5 May 2013

Jennifer Sturm (ed.): Anna Kavan's New Zealand: A Pacific Interlude in a Turbulent Life (2009)

Anna Kavan (1901–1968) spent just twenty-two months in New Zealand, and from what she wrote for Cyril Connolly's Horizon in September 1943, in the first of a series of articles whimsically called 'Where Shall John Go?', readers might get the impression that Kavan viewed the country in a rather negative light. However, Jennifer Sturm's Anna Kavan's New Zealand, the fruit of eight years' work, is very much a revision of that idea.

Kavan lived in New Zealand with the pacifist Ian Hamilton, initially in Takapuna and then in Torbay. She arrived in February 1941 and left in November 1942, when it became clear to her that Hamilton would receive a prison sentence for conscientious objection.

Almost half of Sturm's book contains Kavan's stories, titled 'Five Months further or what I remember ab[out] NZ', in which she begins by saying that she would like to develop the quality of 'non-attachment' that exists in dreams. These stories are obviously richly autobiographical, containing details of characters she would either have known or heard of in Torbay, or 'Waitahanui'. Names and identities are often disguised.

The stories continue into the period when she took a sea journey back to England with an all-male crew via the Panama Canal and New York. Throughout, war is in the background, and it seems clear that Kavan's restless travelling is in part an attempt to escape from the madness of war, and also in part an attempt to escape from the madness inside her. Sturm believes that Kavan experienced a great calm in New Zealand, that she was clear of her heroin habit, and also that after her return to England she came to idealise the country that she unsuccessfully sought to return to.

Sturm makes a convincing case: much of Kavan's work, not only that written in New Zealand, but also much not in theory set in New Zealand, contain the memory of that country, even Ice. Also, as Katherine Mansfield went out of her way to avoid New Zealand-specific expressions, Kavan embraced them: for instance, she uses the word 'bach' instead of 'hut', and 'morepork' instead of 'owl', as if in defiance of the Anglocentric norm. She concludes, in full cogniscance that it might sound 'incongruous' or 'contentious', that there is more New Zealand in Kavan than in Mansfield.

There are some fascinating things in this book, not the least of which is that scholars have blithely ignored the significance of the NZ link. And it is interesting how biographies – Jeremy Reed's A Stranger from Earth (2006) and David Callard's The Case of Anna Kavan (1992) being full-length works – have simply run with generally accepted assumptions, for example that Kavan returned to England because of her son, which in fact is nonsense. Reed even attempts to construct an essentially lesbian Kavan. But it is shameful how insulting and how masculinist some writers could be, such as Denis Glover, who remarked that Kavan was one of those blondes who go round the world with their knees behind their ears. And this was a comment with which Frank Sargeson – that well-known fighter against the status quo – by no means entirely disagreed.

In the 54-minute video below from the Depot's Cultural Icons project, Dr Jennifer Sturm talks to Debbie Knowles about Anna Kavan. Also linked is my comment on Asylum Piece:


Anna Kavan by Jennifer Sturm
Anna Kavan: Asylum Piece (1940)

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