Machines in the Head by Anna Kavan. NYRB Classics, 192 pages.
A year before Anna Kavan was found dead in her home in Kensington in 1968, she published Ice, her elliptical magnum opus. “It is not meant to be realistic writing,” she had said. “It’s a sort of present day fable . . . one of those recurring dreams.” The novel is an allegory, although whether it is meant to function as an allegory for one thing or several things is not entirely clear. Certainly, it gestures toward something circular, evilly addictive, borne of nature, catastrophic, and as inescapable as death itself, making it possible to read Ice as a story about heroin addiction, and equally easy to interpret it as a parable about heterosexual love. The book’s narrator, a man who no doubt believes himself to be a hero in the classic mold, is traveling through a war-torn, post-apocalyptic landscape in search of his former lover, who has since married a tyrant. As a result of some unspecified change to the environment, the world is slowly being enveloped in a layer of ice, making it as slippery and treacherous as the book’s ever-changing narrative. The “glass girl” being pursued—who, like most heroines desired by the men in novels, is always a “girl,” never a woman—is as skinny as a Sally Rooney character, pale-skinned and sexily destructible. She is a fatal kind of blonde, a fantasy trapped not in aspic, but in ice.
When in one of the book’s uncertain, looping timelines, the narrator finds the girl with her arm broken, he is hopelessly incensed: “I felt I had been defrauded,” he admits. “I alone should have done the breaking with tender love; I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.” Ice draws parallels between the Cold War and the sexual cold war of relations between men and women—an ongoing state of erotically charged hostility, kept alive by an air of menace. The dizzying fractures in its narrative are as unsettling as its scenes of sexual violence, lending it the stuttering cadence of nightmare. The tyrannical husband of the girl, known as “the warden,” eventually merges with her would-be rescuer, until the two men wear the same clothes and can no longer be told apart. “Between the two of us,” says the narrator, “she was reduced to nothing; her only function might have been to link us together.” What he means is that they are both heroine addicts. “The pursuit is the book,” Kavan insisted to her publisher, in an attempt to justify the repetitions of its plot. “The girl’s importance as a victim should be enough to justify the pursuing. I mean that peculiar attraction between victim and victimizer, drawing two opposite poles together until finally they are almost identified with one another.”
Hard drugs and fast cars both appealed to her desire for experiences that allowed her some proximity to death.
Kavan’s biography is littered with attractions that are less peculiar than they are evidently self-destructive, giving the impression of a singular, singularly troubled genius in pursuit of her own annihilation. Born Helen Emily Woods, the only daughter of two wealthy British parents, she grew up traveling Europe and America, peripatetic and unmoored. Her father killed himself when she was just a child, and in her late teens she was married off to Donald Ferguson, an older man who was by all accounts controlling and manipulative. (As if this development did not already scream Electra complex, certain biographers claim that Ferguson was previously her mother’s lover.) Kavan was first given cocaine by her tennis coach, who argued that it helped her serve; a band of race car drivers in the Riviera introduced her to the pleasures of heroin, not to mention the extreme thrill of traveling at speeds high enough to kill. “I realized they were also psychopaths,” she later wrote delightedly, in an autobiographical text called “World of Heroes,” “misfits who played with death because they’d been unable to come to terms with life in the world.”
Hard drugs and fast cars both appealed to her desire for experiences that allowed her some proximity to death, a desire that she took to new extremes in 1938, when a failed suicide attempt after the dissolution of her second marriage resulted in the first of numerous stays in far-flung psychiatric clinics. Not long after her release, she changed her name legally to Anna Kavan, inspired by a character in one of her own earlier novels; she lost weight, and dyed her hair a platinum shade so glamorous that even Wikipedia calls it “crystal-blonde.” She herself was a fatal blonde, trapped in a cycle of addictions, marriages, and institutions.
“World of Heroes” appears late in Machines in the Head, a New York Review Books compendium of Kavan’s stories, having first been published in her posthumous collection Julia and the Bazooka. The “bazooka” of that title is a needle, something “as essential to [Julia] as insulin to a diabetic. Without it she could not lead a normal existence, her life would be a shambles, but with its support she is conscientious and energetic, intelligent, friendly.” It is no coincidence that the word “normal” rears its head in a review of Kavan’s Sleep Has His House, published in 1947: “Nothing makes it worth reading,” sniffed a critic at The Nation. “A considerable section of our literary culture [now suggests] that madness is a normal, even a better than normal, way of life.”
Written between the early forties and her death in 1968, the collected texts in NYRB’s new volume do not suggest an author with a “normal” interior life. They do not necessarily suggest that abnormality is a preferable option, either. Those excerpted from Asylum Piece (1940) are awash in paranoia, baldly Kafkaesque in their obsession with bureaucracy. By 1945, in I Am Lazarus, Kavan was writing about war, its psychic casualties and ravaged landscapes. Later still, in 1958’s A Bright Green Field, her narratives degraded into something closer to the frazzled and phantasmic mood of Ice—missives from madness, both like and unlike real life. Bad men and bad governments recur throughout, facelessly wreaking havoc.
Always, there is inclement weather: inescapable, dramatic, and blue as a blue mood. “For a long time, I have been lonely, cold, and miserable,” Kavan writes in “Going Up in the World.” “It is months since I have seen the sun.” In “At Night,” the clock is “stupefied by cold . . . the world still locked in darkness and frost,” while in “Asylum Piece II,” a character experiences “ice-age dreams.” “I’ll be glad when the summer’s over,” a sadistic doctor notes in “Face of My People.” “Everyone’s efficiency level drops in this sort of weather. Give me the cold days when we’re all really keen and on our toes.”
When nature is not dark and blue, it often manifests as supernature, amplified until its brilliance is perverse. “The vividness of the grass is always what strikes people first,” the speaker reveals ominously in the titular short story from A Bright Green Field, “it takes them a moment longer to notice that, as a matter of fact, the green is rather too intense to be pleasant.” There may be no better way to describe the impression left by Kavan’s writing than that of a brightness that is too intense to induce pleasure. “In the beginning, when the whole thing started,” she writes of that glowing field, a metaphor for mental instability par excellence, “did the threat come before the victim, or vice versa?” Her narrators, even when they happen to be men, reflect her terror, her uncertainty of feeling.
The inconvenient truth is that Kavan was not killed by heroin at all, but died of natural causes well into her sixties.
Kavan’s characterization of the “peculiar attraction” between victims and their victimizers is particularly accurate when the aggressor is the sufferer’s own mind, a cruel, malfunctioning machine that is still capable of generating genius. “Sometimes I think that some secret court must have tried and condemned me, unheard, to this heavy sentence,” the narrator concludes in “Airing a Grievance,” an early and eerie story about a psychiatrist who may or may not be a government assassin in disguise. When she writes about a woman who sleeps nightly with a leopard, as she does in 1970’s “A Visit,” she might feasibly be talking about the reality of sharing one’s bed with a man: a gorgeous predator, seductive but impossible to talk to. She might be referring to the experience of addiction. She might just as well be talking about her own brain, its treacherousness, its terrible power. “Somewhere in the world I have an implacable enemy,” she offers darkly in “The Enemy,” written not long after her first stay at a mental institution,
although I do not know his name. I do not know what he looks like, either. . . . Perhaps he is a stranger to me, but much more probably, he is someone whom I know quite well—perhaps someone I see every day. . . . The time can’t be far off when I shall be taken away. It will be at night, probably, that they will come for me. There will be no revolvers, no handcuffs; everything will be quiet and orderly with two or three men in uniforms or white jackets, and one of them will carry a hypodermic syringe.
The temptation to map authors’ own biographies onto their work is sometimes more harmful than helpful, leading readers to conflate them with their characters. Kavan, though, seems to encourage it, engaging us in a vertiginous, terrifying game of dare, or chicken. In the foreword to the Penguin Classics reissue of Ice in 2017, Jonathan Lethem said the novel is “a book like the moon is the moon. There’s only one.” His invocation of the moon—bone-white and esoteric, situated in pitch darkness—is too perfect, a description as appropriate for the author as her writing. Her mystique, self-engineered and glamorous, occasionally takes center stage in the recounting of her life, so that there are almost no texts about her work that do not feature a salacious observation from the officers who arrived at her death scene: she had stockpiled “enough heroin to kill the whole street.”
The inconvenient truth is that Kavan was not killed by heroin at all, but died of natural causes well into her sixties. “I don’t behave in an embarrassing way,” the heroin-dependent narrator of “High in the Mountains” sniffs, defensively. “And a clean white powder is not repulsive; it looks pure, it glitters, the pure white crystals sparkle like snow.” Suffering and a life lived into relative old age do not glitter quite so much as the alternative: a car-crash, a heroin overdose, a suicide, an early-enough death that one gets to remain a “glass girl” rather than an older woman. In light of her midlife reinvention, Kavan might have found it preferable to die a myth than for the lie to be corrected. She had always seen herself as being fated to die young, even if fate did not reciprocate. “Not one of them,” she says in “World of Heroes,” of her race-car-driving friends and lovers, “ever told me life was worth living.”