Anne Kavan is inevitably smiling in photographs. It was that smile which initially intrigued me. I was browsing through My Madness when I saw the photo that served as the frontispiece. It shows a rather smart
middle-aged woman beaming away at the camera. The contrast between the blurb which alluded to drug addiction, mental breakdown and confinement in psychiatric institutions and the photograph of a lady who obviously lunched at expensive Kensington restaurants was too incongruous. Here, I felt, was a mystery. I brought the book and went home to found out something about the enigmatic Anna Kavan.
Twenty odd years later and Anna Kavan has been the subject of two biographies and renewed critical attention, yet she remains an enigma. Which is how she would have wanted it. The details of her life (or lives) remain sketchy and in many cases she destroyed biographical information. Given the paucity of evidence and Kavan’s inveterate self mythologizing tendencies it remains probable that Kavan will remain, as she once declared herself “the world’s best kept secret”.
However when I opened My Madness I knew none of this. After reading the excellent introduction by Brian Aldiss I started with Ice which Aldiss highlighted as her masterpiece. It is. I read Ice in one sitting (it’s a short novel). It’s unlike any other novel you will ever read. It’s a disaster novel but as Brian Aldiss points out in the Trillion Year Spree it goes beyond even the catastrophes of JG Ballard into the icy realm of metaphysics. The nameless and very unreliable narrator and a sinister figure named only the Warden pursue an equally nameless girl across a world that is inexorably being covered with ice. The pattern is eternally repeated. Whenever he catches up with the girl he torments her and then abandons her, then when left to his own devices finds that he is overwhelmed by violent sadistic fantasies (the girl dies many times in many different ways in his imagination) and sets off in pursuit again of his elusive yet willing victim. And all the while the ice is getting closer, total annihilation is at hand, until the remaining time left for all life goes down from months to weeks to days to hours. Yet Ice has a happy ending, after its own fashion. Kavan analyzes her personal experiences to universalize them, suggesting that humanity has a collective death wish and is suicidally complicit with global destruction. Deep down, according to Kavan, what we really desire is that the world ends when we die.
Ice, like most of the novels and short stories she published as Anna Kavan, is experimental, non-linear and modernist. Ice deals in elliptic fashion with both madness and heroin addiction. Yet it remains surprisingly accessible. Because Ice straddles genres it could be read successfully as an apocalyptic action adventure, an erotic novel or as an existential espionage thriller; a roman blanc. The hallucinations of one minute do not match the reality of the next; identities shift, merge, metamorphose until held fast by the ice. That transformation, Kavan leads us to believe, is absolute and final.
One of the most astonishing facts about Ice is that it was published in 1967 just one year before her death (she died of a heart attack, the police officer at the scene said she had stockpiled enough heroin to kill every man, woman and child in the street). Kavan was always very secretive about her date of birth, however 1901 is generally accepted, so she was 66 at the time of publication.
It didn’t strike me as the work of a 66-year-old lady who lunches. The mystery deepened, I had no choice but to read on and read more.