Machines in the Head: Selected Short Writing by Anna Kavan

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Review by Karen Langley

anna kavan machines in the head peter owen

There was quite a resurgence of interest in Anna Kavan’s writing last year with the release of not one, but three, different editions of her classic dystopian novel “Ice” (which I covered in detail for Shiny New Books). Kavan published over several decades, though the majority of her work tended to exist in relative obscurity (despite critical acclaim from luminaries like J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss). However, publisher Peter Owen championed her books and the company have issued a new volume which gathers together not only a selection of her short stories, but also some non-fiction works – and they make up a fascinating collection.

Kavan originally published under her real (married) name, Helen Ferguson, before adopting a pseudonym taken from one of her characters. The stories in this collection span the period from her seminal book “Asylum Piece” (1940) through to posthumous collections (she died in 1968), as well as a previously unpublished story. The non fiction pieces are drawn from her journalism for “Horizon” magazine in the 1940s, and offer a new aspect of Anna Kavan. It’s an excellent collection, and the book has a generous colour plate section featuring a selection of Kavan’s paintings; these reveal just what an individual talent she really was.

To specifics. Kavan’s fiction style was very distinctive and the stories in the main have a dream-like, often hallucinatory feel to them. Her work is regularly described as Kafkaesque, and certainly many of her stories share elements with his writings. The first person narrator is mostly unnamed; they are often in a situation of confinement or confusion; sinister forces menace them; and there is an element of threat lurking. Kavan, of course, spent time in various sanatoria and also was a functioning heroin user for much of her life. These elements inform her writing, but it’s too simplistic, I think, to say that her writing is what it is because of these influences. In a story like “Fog”, she most definitely draws on her experience of drug use; it’s a chilling story of a drive that goes very, very wrong and the narrator’s detachment is frightening – there may be physical fog around, but it’s also in her brain… At other times her writing can be reminiscent of the dark humour of Angela Carter, or visit the weird landscapes of Leonora Carrington. However, Kavan always has that unique voice of her own; for example, “Five More Days to Countdown” is a quirky, funny and surreal tale of things gone wrong at a very unusual school!

I was dazzled and saw nothing clearly: in the end I was forced to avert my eyes. In the hope of luring them back to normal, I set out supplies of heroin and cocaine in the classrooms, off-duty silk shirts and luxuriant eyelashes; decorated the walls with make-up artists of top sex appeal. The results, frankly, were disappointing.

Each story lingers in the mind; the settings may be somewhere we’ve never been and the identities of the participants unclear, but we can always identify with what the protagonist is going through; and Kavan’s prose is beautiful and memorable.

As for the non fiction “Horizon” pieces, well these are something of a revelation to a reader who’s only encountered Kavan’s fiction before. The bulk of these are labelled as “Selected Notices”, i.e. book reviews; however, they’re quite fascinating as she often takes the books to be covered as a kind of jumping off point, going off on a fascinating tangent of her own on a subject suggested by the books (for example, a regrettable nostalgic trend to look backwards to Victorian Values…). Some of the books covered are still read and well-known today; some are very obscure; but all of her writings on them make interesting reading.

But to whom can one appeal when one does not even know where to find the judge? How can one ever hope to prove one’s innocence when there is no means of knowing of what one has been accused? No, there is no justice for people like us in the world: all that we can do is to suffer as bravely as possible and put our oppressors to shame.

However, I must make particular mention of a piece from “Horizon” entitled “The Case of Bill Williams”; a stand-out in an excellent collection, it’s an astonishingly powerful polemic against the modern machine age and the dehumanisation of people. It was published in February 1944, and in it Kavan rails against society that has “no use for Bill Williams, and what it needs to replace him is the non-individual, the standard, the impersonal, the sterile, the perfected, the number …completely devoid of dream, hyacinth heart, laughter, incapable of original thought and yet able to fulfil efficiently and reliably his mechanical role.” Again and again Kavan’s characters encounter the impersonal and the rigid, the machine-like state or those in control who will not budge. Kavan has no time for that world, and I actually hate to think what she’d make of the 21st century. For this piece alone, the collection is worth reading; but the whole book is an outstanding anthology which really gives a taste of what this exceptionally original author was about.

Naturally, I cannot put on the light. The room is as dark as a box lined with black velvet that someone has dropped into a frozen well. Everything is quiet except when the house-bones creak in the frost or a lump of snow slides from the roof with a sound like a stealthy sigh.

Interestingly, Kavan’s paintings (as featured in the plates section) reflect the same concerns as her writing; often abstract or almost abstract, they feature confined figures, ferocious beasts lurking in the undergrowth, detached and lone figures. Kavan was obviously an artist who felt isolated from the mainstream in whatever medium she was working, and the paintings chosen here are quite stunning.

The works in “Machines in the Head” were selected by Victoria Walker, who chairs the Anna Kavan Society, and I think she’s done a sterling job here. As she points out in her excellent introduction, Kavan had a “conviction that human beings were hell-bent on their own destruction, and that of the natural world around them, (which) is clearly evident in her writing during and after the war.” Certainly, “Ice” foresees all manner of ecological catastrophe which we might well be facing nowadays; and the stories in “Machines…” reflect the trauma caused to humanity by the machine age which encroaches on our individuality, creating alienation left, right and centre.

Ann Kavan was a truly individual and innovative artist, and kudos has to go to publisher Peter Owen for championing her for so long. This is a beautiful edition of her shorter works (and it really is lovely, down to the creamy coloured pages which are easy on the eye, and the gold embossed signature on the front cover of the hardback board); I can only hope that it introduces her writing and paintings to a new audience.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and finds too much technology very unnerving.

Anna Kavan, Machines in the Head (Peter Owen, 2019). 978072062542, 255pp, hardback.

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