from Asylum Piece that the title story for Machines in the Head, has been chosen. The narrator finds herself in an insomniac dimension outside time, where winter instantaneously transforms into spring, the present into the past, and the relentlessly uncontrollable workings of the mind take over, their ‘wheels revolve faster, the pistons slide smoothly in their cylinders, the noise of machinery fills the whole world’. The machines in the head demand the compliance of a desperately resistant waking consciousness as the narrator feels ‘happy things start to recede.’

Throughout her life, Kavan suffered from depression. Her father committed suicide by jumping into the sea from a ship bound for South America. Her mother sent her away to boarding schools from the age of six. There can be no doubt about the adverse effects that these traumatic events had on her mental health. Kavan found solace in writing where she could mine experiences of anxiety and isolation and transform them in to the literary weave of her short stories, novellas and novels. These fairy tales for the machine age draw the reader into an interior dimension that provides insight into the ephemeral nature of the ‘reality’ of the physical world. Later in the century, Ann Sexton in her poetry and Angela Carter in postmodern fable were to explore similar territory.

Kavan claimed to have been introduced to intravenous cocaine in her late teens by her tennis coach in order to improve her serve, according to David Callard’s biography The Case of Anna Kavan. He also refers to an anecdote told to him by Kavan’s close friend Raymond Marriott that it was in her early twenties, among car racing drivers, that she first tried heroin. Callard writes:

Among racing drivers she found a disregard for life and a hankering to live on the edge which mirrored her own deathwish.

Kavan fictionalised this time in her life in the story ‘A World of Heroes.’ She remained a heroin addict until her death in 1968. Her doctor and close friend Karl Bluth was convinced that heroin held at bay her clinical depression. While he lived, he continued to prescribe heroin as a palliative that, along with her writing, kept her from suicide. Kavan would, however, attempt suicide on more than one occasion. Significant periods of her life were spent in mental institutions and detox units. She used these experiences of coping with addiction in the creation of her fictions, and not all of them are otherworldly. Among the selections from I Am Lazarus, the first, ‘Palace of Sleep’, is set in an institution where a woman is in a pharmaceutically induced coma. There is a terrifying realism in this story. Kavan chose narcosis treatment as a means to allow her body to withdraw from heroin dependency and rebuild its capacity for producing natural dopamine. From a more distant third person narration, she conjures up the environment around the chemically comatose woman with its cheery doctors and clinical reek.

Despite her reliance on medical institutions to save her from suicide or out-of-control addiction at the most desperate times of her life, her view of these environments was understandably jaundiced. Her chosen isolation as a writer meant that the physical world in which she lived bore some resemblance to the one that the rest of the human race inhabits; but it became hallucinatory and nightmarish as the doors of perception distorted. These extremes of experience she captures in her chilling and precise prose, often tempered with a wry black humour.

In 1944, Kavan worked for a short time in ‘a psychiatric unit specializing in the psychological casualties of war’ (Reed p.83). In the stories ‘Blackout’ and ‘Face of My People’ the narrator has an outside view of the patients in a similar institution. Kavan’s fiction draws on reality and vice-versa. In the latter story, a patient named Bill Williams acts as a kind of precursor to Ken Kesey’s McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Bill Williams makes a reappearance in the selection of her writing from issue 50 of Horizon magazine, under the title ‘The Case of Bill Williams’, where she writes:

Private Williams is a neurotic case. Society doesn’t approve of him. Bill Williams is unpopular with the nurses, and the doctors are anxious to get him out of their wards. They say he has a bad influence on the other patients… because, in spite of pep talks and electrical treatment and Benzedrine tablets, he persists in being unfriendly, apathetic and slovenly, uncooperative and bad tempered, rebellious and disintegrated.

Life and literature intersect inextricably in Kavan’s literary output. The longest piece included from I Am Lazarus is ‘Our City’. What begins with a simple description of a wartime city, metamorphoses into a set of seemingly contradictory images. It would be impossible to encapsulate this story’s nuances in a few short sentences. As the narrator avers in the story: ‘No, I can’t explain how our city can be at one time a judge, at another a trap, at another an octopus.’ She doesn’t explain how these transformations happen but she guides the reader through the perceptions to make them so.

The shortest piece from I Am Lazarus is called ‘The Gannets’. It’s a horror story with all the impact of a work by Edgar Allan Poe.

Used with the permission of the Haines Collection.

Among the three stories included from A Bright Green Field, the middle story, ‘Ice Storm’, is set in Connecticut. The story is juxtaposed with the narrator’s struggle to make a decision as to whether she should leave the United States or stay. The images prefigure the world that Kavan will build in her masterpiece Ice. Ice plays a major role in the reification of her imaginary worlds. Ice often mirrors the chilling dimension in which her addiction and social isolation have trapped her, with which she has become familiar, and in which she has learned to survive and transform. The nature descriptions of the storm and its effect on the landscape are exquisite.

The big unbroken trees sprayed like unclear fountains towards the mist. Through the centre of each jet of clouded crystal the black branch was threaded. The trees were lovely and frightening to look at. I tried not to feel afraid of the trees. Dear God, let me not start being afraid of things in the natural world. It’s only the human world that is truly fearful.

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Despite the brilliance of her prose, and the positive reviews of each of her published works, Anna Kavan earned very little from book sales. Mostly, she lived off an allowance from her mother that continued to be paid by her mother’s widower; and from the profits of some small property deals. Peter Owen, the founder of Peter Owen Publishers, was a great believer in the quality of her work as was the Welsh author Rhys Davies. Davies was to curate her posthumous output of Julia and the Bazooka and My Soul in China. He also wrote a novel, Honeysuckle Girl, based on that part of her life that Kavan had fictionalised in My Soul in China, a novella she had written around the time of Asylum Piece but had not published.

Machines in the Head contains five stories from Julia and the Bazooka. In ‘Fog’, driving a fast car has chilling consequences. The vivid prose at first conjures up the warm, emotionally detached, wrapped-in-cotton-wool effect experienced on opiates. ‘Fog’ was my own introduction to the work of Anna Kavan in 2015. At the time, I was reading my way through the work of Denton Welch. I was struck by the story’s affinity with Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud: how Kavan and Welch transform the altered states induced by opiates into haunting and beautiful lyrical prose, while in no way distancing themselves from the horror of the institutions in which they’d been forced to seek medical help for their physical and mental difficulties.

In Machines in the Head, Kavan’s later stories from Julia and the Bazooka, first published posthumously in 1970, give an essential insight into how her writing draws on the whole of her life. The ‘Old Address’ shows that, at the end of a detox stay, a patient’s perceptions remain on the edge of hallucination and dream, and how her addictive impulses continue to condition her physical actions. Even as she slips out of the relative normality of the hospital, the world transforms into a wild paranoiac nightmare.

The most lyrical of the stories in this collection is perhaps ‘A Visit’: a dream familiar enters the consciousness of the narrator, a familiar which the author might recognise as an ally to help her navigate her internal phantasmagoria.

It was not until later, when moonlight entering through the window revealed an abstract spotted design, that I recognized the form of an unusually large, handsome leopard stretched out beside me.

*

The nonfiction or journalistic section of Machines in the Head has a short article on New Zealand, where Kavan lived for a time with her young lover, Ian Hamilton. The Bill Williams article, mentioned in relation to Asylum Piece, follows this; while the other writings in this part of the book come from Kavan’s Selected Notices in Horizon magazine. The Selected Notices are reviews of books by Philip Toynbee, Mary McCarthy, Virginia Woolf, James Agee and Walker Evans, Aldous Huxley, and Denton Welch among others.

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After my discovery of Anna Kavan’s writing in 2015 with Julia and the Bazooka, I continued by reading her novel Ice. In 2017, I reread Ice following the release by Peter Owen Publishers of the beautifully produced fiftieth anniversary edition of the work. Strangely, I found the novel easier to read in this particular edition then my paperback copy by another publisher. The experience underlined for me that book design is an art in itself. With Machines in the Head, Peter Owen Publishers have done readers a similar service with Kavan’s shorter prose. The boards are gold-embossed and wrapped in a dustcover subtly designed as if distressed. The book contains a series of colour reproductions of Kavan’s paintings. The first is a somewhat conventional portrait, possibly done by Helen Ferguson while at art school. Two other paintings by Helen Ferguson are landscapes that already are shifting away from conventional representation. The other nine paintings by Anna Kavan are visions evoked from that realm of dream and nightmare that she conjures up for readers through her prose. The faces of the portraits are more angular and alien. Other figurative subjects are stippled like mosaic: a salmon is in osmosis with ice; a wild feline creeps through dense foliage; a human figure is ‘indistinguishable from the cage in which it is confined.’

Used with the permission of the Haines Collection.

Perhaps her interior world has similarities to that of Outsider artist Henry Darger, the recluse of Chicago. Callard reports that Kavan’s friends Rhys Davies and Raymond Marriott found:

a series of paintings depicting gruesome executions and people being hung by their entrails. They were so ghastly that, as her executors under the terms of the 1964 will, which had never been altered, they had them destroyed.

I read this with anguish. After all, if Max Brod had destroyed the work of Kafka, another isolated artist whose work was never made available in his lifetime, the literary world would have been so much the poorer. If only these paintings had been preserved.

Others of Kavan’s paintings were distributed among her friends. Some that were kept by Raymond Marriot were exhibited after his death. Apart from the paintings reproduced in Machines in the Head, a number have also been reproduced in Jeremy Reed’s Stranger on Earth: The Life and Work of Anna Kavan.

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I have often been asked by friends to recommend a book by Anna Kavan that would be a good introduction to her writing. Machines in the Head contains some of her finest work. It’s an ideal place to start and a collection of lyrical gems for those familiar with only one, or only a few, of her books. The access to her journalism provides insight into her literary reading proclivities. Machines in the Head is a perfect entry-point to Anna Kavan’s work that spans her literary lifetime.

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While in the middle of a period of research for this review, I was reading and rereading much of Kavan’s work. At one moment I thought, ‘I’m falling in love with Anna Kavan.’ With whom, or what, was I falling in love? Certainly with a visionary, certainly with a prose writer of outstanding quality, certainly with an opium-like mirage of a woman from a parallel universe, an image that doesn’t take into account the acute suffering of addiction and depression. But it’s also an identification with this woman as irrepressible creator and dweller on the edge.

Immersion in Kavan’s writing has the effect of drawing a reader into her dreamlike otherworld. Machines in the Head provides an open doorway to that literary dimension. Go on in.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta3:AM Magazine and in anthologies including Sea Stories, Wales Half Welsh and London Noir. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 13th, 2019.