The fiftieth anniversary of the death of British, late-modernist writer Anna Kavan should not go unnoticed.

Despite being lauded in her life-time by the likes of Jean Rhys and Doris Lessing; by Edwin Muir, who called her a writer of ‘unusual imaginative power’; by Anais Nin who called her ‘an equal to Kafka’; by J.G Ballard who believed her brilliance to lie ‘somewhere between poetry and madness’ and who thought her a writer ‘few contemporary novelists could match for the intensity of her vision’; and despite being someone whom Duncan Fallowell considered to be ‘the most important British writer since Virginia Woolf’ – Anna Kavan’s contribution to twentieth century literature still remains grossly under-appreciated. Even as late as 2006, her biographer Jeremy Reed felt justified in writing that ‘she continues to remain marginal, cultishly niched and awaiting rediscovery.’

The reasons for her enduring obscurity are fourfold. Firstly, Kavan may be held up alongside numerous other examples of female writers who typify what Germaine Greer has called ‘the transience of female literary fame’: a woman who enjoyed prestige during their own lifetime ‘only to vanish without a trace from the records of posterity.’ You will not find Anna Kavan or her work mentioned in key academic texts that deal with the time period she was writing in, nor will you find her anthologised in any collections representative of the twentieth century short story. And, yet, Kavan’s best short stories can easily stand beside, complement or surpass, anything put down by Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Mary Butts, Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bowen or Angela Carter.

Secondly, Kavan’s literary estate belongs (fittingly perhaps) to a small, though devoted, independent publisher, Peter Owen – ‘a champion of the obscure, the neglected, the modern, the foreign, the difficult and the downright unpopular.’ You will not find many bookstores stocking a wide range of the Peter Owen catalogue. Browsing alone will not yield a good selection of Kavan’s work, if any at all. Penguin acquired the rights to her last novel, Ice (1967), which they released as a fiftieth anniversary edition. But this is not, to my mind at least, the best introduction to her work. Finding yourself suddenly in the midst of Kavan’s terminal vision, in her apocalyptic glacial wasteland, might mean very little to you, especially if you have no idea how you got there.

Thirdly, Kavan is not easy reading: isolation, anxiety, the loss of love, abandonment, delusions of persecution, suicide, psychosis, psychiatric confinement, heroin addiction, marital rape, war trauma, sadomasochism, nihilism – these are the themes that recur throughout her work. During her time as a reviewer for Cyril Connolly’s influential magazine, Horizon: A Review of Literature and Art (1939-1950), Kavan castigated a number of her contemporaries, among them Elizabeth Bowen and her own friend, the Welsh short story writer Rhys Davies, for ‘having nothing new to tell us in the language of the subconscious.’ She felt that a number of her fellow-writers ‘were using their talent as a form of escapism … These young authors seem still to be playing at life like children playing at wars, and the eidola of themselves which they project into their writing are no more than dummy figures without tragedy or individual distinction. They have not yet discovered that it is not enough to possess technical ability and the will to create a story: that in order to write it is first necessary to live.’ Kavan’s work reflects a life that was lived – whether by chance, circumstance, temperament or design – in the extreme zones of the human condition. Regardless of brief flashes of humour, often pitch-black, one would have to concur with Duncan Fallowell when he says that Kavan’s is a world that ‘one does not go to for laughs.’ Like George Orwell, with whom she shares many intriguing similarities, Kavan had the ‘power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Kavan wrote the world ‘as I see it’: from a psychological vantage point, out of experiences few of us would even wish to imagine.

And finally there is Kavan herself. She destroyed most of her personal correspondences and diaries. She conflated fact and fiction so much so that her friend and confidant Raymond Marriott would say of her that she was ‘A living puzzle … she cast doubts, she lied, she fabricated, she romanced, she spoke the truth, she was most honest. But where did it all begin and where did it end?’ Throughout her life she remained socially aloof from the literary milieus of her day. Notwithstanding her long-time friendship with writer Rhys Davies, and her time at Horizon magazine, Kavan kept to herself. She never belonged to a group and she never wrote a manifesto. She was a one-woman avant-garde. In a late unpublished short story, Kavan stated plainly that it was her desire to become ‘the world’s best kept secret, one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.’ And so, all things considered, it would seem that her dubious wish has since come to pass.

Kavan is a thrilling enigma and discovering her work is an intense experience. By way of an introduction, her three short story collections Asylum Piece, I am Lazarus and Julia and the Bazooka are the best place to start. Like Samuel Beckett, her short fiction can be seen as a stylistic and thematic distillate of her novels. They offer short, sharp bursts into worlds not easily inhabited for long. The short form suits the intensity of Kavan’s vision and her experiments with the form are ground-breaking.

Asylum Piece (1940) is Kavan’s first collection of short stories but not, technically, her first published work. The most sensational aspect of Kavan’s biography is her dramatic transformation. Born Helen Emily Woods, she became Helen Ferguson when she married Donald Ferguson in 1920. That ill-fated union saw her give birth to a son, Bryan Ferguson, though the marriage only lasted two years. During her second marriage she was known as Helen Edmunds but she began publishing under her old name, Helen Ferguson. As Helen Ferguson she published six novels between 1929 and 1937. In two of those novels, Let me Alone and A Stranger Still, Helen Ferguson created the character ‘Anna Kavan’. After the breakdown of her second marriage in 1937/38, Helen Edmunds suffered a mental breakdown, attempted suicide, and was committed to a Swiss psychiatric clinic. When she emerged she had changed her appearance, adopted her fictional character’s name, and transformed her literary style. Asylum Piece was the first work to be published under her new name. This collection of interlinked short stories takes as its subject matter the dissolution of her second marriage, the onset of a paranoid psychosis, her suicide attempt, and her stay in the Swiss psychiatric clinic. About the collection Anais Nin said, ‘Your strength lies in the skill and clarity with which you describe obscure and mysterious sensations. I always mention Asylum Piece as an example of classical lucidity while entering irrational worlds … you had the courage to keep your eyes open all the time.’ Asylum Piece is one of the most haunting and authentic literary representations of psychosis in twentieth century literature; to be placed among other works of its kind, namely, Leonora Carrington’s Down Below, Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit, Antonia White’s The Sugar House, Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

I am Lazarus (1945) is Kavan’s response to the invasive psychiatric treatments popular in the 1940s and to the psychic and social catastrophes wrought by the Second World War. The figure of Lazarus serves both as an image of the living dead – patients who have suffered the effects of insulin shock therapy, and narcosis or coma therapy – and as a figuration for those soldiers traumatised by the war whose experiences remain inarticulate and incommunicable. Lazarus never spoke again after his return from that otherworld. Some of these stories are based on Kavan’s time in Mill Hill psychiatric hospital in London where her ‘war-work’ consisted of interviewing soldiers suffering from what was then called ‘effort syndrome’ or ‘soldier’s heart’ – a type of war neurosis. Some of the stories draw on her experiences in Blitz-era London, and offer her a space to espouse her pacifist ideals: ‘It destroyed very thoroughly this war machine, this incinerator of individuality and talent and life, forging the sensitive and the young into the steel fabric of death, turning them out by the million, the murder men, members of Murder Inc., the big firm, the global organisation.’ In 1943, Kavan had learned that Murder Inc. had claimed the life of her son Bryan, killed in action. Some of the stories also draw on her experiences in New Zealand between 1941/42 where she went to avoid the war before returning again to England. It is a haunting Gothic meditation on social and psychological chaos, a fine companion piece to Elizabeth Bowen’s more well-known London Blitz short stories.

Julia and the Bazooka (posthumously published in 1970) is Kavan’s bitter farewell to the world. It was the first and last text to deal openly with the role heroin had played in her life. The bazooka of the title is the name her tennis coach (said to have introduced her to heroin in the 1920s) gave to the hypodermic syringe. A number of the stories deal with the pains of withdrawal and relapse, as well as the stabilising effects which that drug had on her. Others revisit the collapse of her second marriage to painter Stuart Edmonds. Three of the stories are elegies to the loss of her closest friend, and psychiatrist, Dr Karl Bluth, who died of a heart attack in 1964. As well as being her psychiatrist, Dr Bluth had been Kavan’s literary ‘partner’ for almost twenty years – a sounding-board, collaborator and encourager. Aside from administering daily or nightly injections of medical-grade heroin into her thigh, which he had legally prescribed her, patient and doctor also co-authored a novel together, A Horse’s Tale (a fable about a talking horse who criticises the normative/social-conformist models of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic practices) in what must be one of the most unique collaborations in twentieth century literature. Kavan said that after his death she felt abandoned. Following such a devastating loss, she was only waiting for death herself: the goodness had gone out of life. One of the last sheaves of short stories she gave to her publisher were punctured, and held together, by the needle of a syringe. Like her last novel Ice, these stories give us a sense of the force of the nihilistic outlook which Kavan struggled throughout her life to temper. If one definition of nihilism is the inability to create new, or invest in old, psychologically-sustaining fictions which give our lives meaning, then Julia and the Bazooka is about the end of life, and the end of fiction, and the eternal nothingness that takes their place.

In her introduction to Julia and the Bazooka Virginia Ironside writes that ‘for anyone who has experienced the merest whisper of true depression or mental illness… [Kavan’s] books … are strangely comforting. Reading them is like coming across a guide to a country you thought that only you had visited. She writes of it with fear with respect, with elegance, with art and style … she writes as a true citizen of that strange interface between reality and hell.’

Kavan admired writers like Kafka and Nikolai Gogol, writers who ‘do not run away from reality’ because they have ‘too much integrity, both as artists and as human beings, to indulge in escapist flights.’ But in speaking of them, Kavan was also speaking of herself: ‘Especially sensitive, they are especially vulnerable, and they escape nothing. When life frightens them, they do not look back at the nursery windows with longing eyes, but incorporate in themselves a part of life’s fear and pain. The artistic value of their work endures because it is also a part of reality. It is conscious, uncompromising, personal, true. It is life.’ Kavan’s work offers the reader an intense psychological portrait of a woman who obstinately went her own way, who refused to compromise in her life and in her art, and who left us with a profound literary chronicle of her experiences in what Albert Camus called ‘that pitiless century, the twentieth.’

A favourite quote of Kavan’s was a statement by Martin Luther: ‘Here I stand: I can no other.’ In an early Helen Ferguson novel, Let me Alone (1930), the character Anna Kavan mediates on that quote. What Kavan the character said of herself then, we can also say of Kavan the writer now, ‘She was what she was: herself. No need for compromise or apology or modification or defence.’

Founded in 2009 the Anna Kavan Society has been working to encourage the reading and research of Kavan’s work. Join and sign up to keep up-to-date on all things Kavan-related: