- 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.
This presents the biographer with considerable problems. Kavan further complicated things by destroying almost all her personal correspondence and diaries. She changed her name several times, concealed her date of birth and in 1940 changed her appearance and literary style and adopted the name of Anna Kavan – a fictional character who had appeared in two of her early novels. ‘She cast doubts, she lied, she fabricated, she spoke the truth, she was most honest. But where did it begin and where did it end?’ wrote her close friend Raymond Marriott. In such circumstances David Callard should be congratulated for completing the project al all. It is not a very satisfactory biography but she was not a very satisfactory subject. Callard’s previous book, Pretty Good for a Woman: The Enigma of Evelyn Scott, charted the life of a little-known American writer and radical, friend to Emma Goldman and Jean Rhys. Scott is less well-known than Kavan but Callard managed to produce a much longer and less sketchy account of her life.
Helen Woods/Anna Kavan was born in Cannes in 1901 to a wealthy father and a frivolous mother whose domination she was never to escape. As an infant Kavan claims she was sent away ‘to a place where there was nothing but snow and ice’. Her upbringing was love less and peripatetic. Her father died when she was 14, condemning her, she said, to ‘lifelong loneliness’. Callard comments that hers was only a ‘more extreme version’ of the average Edwardian upper-class upbringing. She married twice, first Donald Ferguson with whom she spent two years in Burma and then, by common law, Stuart Edmonds, a wealthy dilettante artist. She had two children, to whom she appeared indifferent: a daughter who died in infancy and a son who was killed in World War Two. She fictionalised both her husbands, Ferguson appearing most memorably as the sinister, sadistic Mr Dog Head in Who are you? in 1963. She published her first six novels under the name Helen Ferguson, the first appearing in 1929. Rhys Davies described them as ‘conventional Home Counties’ but Callard rightly finds them ‘shot through with a sense of darkness and oppression’. Her writing, from first to last, was almost exclusively autobiographical.
Kavan was introduced to drugs in London between her two marriages and was addicted to heroin by 1925. The Rolleston Committee of 1926 allowed doctors to prescribe maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, so that they were able to lead productive lives. Known as ‘the British System’, it worked well and the number of addicts actually declined for many years. Kavan maintained that heroin ‘had saved my life and kept me from madness’. Even so in 1938, after the dissolution of her second marriage, she had a severe breakdown. Afterwards she resolved to accept her addiction and shed her old identity; she dyed her hair white-blonde, became Anna Kavan, a name which seemed fortuitously reminiscent of Kafka. ‘Why does the K sound in a name symbolise the struggle of those who try to make themselves at home on a homeless borderland?’ she wrote. Asylum Piece, her first book written as Anna Kavan, appeared in 1940, inaugurating the literary style for which she is known – elliptical, experimental, haunting.
In the early Forties she met the only man who was ever really of any importance to her. This was of course her dealer – or, in those days, her doctor. Dr Karl Bluth was a poet, playwright and essayist who had fled Nazi Germany. Bluth became a father-figure, mentor and in an odd way – in that he often administered her injections – a kind of lover to Kavan. Certainly he sympathised with her need for a shield against what were intolerable depressions. For the next twenty years she lived a strange isolated life, supporting herself by renovating houses in Kensington. Disliking women, she was surrounded by a small coterie of homosexual men. Her career went into a long decline after the failure of what was, for the time, a highly experimental novel, Sleep has his house. She remained extremely close to Dr Bluth and when he died in 1964 she was distraught: ‘I was desperate, determined not to go on living.’ He appears as a shadowy presence in much of her work, and four of the stories in the posthumous Julia and the Bazooka concern him directly.
Kavan’s life has many parallels with that of Jean Rhys. Both had unhappy childhoods and grew up gifted, suspicious, alienated. Both were addicts – Rhys was an alcoholic. Both at times referred to the outer world of authority and bureaucracy as ‘the Machine’. Neither made money from their fiction and both suffered long periods of obscurity from which they were rescued by kind and perspicacious publishers. Both achieved fame posthumously. Carole Angier, Rhys’s biographer, tells us that Rhys suffered from ‘borderline personality disorder’, features of which are addiction, isolation and paranoia. For what it’s worth this diagnosis must also apply to Kavan.
Kavan’s best novel Ice, in which she links the threat of nuclear destruction to her own chilly emotional landscape, appeared in 1967 and was voted Best Science Fiction Novel of that year by Brian Aldiss. Kavan was very taken with many aspects of Sixties youth culture – the experimentation, open-mindedness and clothes – but ironically its openness contained within it the seeds of her destruction. The Brain Committee on Drugs reconvened in 1964 to take account of rising panic over youthful drug use. Large changes were proposed and eventually implemented. Addicts could no longer receive maintenance doses of heroin from their doctors but were forced to attend Drug Dependency Units. These were – and are – very unpopular in their adoption of the American system of prescribing methadone, often in liquid form, rather than injectable heroin, to addicts. Methadone is an opiate but quite without the euphoric effects of opium, heroin or morphine. It can be useful during withdrawal periods but otherwise is of little interest to addicts. Few of them – some claim as few as 5 per cent – have ever bothered with the clinics, which they find inhumane, punitive and useless. Most turned to the black market which responded generously, leading directly to the situation we have today, with a huge addict population, criminalised, outcast, diseased, and a thriving black market controlled by organised crime syndicates. ‘The entire supply and demand business has gone mad surrounding drugs,’ Kavan wrote. In 1968 she was assigned to one of these new Addiction Units, run by a woman called Dr Oppenheim, the last and possibly the worst of her tormentors. She had difficulty getting needles, was haunted by the fear that she might be transferred to methadone and stockpiled heroin in case compulsory detoxification was enforced. At the end of 1968 she died of a heart attack.
Kavan’s life and art raise a number of interesting questions about the links between creativity, mental illness and addiction, and about drug legislation, and it is unfortunate that Callard’s book does not illuminate any of them. He fills in many of the gaps in Kavan’s lite and produces some new information – that she knew Aleister Crowley and had, of all people, Gerald Hamilton, the model for Mr Norris in Mr Norris changes trains, as a lodger – but errors begin on the first page. Kavan’s mother was the great-granddaughter, not granddaughter of the Victorian physician Richard Bright; William Burroughs did not have access to ‘vast family wealth’. Callard does not appear to know that when Kavan fictionalised her second husband as ‘Oblomov’ she was referring to Goncharov’s terminally lazy hero. He is inconsistent about Kavan’s finances. There are lacunae – he seems unaware of the details of her time at Horizon. He does not attribute quotations and the book has no notes. He compares her early work vaguely to that of D.H. Lawrence, and taking his cue from Kavan’s own comments, sees the influence of Alain Robbe-Girllet in the later. He maintains that ‘the sensibility of an addict permeates and informs the work of Anna Kavan’ but shows no understanding of what this means, beyond the fact that addicts dislike the cold and are uninterested in sex.
It is worth remembering that all the Romantic writers, with the exception of Wordsworth, used opium at one time or another, although not all were addicts. Indeed, most of the population of Britain used opium in the form of tinctures or pills during the 19th century. Kavan’s ability to lead an orderly life and to write so productively and consistently recall Wilkie Collins or George Crabbe, the latter like Kavan an addict for forty years. Kavan was a dedicated writer but she believed that her will to write – rather, her will to live – came from the heroin which protected her from a menacing world. This knowledge runs beneath the clear sentences of her mature style. She rarely wrote directly about her addiction, but indirectly she rarely wrote about anything else.
The early stages of addiction can, as in her case, be sufficiently euphoric to encourage creativity. However, long-term addiction results in a freezing, a petrification of the emotions. ‘There is a sort of vitrifying process that chills all sensibility,’ wrote an anonymous ‘Habituate’ à propos Coleridge in 1876. ‘Whatever is done is done in pale, cold strength of intellect.’ ‘I have not felt anything for twenty years,’ Kavan said not long before her death. The lack of warmth and passion in her work, its androgynous quality, the focus on an inner rather than the outer world are features typical of addict-writers, as is the bizarrerie of her imagination. The inner world of the addict is one of signs and symbols; it has a recognisable landscape: Poe’s Dreamland, Baudelaire’s paysages opiacés, the world of Xanadu. The entire, obsessive novel Ice is one of the great metaphors for addiction – ‘A terrible cold world of ice and death had replaced the living world we had always known.’ Kavan’s book ranks with other notable images of narcotic thralldom, Coleridge’s icy, vampiric Geraldine or the ‘Nightmare Life-in-Death’ created when he amended ‘The Ancient Mariner’. This freezing horror remains the central image of heroin: ‘It’s got an icy fucking grip that just shuts on you,’ a teenager observed recently of his own addiction.
Kavan’s contemporaries William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi were able to find in addiction an appropriate metaphor for the alienation and confusion of human beings in a consumerist technocracy. Kavan’s writing seems more secretive and encoded, its meaning perhaps not always accessible even to herself. Ostensibly she comments on contemporary fears and soullessness yet her imagery harks back to the past – her own past and the literary past. Ironically, although she is seen as a defiantly Modernist writer, very often the cadences of her work recall the Symbolists, or even Poe. Her entire oeuvre, despite the clipped contemporary sentences, is closest to the art of the Romantic addict-writers. Far from being Science Fiction, it evokes the cold, ancient landscapes of opium dreams and visions. And within is always the figure of the wounded child, just as at the centre of De Quincey’s work lay a dead child, sacrificed to the cruelty and inhumanity of the world. It seems possible that Kavan constructed her work, and her life, as a series of what friends described as ‘sliding panels’ or ‘Chinese boxes’. But at its heart runs the river of ice. The polarities of heat and cold she described, the fearfulness, the despair, the sense of her own uniqueness, are all commonplaces of the addict experience. Roland Barthes imagined the paranoiac as someone who would ‘produce complicated texts, stories developed like arguments, constructions posited like games, like secret complaints’. This is what Kavan bequeathed – a living tissue, of lies, of truths, of codes and duplicities in which art and addiction were interwoven.