Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Strange Case of Anna Kavan

The first blog entry I ever wrote had something to do with Anna Kavan; I think I was reading her book "Let Me Alone" at the time. I've just finished George Saunder's "In Persuasion Nation" -- funny, cynical, nasty, and ultimately touching -- and tonight, waiting anxiously for a thunderstorm that is taking its own sweet time arriving, I'm following it up with Kavan's "Mercury."

My parents bought me a collection of her stories (called "My Madness") about ten years ago, apparently because it looked like something I'd enjoy. But I didn't read the book until last summer. The stories were choppy, undisciplined, and sort of aimless -- and I was less than impressed with "Ice," her supposed masterpiece -- but the genius (and her madness) of Anna Kavan really got under my skin: the Kafka-esque protagonists, the woman with a mouse in her bra, and the terrifying dance that birds do when they think nobody's watching.

It's taken a lot of effort to track down her novels. Kavan originally published under two different names -- her maiden name and then her married name -- before suffering a catastrophic nervous breakdown, bleaching her hair, becoming uncomfortably thin, and changing her name to "Anna Kavan," a recurring tragic character from her earlier novels. She also worked for different publishers and most of her books never went beyond an initial small run.

Kavan basically wrote the same story over and over again, and I don't mean that in a subtle way. Many of her novels are about overbearing mothers who raise emotionally stunted daughters, who in turn marry unappealing men who take them to live in a far-eastern country and -- eventually -- drive them to desperate acts. Her other novels are about alienated, awkward, post-breakdown (and potentially post-apocalyptic) men and women who grasp feebly at unattainable goals. "Mercury" is shaping up to be the second type of story, and at first blush it seems like either an early draft or a reworking of "Ice," right down to...well, all the ice in it.

Her books make me uncomfortable, partly because I can see so much of ME in her characters, but mainly because they're so personal. Kavan writes about herself in a uniquely ugly magic realism style; she's rarely funny or hopeful, and the surreal elements just circle around and around, repeating, never reaching a conclusion. I guess you'd expect that sort of writing from a life-long heroin addict, though according to her doctor the heroin was the only thing that kept her going at all.

While you're waiting for the rain to come and the trees lean ominously in the intermittent wind, Anna Kavan is certainly the author to read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

anna kavan is the shit