The following piece is taken from The London Magazine, February 1970. It was written by Rhys Davies, a close friend of Anna Kavan’s, and was published alongside the short story ‘The Mercedes’. For more from our archive and for original issues from our back catalogue, discover our Legacy Issues from 1954 onwards.
The Bazooka Girl —
A Note on Anna Kavan
If it is possible to concentrate the nature of a person’s life into a brief sketch, then that of Anna Kavan is conveyed perfectly in her story Julia and the Bazooka, which seems to me a most symmetrical example of the art by which this obdurately subjective writer chose elements of her life and transformed them into something rich and strange and basically true. Written a year or so before her death in 1968, in a sense she even foresaw her end in this story, although a wartime bomb destroys Julia.
‘”This is her syringe, her bazooka she always called it,” the doctor says with a small sad smile…’ A syringe lay in Anna Kavan’s hand when she was found dead in her London home, a shot of the heroin to which she had been accustomed for some thirty years still inside the plastic barrel. Her palliative had not obliterated the last moment.
Her drug addiction is helpful to an understanding of her stories and much of Anna Kavan’s other work, especially her superbly composed book, Asylum Piece. Perhaps some inkling of the reason why a person begins to take drugs can be traced in these stories. This apart, it strikes me that her work can be seen either as an over-idiosyncratic personal document, or as a moving chronicle of terrifying isolation and defeat.
Under the daily stimulus and pacifications of heroin and the amphetamines Anna Kavan wrote with ceaseless productivity. Was her bazooka a salvation for her? She lived until she was sixty-seven. Had the bazooka kept tuberculosis at bay? She married twice, bore a son, and was divorced twice; she travelled and lived in many parts of the world, bred bulldogs whilst gracing the Chilterns with a painter husband, and for a time worked as editorial assistant on a literary magazine. Later, she profitably renovated old London houses, launching a limited company for this. She also painted bizarre studies of tormented women and, occasionally, men. Work did not stop to the end, and only writing really mattered.
She wrote in a mirror. It imprisoned her. Watching only herself, her men are wraiths, and nearly always treacherous—as perhaps shadows must be. Retreat from an intolerable world was to become more a necessity. When, ten years before she died, she retained sufficient of her excellent constructive energy to design herself a house, battling knowledgeably with architect and builders, she was to keep its Venetian blinds down all day, and her small walled garden was secret, a density of foliage such as her favourite Henri Rousseau might have painted, a dream leopard prowling under the lunar-green fronds. In the world of reality her social conduct was apt to become erratic, passing too swiftly from the most delicate perception of a guest’s mood to hurtling a roast fowl across the table at him, then retiring to her bazooka from an objective distance, and a wry joke would be cracked about it. The discipline that sustained writing was helpful—as, probably, a respect for the principles of creative work (surely it is manifest in these stories? helped to keep under control the lying that becomes a nuisance in confirmed drug addicts. That other self carried, too, a sense of guilt. There was also an unfaltering love and knowledge of the Bible.
Over the decades this writer changed her identity more than once, together with her always elegant physical appearance. As Helen Ferguson she published several conventional Home Counties novels in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. Then Kafka’s work was found to contain the modern scriptures, and her own nightmares, set down in writing, became less an intangible horror; she was not one to heed the aphorism of S.J. Lec, the Polish poet, ‘Don’t tell your dreams. What if the Freudians come to power?’ She became Anna Kavan by deed poll, and, after a period spent in a mental hospital, at a time when she became a registered drug addict and almost unrecognisably spectral in appearance, she published under this name, in 1940, the much-praised series of sketches, Asylum Piece. The truth of that book—a pioneering work in its intuitive description of clinical states of mind—captured, in this case, from the inside of a lost identity—is the truth of a subjective vision such as runs in the present collection.
It was not until after publication of Asylum Piece that I, who had first met Anna Kavan in happy circumstances, became aware of the drug addiction from which much of her writing was to derive its symbolic. visionary and, above all, despairing elements. She could not escape from the evil of hopelessness. It would arrive at any ordinary moment. Sitting with her in the Café Royal, I found her taking an extraordinary dislike to a waiter, who certainly was repellent physically but otherwise, to my eye, harmless. It was with astonishment that I was to find the episode transformed in Asylum Piece. I had not understood that her brief flight from the restaurant table was done to give herself a shot of heroin, after which she gained detachment from the oppressive hovering of the waiter, who, as related in the book, had indeed followed us from the bar upstairs to serve us in the restaurant below—which, for her, had become pursuit by one of the menacing devils threatening her security. The waiter was in some way connected with a hallucinatory figure awaiting her in the foyer.
The title of one of her stories in I Am Lazarus, published in 1945, was another early portent—”All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive”. Although she was less subjective in that collection, bomb explosions in the pages are not so much a wartime phenomenon as echoes of personal assaults and the destruction of human repose which is the real meaning of war in its inescapable aftermaths. Everybody becomes a neurotic, and no hope can be admitted. Soon her writing attempted to chart apocalyptic chaos, especially in such a novel as Ice, with its vision of global destruction from closing walls of ice. She placed the background of novels and stories in an anonymous country where vast implacable forces, while remaining impersonal, were yet always inimical to man—more particularly, to a lost girl searching for an impossible security.
Her best stories are representative not only of her art but of her life. She is ‘in’ each. But the wealthy mother on who she blamed so much of her unhappiness is now only a fugitive reflection in the mirror. Overridingly, Anna Kavan’s retreat from the realistic, the tamed, the domestic world, is here. In “World of Heroes” she asks, ‘What could have been done to make me afraid to grow up out of such a childhood? Later on, I saw things more in proportion, I was always afraid of falling back into that ghastly black isolation of an uncomprehending, solitary, over-sensitive child.’ The only escape is speeding in a high-powered car—’Its mental body surrounds me like magic armour, inside which I’m invulnerable.’
The high-powered car was really a bazooka. Since she lived until she was sixty-seven it could not be called a killer. But she attempted suicide twice, and there were dramas resulting from overdoses. In moments of acute depression she admitted to grief that she had ever taken to drugs; invulnerability was a mirage. A period for treatment in a ‘withdrawal’ clinic was useless; as was her close knowledge of psychiatry. Her long friendship with a devoted poetry-writing doctor helped. After his death, a search for another doctor was one of her bitter pilgrimages. She experienced a shunning of drug addicts by the National Health hard workers, who have as much right as anybody else to refuse the discomfort of a halo. But she did not stop writing. In addition, every aid that another kind of art can provide was, to the end, lavished on her scrupulous personal appearance.
She did not know, and would not accept when told, that courage was giving her a degree of triumph. Her concept of an inimical world found some justification in the authorities’ new and tighter regulations, arbitrary as a computer, concerning drug addicts. Racked with pain from a spinal disease, she, a seasoned addict well-known at the Home Office, was compelled to attend an appointed centre at regular periods for a session which to her was futile; fear that her supply of drugs would be withheld forced her on the journeys. She saw it all as disciplinary punishment. Her bazooka was their torpedo. Taxi-drivers were compassionate, bearing her to and from the pilgrimage. She returned to these stories, a valid discipline, and their clarity of style, their spurning of sensationalism and their own code of logic, were another justification of her vision.
Words by Rhys Davies.
Originally published February 1970
Anna Kavan was born in 1901, the only child of a wealthy British family. She began publishing under her married name, Helen Ferguson. During this time, she was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach in order to improve her game. She suffered a breakdown after the end of her second marriage, and was committed to an institution to treat both her depression and her addiction. She published her two best-known novels after this experience, Asylum Piece and Ice, under ‘Anna Kavan’, the name of a character in an earlier novel. She died of heart failure at her home in London in 1968. — Biography from Penguin.
For more information on Anna Kavan, visit the Anna Kavan Society.
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