Review of Guilty by Anna Kavan

Guilty by Anna Kavan

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Book Review of Guilty by Anna Kavan

Rhys Davies, one of Anna Kavan’s few close friends, wrote an introduction for Julia and the Bazooka (1970), a posthumous collection of her stories linked by their common allusion to her heroin habit. In it he describes a meal taken with her at the Café Royal during which she developed an inexplicable revulsion for one of the waiters, and his surprise when later he found this episode recounted in a story (The Summons in Asylum Piece [1940]) in that manner full of foreboding which, for want of a better word, people are inclined to call Kafkaesque.

Having myself already come across that story, I experienced the converse of Davies’s reaction: surprise that such a sinister incident could have been experienced, by someone else, as so everyday, so innocuous.

The received view is that Kavan’s later writing, her increasing tendency to represent the world as some threatening, scarcely comprehensible mechanism dedicated to the crushing of her characters’ hopes and longings, and the stylistic means adopted to these ends, had its source in traumatic events occurring around 1938-39: the collapse of her second marriage, mental breakdown, successive suicide attempts, discovery of Kafka. Her previous works, written under her first married name of Helen Ferguson, have been labelled – again by Rhys Davies – ‘home counties novels’. But it is far less straightforward than that.

Her first published book, A Charmed Circle (1929), opens with a chapter devoted to the external aspect of the vicarage in which the action will take place, describing how its rural isolation has, over the years, been encroached upon by ‘…mean streets that devoured the unresisting land. Fields were eaten away almost in a night. People went for their yearly holidays and returned four short weeks later to find the landscape strangely altered.’ This only lasts a page; but, by the time we have read it, we are already in the grip of a chilling objectivity whose fearfulness owes nothing to any invocation of the supernatural. Still more adventurous in style is her third book, Let Me Alone (1930); and this introduces us to a character called Anna Kavan.

We meet her first as a child. Her mother having died at her birth, she lives with her stony-spirited father in a near-inaccessible vineyard in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This landscape may or may not be a locale remembered from Kavan’s own peripatetic childhood; but to us, armed as we are with foresight, it seems almost a muted version of the Fauve landscape to be found in Eagle’s Nest (1957). This section of he book is written with a strange detachment, its tone casual, almost callous, throwaway, in the manner of a teller of old tales who feels, for example, no need to confine the narrative to the viewpoint of one character but colludes in the mythic suggestion that all may be known or understood, even the motivations of the goblin.

When Anna is twelve, her father shoots himself. In ‘real life’ Kavan’s father committed suicide by drowning when she was of comparable age. Her mother, who was in fact still alive, is perhaps represented in the book by Aunt Lauretta, who takes responsibility for little Anna only to pack her off to a boarding school. (Pursuit of such parallels soon runs out of steam, however, and in any case contributes little to our understanding.)

In dealing with this period of her life the writing becomes more relaxed, approaching the quality of a conventional romance as it follows the attempts of the decidedly unconventional Anna to find love or acceptance within an all-female society. Then, rather than bear the expense of sending her to Oxford, Lauretta manoeuvres Anna into marrying a boring and thoroughly unpleasant man, Matthew, who is about to return to his administrative post – something to do with the railways – in a remote district of Burma. The brutalising boredom of her life in this colonial outpost provokes a final stylistic shift, the sentences becoming flat, flinching, repetitive, as if handling something they could hardly bear to touch:

Matthew’s work obliged him to be away a good deal […] Then Anna was quite alone. She became a vague, aimless portion of a vague, meaningless world. It was all a sort of empty madness, a madness of vacancy. Everything faded into blank inanity, she was a blankness, everything was blankness, there was nothing but blankness, and it was horrible, horrible. It almost killed her, it was so horrible.

The emotional pressure intensifies as the heat and humidity become more and more intolerable. Anna is raped by her husband to whom, though it is not entirely explicit, she seems to have denied any sexual contact up to that point. Finally she rushes out as the first storm of the monsoon season breaks, and is nearly killed. In a short coda, which she represents to herself as the triumph over her now contrite husband, she receives a letter from an old school friend accepting an invitation to come and visit her.

The next book, A Stranger Still appeared in 1935. (The title is, though attributed only to a German song, in fact a quote from Winterreise, a singularly appropriate source for this author.) Here she dispenses with syntactic extravagances. But in Chapter Six Anna Kavan appears on the scene; and, although her presence might be said to constitute a sub-plot, this becomes in effect the sequel to Let Me Alone. The names of the characters are the same.

For two years, having evidently left her husband, Anna has been back in England living and working with her old school friend in a joint dressmaking venture capitalised by Aunt Lauretta. However, she is now becoming restless and leaves her friend to embark on an affair with one of the book’s main characters, an artist. This, though far more substantial, echoes a shipboard romance with an artist en route to Burma in the earlier book; and both fail in almost identical terms, the artist stopping short when the moment comes for decisive commitment.

It is curious to note how the more conventional style of A Stranger Still inflects our perception of people and their relationships. Each short chapter settles more or less for one viewpoint, and two take us to Burma to see how Matthew Kavan is getting on. Though recognisably the same person, he is represented more sympathetically than in Let Me Alone. At the same time, others are allowed to comment quite critically on Anna’s coolness and detachment, she in turn being invested with a worldliness largely a function of the genre.

Her final decision is to return to her husband, since he is the only person who seems to have any need for her. But the chapters of this book have titles, and the title of the chapter in which she arrives at this decision – overturning an earlier declaration of self-sufficiency – is ‘Anna sees her own error’. Knowing Kavan as we do, we may be inclined to suspect something tongue-in-cheek about this – a hint of the moralistic tract.

A Stranger Still carries an oddly worded disclaimer. It begins, ‘All the situations and episodes described in this book are imaginary; no portrait is intended of any real character, alive or dead;’ which seems clear enough. But then it adds, ‘and the Jewish family herein portrayed is entirely fictitious.’ Why draw special attention to the Jewish family, who figure in just one chapter? The only possible interpretation is that the other characters, though purely imaginary, are not entirely fictitious.

In a sense, of course, the idea of characters or incidents in novels being ‘based on’ real life is an absurdity: not because of any inadequacy in the novel form, but because ‘real life’ is too unstable to base anything on. Its only stability is in the writing. But in that case, what are we to make of Helen Ferguson’s assuming the identity of Anna Kavan after her crisis circa 1939? It is a gesture that has haunted me ever since I first heard of it.

What could impel a writer to turn inward in this way, to seek refuge within a character she or he had created, when on the face of it one’s creature must always be a more circumscribed entity than oneself? I wonder now, looking at the different portrayals of Anna in the above two books, whether it was not precisely the instability, the uncertainty, to which she wished to lay claim.

At all events, her first full novel written in the persona of Anna Kavan appeared, in 1941, under the title Change the Name. One of her coldest and most harrowing works, it concerns a mother’s inability to feel love for her daughter. This was a subject Kavan knew well from both perspectives. If she did not invoke the visual furnishings of nightmare for this, it was because she did not need to. The familial suffocation of A Charmed Circle was enough.

Thirty-three years after Let Me Alone (at least, as measured by publication dates), Kavan returned to the theme of the husband and young wife trapped together in a dismal house in Burma. But the writing is altogether different. By now she had evolved a style which – whatever we choose to call it – seems to entail distilling the emotional structure from events and then allowing this to generate a new circumstantial world in which it can attain to its fullest expression.

It will not escape notice that the mental geometry here is not so different from that involved in assuming the identity of one’s own character – in either sense of that word. This time the wife is called simply ‘the girl’, presumably because it would have been awkward to go on calling her Anna Kavan; and the husband is called Mr Dog-Head, the nick-name given him by the natives.

All the key incidents are recognisable from the previous book, but several elements have been added: a ‘house-boy’ fanatically devoted to Dog-Head and full of loathing for the girl; a game involving tennis racquets and live rats which the husband tries to bully his wife into playing with him; and, above all, what she calls the ‘brain-fever birds’, whose shrieks, which go on for hours, resemble the question, ‘Who are you?’

The narrative is in the present tense, and the girl is seen first from the distance: ‘The light from the house isn’t bright enough to show the colour of her dress, which is probably white.’ This crisp, report-like tone will, once established, be used to confer the same appearance of observational scrutiny upon accounts of the characters’ inner feelings. The prose itself has none of the numb, stiff-fingered quality used so effectively to encode boredom in Let Me Alone. But the description of the brain-fever birds, with which the book actually opens, recurs several times in near-identical language.

And this repetition has a remarkable pay-off at the end. When the girl has rushed out into the storm, and the husband has been crushed – perhaps killed – by a wardrobe toppled over onto himself in his drunken fury, we return to the birds; and there follow two chapters beginning from earlier points in the narrative and developing into an ending queasily different from the one we have just read. It is tempting to suspect that these may be two chapters from an earlier draft, and that Kavan, not quite satisfied with the ending, simply decided to tack them on. If so, it was a stroke of genius.

Rather than try to remedy what may have seemed an inconclusive conclusion, she has managed to make it more inconclusive still, thus avoiding any suggestion that this may resolve matters left open in the two earlier works.

So is that it? Have we heard Kavan’s last word on the subject of the young person who, perhaps because of some early estrangement from superficial social norms, finds it difficult to attract love and difficult equally to return whatever love she does attract and who, at the same time, experiences a kind of existential paralysis when social action is required – because of, as she puts it in Who Are You?, an underlying belief in ‘her own unchangeable bad luck’?

In Guilty, her recently rediscovered novel now published for the first time, the main protagonist is a man. But that does not make so much difference as you might imagine. It is not only a woman who can confront a loveless life. It is rather that the situation of women in the early twentieth century, trapped in situations where opportunities were few and marriage offered the only credible fantasy of escape, provided a metaphor for a universal human tension between dependency and freedom. Anna Kavan may well have been, as her biographers insist, emotionally damaged; but her books are not.

We are first introduced to Mark as a seven-year-old when his father, a war hero, declares himself a pacifist. This carries with it, and transfers onto Mark, a stigma of the almost-unmentionable such as once cloaked illegitimacy or lapse of faith.

As he passes through schooldays to adult employment his path is eased by a powerful, friendly but remote figure called Mr Spector, who supplies him with his job, his apartment and perhaps also – though this is suggested only obliquely – his fiancée. Mark’s resentment against his seeming self-imprisonment – for Spector has told him he can depart whenever he wishes – drives him to the point of breakdown.

If Spector is to be read symbolically, and there are implausibilities in his presence which suggest this, then what he symbolises must be that social expectation into which we are born, the ordinary life mapped out for us which rewards our conformity up to a point but stands always ready to punish our deviation.

But Kavan’s characters are never purely symbols; and in this book the balance between levels of representation is maintained with vertiginous skill. No sooner do we relax into seeing it as a dream than someone will make a perfectly reasonable comment which reminds us that they are ‘real people’ engaged in real relationships. No sooner do we entertain a reservation than someone will voice it for us.

It is normal to expect that a manuscript retrieved from oblivion will prove to be a work of second rank, interesting only for such light as it may shed on the author’s established corpus. That is emphatically not the case with Guilty. There is some uncertainty about when the book was written. Jennifer Sturm, in her introduction, hints at a date in the late 1940s.

The internal evidence is slim, but there is a passing reference to tape recorders, which were surely not in common use until the mid-’50s; there is a use of the word ‘subversive’, and of ‘technology’ in a military context, which have a flavour of the ’60s; and, if we take the ‘Eight Days War’ as an echo of the Six-Day War, then that pushes it so late – since Kavan died in 1968 – as to make this almost certainly her final work.

The story is told retrospectively from a present reached only in the closing pages, where Mark resolves to throw off the influence of Spector and strike off into a friendless world. Having affirmed the need to confront ‘all those selves I’d disowned and deserted’ – as Kavan herself shed names and identities throughout her life – he adds, ‘…the prospect frightens me too.’ In the penultimate paragraph we read: ‘So I come to the end of my writing. I’ve often thought it was of no value, my ideas of no more significance than the aimless circling of flies in an empty room…’

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