6 July 2012

Anna Kavan: Asylum Piece (1940)

Anna Kavan (1901–68) was born Helen Woods, although she initially wrote as Helen Ferguson, her married name. Following the failure of her second marriage and one of many nervous breakdowns she changed her name to Anna Kavan, the main character of her novel Let Me Alone (1930). Asylum Piece is a collection of short stories which her publisher Peter Owen describes as 'mostly interlinked and largely autobiographical'. The cover shows Karl Theodor Bluth, the doctor who prescribed Kavan's heroin and co-wrote The Horse's Tail (1949) with her.

The first story is 'The Birthmark', in which the unnamed first person narrator begins by describing going to boarding school at the age of fourteen. She has a sudden and inexplicable feeling of compassion for one of the other girls, H, who shows her a birthmark on her arm which has a pointed, circular shape with a tiny object inside that might be a rose. H isn't happy when she discovers that the narrator doesn't have a similar mark, and this effectively ends any further communication between them.

But over the years to come the narrator is occasionally haunted by H, giving her a feeling of unease. Once, during a long wait for a train in another (unnamed) country, the narrator visits a former castle – now a museum-cum-prison; she strays from the main party and believes she sees a prisoner in an underground cell lift his or her arm, which bears a mark similar to H's birthmark. She is seized by guards, interrogated, and later allowed to leave.

'Going Up in the World' also has an unnamed narrator, one who lives in the cold and fog at ground level and takes a lift to visit her mysterious Patrons who live way up in the sunshine and in luxury. She implores them to free her from the cold and loneliness, but they refuse, saying they must learn to forgive her and that she must turn over a new leaf. At no time does the reader learn what the narrator is supposed to have done that is wrong.

In 'The Enemy', the unnamed narrator is obsessed with an enemy about whom the narrator knows nothing, but who knows everything about the narrator, whom the enemy despises and intends to destroy. The narrator expects to be taken away one night, and will put up no resistance.

'A Changed Situation' is another short piece of paranoia, in which the narrator imagines the house he or she is in is a prison, but one that has the power to eject the narrator.

This amazing series of stories continues, full of feelings of estrangement, obsession, paranoia, anonymity, imprisonment, clearly depicting a mind almost at the end of its tether, colluding in its own alienation.

About one third of the book is the title story 'Asylum Piece', which is set in and around a clinic and divided into eight sections, and is rather different from the other stories in that apart from one brief section narrated in the first person the other seven are in the third person, and people's names are frequently mentioned. Furthermore, there is not the same excessive introspection because the emphasis is on external appearances, some of which may betray troubled minds.

'The End Is in Sight' sees a return to the first person narrative after the clinic sections, and at first it seems to represent a move in the direction of health for the narrator. However, we learn that the narrator has been involved in a 'case' and is 'condemned'.

The final brief story is 'There Is No End', and the paranoia continues, apparently for ever.
The links below are to a post I made on Jennifer Sturm's book, and to a 54-minute video from the Depot's Cultural Icons project, this being a conversation between Dr Jennifer Sturm and Debbie Knowles:

Jennifer Sturm (ed.): Anna Kavan's New Zealand: (2009)
Anna Kavan by Jennifer Sturm

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