Inside the ice, a veryfiery artist

A Stranger on Earth

November 9, 2006

The novelist Anna Kavan, who died in 1968, is much less well known than her current admirers, who include Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, A. S. Byatt and Doris Lessing. Indeed, her life almost became what she wanted: "the world's best-kept secret; one that would never be told." She is today something of a cult writer, based mainly on her novels Asylum Piece, Sleep Has His House, Mercury and Ice , the last of which Aldiss dubbed science fiction because it visualised the freezing of the world as a result of nuclear testing.

In 1992, the publisher Peter Owen, who knew Kavan personally, published a biography, The Case of Anna Kavan , by David Callard. Devotees of Kavan may wonder why we now need a second biography from the same publisher.

However the new book by Jeremy Reed is more penetrating than the first. He has unearthed original material that allows him to investigate someone who went to great lengths to create an enigma of herself for posterity. It is a very different biography from Callard's somewhat fragmented book, which is much more discreet, really a primer to Kavan's extraordinary life that respects her wish to hide evidence of her real self.

Kavan - which was an assumed name - wanted to be judged solely on her creative output, so she destroyed almost all her personal correspondence and doctored her records with intent to mislead. Reed had to use considerable intuition to create a highly personal biography of the very kind that Kavan had hoped to obviate. She had no wish to be identified by the facts of her life, and there is little doubt she would have rejected this biography, fascinating though it may be, as a gross abuse of her privacy.

In addition, Reed reproduces a disturbing collection of paintings by Kavan, which were created in parallel with her writing in the 1960s. The images disturb because Kavan was the victim of a lifetime's addiction to heroin.

When she died of a heart attack, she was preparing to inject herself; the needle was already in her arm, but she collapsed before she could depress the plunger.

Kavan was born Helen Emily Woods on April 10, 1901, in Cannes. As a child, she suffered a macabre series of familial rejections (she was allowed to see her mother for only ten minutes each evening before dinner), which forcibly introduced her to an emotionally cold world that would affect her for the rest of her life. When she was 14, her father killed himself. Four years later, she was offered a place at Oxford University, but her scheming mother dissuaded her from accepting and instead cajoled her into marrying Donald Ferguson, a lascivious alcoholic 12 years her senior, who took her to Burma where he worked as an engineer on the railways. The marriage, short-lived but explosive, was disastrous psychologically and sexually, and it led in time to the extreme reaction against social convention that is the chief theme of Reed's book.

However, Kavan began writing in this period and published six novels under the name Helen Ferguson between 1929 and 1937. She also formed a new relationship and underwent a possible, though not recorded, marriage to another bohemian alcoholic, Stuart Edmonds. This ended before the 1940s, by which time she was a heavy user of cocaine to compensate for her emotional mess.

She took the name Anna Kavan in the mid-1940s from one of the characters in her novel of 1935, A Stranger Still. Otherwise, during the remaining 25 years of her life, she expressed little interest in her earlier novels.

Reed's biography takes us through Kavan's tortuous life and relationships before she embarked on a long-lasting, inseparable, seemingly telepathic bond with a psychiatrist, Karl Theodor Bluth, who advocated the use of drugs as an incentive to poetic visions. Kavan's dependency on Bluth, not only as the source of her privately prescribed heroin but as an inseparable friend, ended only with his death in 1964. They even formed a suicide pact together.

Kavan had numerous breakdowns, made serious suicide attempts and was hospitalised several times. But despite her attraction to gay men, her phobias, her obsessions, her poverty and her loneliness, she found the courage to keep writing. The publication of her best novel, Ice, in 1967, a year before she died, considerably enhanced her literary reputation, though never to the level of her contemporary Jean Rhys. In her final years, she began to find an audience receptive to her vision of the world. At any rate, her niche in cult literature is secure, and perhaps she would have been satisfied with that.

Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and the author of Woolf in Ceylon .

A Stranger on Earth: The Life and Work of Anna Kavan

Author - Jeremy Reed
Publisher - Peter Owen
Pages - 207
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 7206 13 X

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