- The Case of Anna Kavan by David Callard
Peter Owen, 240 pp, £16.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 7206 0867 8
During the war Anna Kavan worked for nearly two years at the offices of Horizon. ‘Understandably, Connolly was never comfortable with Kavan,’ Michael Sheldon wrote in Friends of Promise, his book about Connolly. He was presumably referring to her heroin addiction. Friends and mentors over the years – Rhys Davies. Peter Owen, Brian Aldiss – have made considerable efforts to dispel such feelings of uncase by stressing how smart and cheerful she, was how little her drug addiction appeared to affect her. Such loyal friends did not wish her to be regarded as a pathological case – although since Kavan had constant access to clean legal drugs there was no reason at all why she should not appear cheerful, well-groomed and hard-working. The stories that deal directly with her addiction never seem to be reprinted: the Picador edition of her selected writings, My Madness, contains none of them. ‘Julia and the Bazooka’, which deals with her introduction to drugs, ‘High in the Mountains’, which describes the effects of heroin, and ‘The Old Address’, which details obsession and withdrawal, provide considerable insight into Kavan’s personality, and her work can’t really be understood without them. Attempts to distance Kavan from her drug habit, although well-meaning, are misleading. She was one of those rare writers who did not publish at all until she was an addict. Heroin was central to her existence, her lover, her religion, her salvation, and almost all her later work charts the processes of addiction, again and again using images and landscapes familiar to us from De Quincey and other addict-writers of the Romantic period.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 15 No. 6 · 25 March 1993
Once again I find it my misfortune to have my book on Anna Kavan reviewed by a self-styled expert on drugs (LRB, 25 February). ‘This freezing horror remains the central image of heroin,’ we are told. Not so, Ms Young, otherwise the vast addict population would be jumping into cold showers and rolling in the snow. I can only speak from personal experience of opium and intravenous morphine, but the latter is pretty close to heroin and it is nothing like a freezing horror at all. Comparisons are difficult, but relaxation in a warm bath while in a state of extended post-orgasmic release would seem to be closer to the truth. If heroin led only to icy horror, it would be difficult to explain why its usage has expanded in less than half a century from a largely upper-class vice to an industry bigger than Coca-Cola and McDonald’s rolled together. Of addiction and withdrawal I cannot speak, since I have never experienced either. However, to judge heroin on the basis of addiction and withdrawal is rather like judging alcoholism on the experience of delirium tremens. And to bring on an anonymous teenage addict to corroborate the ‘icy fucking grip’ of heroin is tantamount to hauling in a lager lout to illuminate the alcoholism of Malcolm Lowry. Kavan was an addict for over forty years.
The usual suspects are rounded up. Coleridge gets the treatment, as if there were not a vast corpus of work beside his minuscule drug-influenced output. De Quincey, of course, despite the fact that his experience of opium is unlike that described by any known writer since: even George Crabbe, whose few present-day readers will doubtless remember the wild hallucinatory images of The Library (1781) and The Newspaper (1785). Attempts to ‘explain’ Kavan through her heroin use run into the impenetrable fact that for many years while a heroin addict she wrote quite conventional novels under the name of Helen Ferguson. True, they were rather grim, but so were Thomas Hardy’s novels, and what was he on?
Kavan was a depressive (a condition almost certainly inherited from her father), who turned to heroin as a palliative in the way that many other writers have turned to drink. In different circumstances, she would probably herself have turned to drink, or made sure that one of her many half-hearted suicide attempts succeeded. Addiction to heroin informed her work, as I point out, but less so than her innate depression, her several breakdowns the mid-Thirties (which were probably staved off rather than caused by her addiction), the influence of Kafka, and of Freud in his elevation of the dream-life as ‘the royal road to the Unconscious’. Addiction comes in a poor fifth after these.
A final minor, but rankling point in Ms Young’s condescensions. ‘Callard does not appear to know that when Kavan fictionalised her second husband as Oblomov she was referring to Goncharov’s terminally lazy hero.’ As with her assumption that the end result of heroin addiction is icy nightmare, she is doing her talking-down from a position of ignorance. Yes, I did and do know who Oblomov was. I have read Goncharov. I can only assume that she thinks reading Goncharov such an arcane activity that an explanatory clause on the lines of, ‘“Oblomov”, named after Goncharov’s terminally lazy hero’, is needed to explain the reference to the hoi polloi.