Not long after being discharged from a Swiss sanitarium, in 1938, the English writer Helen Edmonds, who was born Helen Woods and had published six novels as Helen Ferguson, replaced her long brown locks with a neat blond bob and started calling herself Anna Kavan. The name was borrowed from the protagonist of her most autobiographical novels, “Let Me Alone” (1930) and “A Stranger Still” (1935), and chosen, at least in part, because it echoed the name of the writer who inspired the shifts in literary approach that accompanied her change of identity: Franz Kafka. It was in this new guise—born-again avant-gardist—and under this new name that she became known to the Home Office (as a registered heroin addict); to her most important publisher, Peter Owen; and to a small but avid readership.
In life, Kavan came across as distant and ethereal—a temperamental leaning intensified by daily drug use—but she was surprisingly attuned to the dynamics of literary reputation. In 1943, writing to a lover, she appeared to accept that during the Second World War, when English fiction was expected to be straight-talking, outward-looking, and even propagandistic, her sort of “experimental writing”—the portraits of mania and despair collected in “Asylum Piece” (1940) and “I Am Lazarus” (1945)—was “completely out.” More than two decades later, in an exchange with Peter Owen, she defended the generic framework of her novel in progress, an opaque yet rollicking tale of dystopian quest, on the ground that “this kind of adventure story seems to be in the air just now.”
That manuscript became “Ice” (1967), the last book to appear during Kavan’s lifetime. It was, as she seems to have anticipated, a notable hit and remains her best-known work; its admirers include the singer Patti Smith and a range of novelists associated with science fiction, including J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Doris Lessing, Christopher Priest, and Jonathan Lethem, who contributed a foreword when it was republished as a Penguin Classic, three years ago. Beyond the “Ice” cult, Kavan has attracted only sporadic attention since her death, in 1968, usually when her books have been reissued, or a lost manuscript has resurfaced. But, in recent years, conditions have begun to shift in her favor. Her preoccupations—opioid addiction, extreme weather, female oppression, psychopathology—have become topics of burning interest. And a growing appetite for expressionist techniques and hybrid forms—and for a submerged tradition of postwar English modernism—suggests that literary culture is on her side. Her work dominates Francis Booth’s newly reissued “Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980” (Dalkey Archive), while the most Kavanesque of current British writers, Deborah Levy, is also among the most celebrated. Now the London-based academic Victoria Walker, one of an expanding group of Kavan specialists, has gathered twenty-four of her stories under the title “Machines in the Head” (New York Review Books).
Kavan was born in Cannes in 1901. Her childhood was a picture of misery. At an early age, she was sent to the first of a series of boarding schools that suited her poorly. “All the old Victorian methods of bullying seem to have been revived for my benefit,” she wrote, in a diary entry from her twenties. In 1911, her father killed himself by jumping from a ship. Several years later, when she had just left school, her mother encouraged her to marry Donald Ferguson, a railway engineer based in Burma. The marriage lasted barely two years, and, at twenty-one, Kavan returned, with their young son, to live in England. During a stay in the South of France, she met a wealthy layabout named Stuart Edmonds. She also started using heroin. In another diary entry, she noted, “H makes one’s eyes beautiful. . . . I watched myself in the glass for a long time, which gave me real pleasure.”
The addiction, she thought, allowed her to cope and even thrive—a view later supported by the German psychiatrist Karl Bluth, her friend and enabler. During her marriage to Edmonds, she bred bulldogs at their house in the Chilterns, enjoyed moderate success as a painter, and published all her Helen Ferguson novels—a handful of bleakly astute realist character studies, plus an eccentric mystery, “Goose Cross” (1936). Kavan described her own nature as “hopeless,” and, from the start, her writing was concerned with the formation and hardening of a female personality type—the unloved girl bound to become an unhappy woman. This figure appears in various forms, but she is almost always pale, cold, suspicious, “shyly arrogant.” “Let me alone” is her motto, and the mirror her best friend. Here is Karen, who dreads personal interaction and envies the sea, in Ferguson’s trenchant—and forgotten—second novel, “The Dark Sisters” (1930):
In the nineteen-thirties, Kavan and Edmonds had a daughter, who died in infancy; the marriage then foundered, and Kavan made a number of suicide attempts. Eventually, her mother intervened and paid for her to go to an asylum in Switzerland. This did not mark the end of her troubles, but it symbolized a moment of transition, both on and off the page.
During the early years of the war, Kavan travelled to Norway, New Zealand, and Bali, among other places. While visiting a snowbound New York—the setting for her wonderfully edgy story “Ice Storm”—she sold three stories from “Asylum Piece” to Harper’s Bazaar and was photographed by Walker Evans. When she eventually returned to London, she worked with traumatized soldiers—an experience depicted in several stories, including “The Blackout,” which ran in this magazine in 1945—and then took a job as an assistant at the literary journal Horizon, where she soon became a regular contributor.
The brief outpouring of essays and reviews from this period, which are included in the U.K. edition of “Machines in the Head,” provides a glimpse of her thinking at the time. In one essay, she wrote, “I do not like at all the idea that a new life can be built up on the old foundations.” It is believed that one of her purgative acts, on becoming Anna Kavan, was to destroy most of her letters and diaries. From this point, there were to be no bulldogs or country houses or husbands or children. (Her son was killed in action during the war.) For the next thirty years, she lived alone, mostly in Notting Hill, in West London, and supplemented her meagre writing income with an allowance from her stepfather and a sideline as a property developer.