The question asked by the Caterpillar of Alice, surely the most fundamental question of them all, which Alice truthfully admits that she cannot answer in any definitive manner, must have seemed especially pertinent to Anna Kavan whose wavering sense of self necessitated her to create a whole other persona .
For Anna Kavan didn’t come into this world, which in her writings is seen as a strange and hostile place, as Anna Kavan at all. Born as Helen Emily Woods in 1901 her father committed suicide when she was 11. Her mother refused to let Helen continue her studies at university, instead forcing her into marriage with Donald Ferguson who happened to be almost twice Helen’s age and one of her mother’s former lovers. Taking her estranged husband’s name to write, she published six conventional Home County novels between 1929 to 1939 as Helen Ferguson. Her third novel Let Me Alone, first published in 1930, is clearly a thinly disguised autobiography. It also happens to feature as the central character a certain Anna Kavan. The same character also appears in Helen Ferguson’s fourth novel A Stranger Still (1935).
After suffering a breakdown which led her to be institutionalized in a private clinic in Switzerland, a period memorably portrayed in Asylum Piece, she changed her name by deed poll to Anna Kavan. The name wasn’t the only thing to change, she had undergone a radical transformation. Skeletal, blonde, glacially chic, she had made herself over into her own fictional alter ego. However the most striking transformation of all was the writing. Plot, linear narrative and characterization were jettisoned in favour of experimentation, surrealism and modernism. Subject matter are dreams, madness and (but only obliquely) heroin. The only truth worth pursuing was subjective truth.
Anna Kavan’s penultimate novel is Who Are You? published in 1963. In Who Are You? she goes back to the genesis of Anna Kavan and reprises Let Me Alone, and in effect the Burmese period of her marriage to Donald Ferguson. But Who Are You? is a condensed and concentrated version of Let Me Alone. The style is spare, hallucinatory, poetic, contributing to the overwhelmingly oppressive and nightmarish atmosphere that permeates the book. Even in this late stage of her career Kavan remains firmly committed to formal experimentation and this short novel anticipates the nouvelle roman.
While Ice is a novel of a freezing, dying world, Who Are You? is set in the suffocating heat of the tropics just before the monsoon season arrives. The few human characters are surrounded by the rapid growth and rampant decay of an inimical animal and plant kingdom. As well as the brain fever birds that are forever chanting Who-Are-You and forcing the characters into silence at key moments, there are scorpions, snakes, lizards, frogs, mosquitoes and rats. If the outside world is inherently hostile there is no sanctuary to be found inside the rotting house the unnamed girl lives in with her abusive husband Mr Dog Head and no allies to be found among the native servants. When not bullying or later raping his young wife Mr Dog Head passes the time in getting drunk and playing the ‘rat game’ which consists of chasing and bludgeoning rats with a tennis racket, a pastime that results in a macabre ending (except that it not the ending, being only one of two possible endings, as this novel goes through the same events twice with slight variations each time). The girl’s only friendly relationship in this stifling hell is a young man who passes the compound each day on his way to work, who she nicknames Suede Boots. Suede Boots urges the girl to leave Mr Dog Head, but her fatalism compels her to remained trapped. Or does it? Both endings are ambiguous, however the near duplication of events suggest that even if she did manage to escape, she still would never be free from what happened, that history is forever repeating itself. The implicit horror of eternal recurrence is that the self is doomed to remain the self.
The titular question remains unanswered in the book. Maybe that is the point. After all its more of a riddle than a question. In her life Anna Kavan paradoxically solved that riddle by becoming an enigma. The Anna Kavan Smile is the Smile of the Sphinx.