Anna Kavan’s 1940 book Asylum Piece reveals an intricate layering of her many personas
Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece
In 1940, the woman who had been called Helen Woods, Helen Ferguson, Helen Edmonds, and had only just begun calling herself Anna Kavan, published a slim collection of short stories entitled Asylum Piece. Her previous six books, published under her married name Helen Ferguson, had been novels. Some had received mild critical appreciation, but none sold well. Though Ferguson’s early novels, in the words of her biographer Jeremy Reed, “subscribe to a conventional use of plot and linear narrative, [they] are none the less harnessed to an undertow in which the fear of madness exploding out of character is a psychological given.” Asylum Piece is what would happen after madness exploded out of the character of Helen Ferguson. Her transition to Anna Kavan is often described as a sharp break, carrying as it does the attendant luggage of divorce, addiction, and mental illness, but a closer look at Asylum Piece reveals a more intricate layering of her personas.
It is these personas for which Kavan is most known today.Heroin addict before it was cool, product of Britain’s disintegrating upper class, a socially distant figure on the margins of London’s publishing circles, adopter of her own character’s name. These identities don’t add up, and the obscurity they present is often more reveled in than Kavan’s books areread. Her last novel (if a career was posthumous as hers can be said to have one) Ice remains her most popular. Its terminal bleakness is occasionally cited by New Wave SF readers and writers (it was one of Ballard’s favorite novels). But it is Asylum Piece, muted, tender, yet well past the point of despair, which reads like nothing whatsoever else, except for maybe its follow-up volume, 1945’s I Am Lazarus.
Locating autobiography in art is always a fraught endeavor, but in Kavan’s case it is even more perilous, as she destroyed many of her letters and all of her diaries, except those from July 1926 to November 1927, a record of “the only time I was ever in love.” She would continue, as her other biographer David Callard put it, to spread “disinformation about the person she had once been and, often about the person she had become,” to the point where she would refuse to reveal her birth date, even on government forms necessary for acquiring the heroin she was addicted to. Further, while Kavan saw doctors and mental health professionals routinely for most of her life, there are no surviving medical records detailing her diagnoses.