The Anna Kavan Smile Part Two—Who Are You?


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 .il_fullxfull.423531833_7pzv

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.

Anna Kavan The Visit

58 thoughts on “The Anna Kavan Smile Part Two—Who Are You?

  1. wow. Yikes. I hope that wasn’t her actual life with her husband. I can’t read things like that. I’m much too affected by what I see/read. I think I would be frustrated reading it again with slight differences too! Interesting though. I like how she reinvented herself. Did she have to go to the asylum to get away from her husband?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No she had long left him behind…she had a breakdown and that led to the re-invention. She had already been on heroin for about a decade. I think her life in Burma with her husband was hell. Marital rape was only made a crime in the 70’s or 80’s in England. It does have its humour and the experimentation actually works. Her re-invention was total and brilliant. Hopefully you liked Vic and I haven’t scared you away, you are one of my best friends here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course you didn’t scare me away. 😊 I just think about these kinds of things for far too long is all. No wonder she was addicted to heroin with that kind of young life. I’m glad she got away from him.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It must have been especially traumatic as she was forced into by her mother who was his former lover (she didn’t get on with her mother but was dependent on her for money, the mother later married a fabulously wealthy homosexual and moved to South Africa).

        Liked by 2 people

      3. She doesn’t sound like a good person. Although she was a generation older than Ballard there both came from the wealthy colonial set and both became experimental writers completely divorced from the usual English fictional concerns, instead going for the visionary tradition.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. But depending on what type of characters you write, we all sort of write the character(s) we would like to be. Of course that doesn’t guarantee we end up any better off for it. And sounds like the drugs overran her…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. What? That’s amazing. She must’ve had her wits about her some of the time at least. Or a good and reliable helper to handle the business-y stuff. Or the drugs really were therapeutic… Hmmm…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I have been reading further in Kavan, I think she raises interesting questions regarding creativity. Important to note that for most of her 40 year addiction heroin was either legal (at the very start) or she was being prescribed pure heroin by her doctor as she was a registered addict under what was known as the British system of heroin treatment. It was only in the mid sixties when Britain because of the moral panic regarding drugs switched over to the american system of methadone, which certainly didn’t appeal to Kavan forcing her to score in the street. The reason she was outwardly cheerful, well kempt and hard working probably has something to do with those facts, so unlike whatever the situation is today. More unless information.

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      4. Not useless at all. Only useless to someone not interested. I’m not sure what I think about the English approach exactly, but the American approach obviously hasn’t been especially effective. Especially considering that heroine has become a resurgent and pervasive problem in this country. There has to be a middle ground / better way when it comes to dealing with this kind of thing. Btw, you have me reading extra Ballard information…

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Well kind of useless, but you know me and my odd views (devil’s advocate apart from when the devil comes, then I sing the praises of the angels). What are you reading of Ballard? Did you finish Crash?

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Not yet, but close… I’ll be finished tonight, I think. Then I think I will read a bit of fluff before tackling something more serious. I will want to discuss Crash when I’m done… what are you onto?

        Liked by 1 person

      7. I have finished now… I was reading some reviews on good reads before turning in…. a lot of people hate the book, which I can understand but poor writing? Now that is just not true.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Good to see you back I have missed your always insightful comments. I am glad you enjoyed, I have been posting a bit more on books lately though there quite a lot of art posts and poetry (not so much fiction unfortunately). Obviously I am very fond of Kavan, an intriguing and mysterious writer. Her writing although experimental is always lucid and her vision haunts the imagination.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. No! Not at all . I meant that it is rare to teach (coach) these students after 12 years of waiting for the chance . Generally, I have very few opportunities for interesting discussions like the ones here, which is why I value your blog and community so much.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I get the feeling you are drawn, as I am, to creativity in all its many and mysterious forms. There is nothing wrong with that. I would hate to be limited by a one word epithet that confined me to a literary coffin from which I cold never escape.

        Liked by 1 person

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