Anna Kavan is one of the great originals of twentieth-century fiction, comparable to Leonora Carrington and Jean Rhys, a writer whose stories explored the inner world of her imagination and plumbed the depths of her long addiction to heroin. This new selection of Kavan’s stories gathers the best work from across the many decades of her career, offering American readers the first full overview of the work of a fearless literary explorer.
This is writing...where, as in a dreamscape, the line between experience and imagination is irrevocably blurred ... a remarkable collection, composed of narratives so relentlessly self-eviscerating that to read them feels like peeling off your skin. That’s because Kavan is not especially compelled by the banalities of conventional fiction. Many of her stories are only incrementally plotted, unfolding for the most part in a kind of never-ending present tense ... What Kavan is evoking is a complicity, a terrain in which her characters—often nameless, caught up in existential crisis, existential desolation—express, in precise and specific detail, the parameters of their distress ... their desolation is as concrete as it gets. This may be the most striking aspect of Kavan’s fiction, the precision with which she recreates despair. The key is her language, which is utterly without illusion ... Here we see the conundrum of Kavan’s fiction: living is unbearable, but so too is its alternative. The only consolation must come from the inside—the dreamlife, as it were. And yet, what happens when the dreamlife is defined by nightmare, as it is in Kavan’s work? ... What she, like Kafka, is describing is the experience of having nowhere to turn.
...showcases Kavan at her most harrowing and innovative. She was one of the first British late modernists to fuse seemingly incompatible narrative modes — autobiography and speculative fiction — and balance the personal, even the confessional, with sci-fi, fabulism, and the weird ... The border between reality and fantasy is troubled, wavering. Fog and darkness dominate the external and internal landscapes ... These are sentences that might be committed to a diary or rehearsed in one’s head while lying alone in a dark room. They carry such charge because they exist in a context of stark contrast. This alchemical maneuver, which combines the fantastic and the intensely personal, is Kavan’s calling card ... Machines in the Head displays Kavan at her most experimental, personal, and disquieting. Very few writers convey the pain of solitude and the anxieties of solipsism so viscerally, so nakedly.
Kavan’s narrators often experience social persecution or emotional isolation in climatic terms—fog and ice and other forces threaten destruction—making that time of world war, mass displacement, and imminent nuclear winter feel intimately connected to our own, in which looming environmental catastrophe provides an ever-available metaphor for societal and psychological ills. Meanwhile the increasingly anomic autonomy of Kavan’s stories only enhances their precision as reflections of the twentieth century, with its bomb shelters and mental institutions, its traumatized soldiers and alienated workers, its totalitarian bureaucrats and rioting students ... In Kavan, sardonic, absurdist humor shoots through the dark ... Kavan’s work, read in this form, spanning decades, is heartening in its willingness to strike out alone, growing only bolder, stranger, more adventurous. That tendency cost her many times, but readers eventually met her where she was, and now the things she depicted look more eerily recognizable than ever.