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The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography

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Anna Kavan died in 1968 aged sixty-seven, a victim of the heroin to which she had been addicted for the last thirty years of her life. Yet she was a prolific writer and an accomplished painter. Her literary work, widely acclaimed, has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish and Japanese. She was born in Cannes of English parents and spent her childhood Anna Kavan died in 1968 aged sixty-seven, a victim of the heroin to which she had been addicted for the last thirty years of her life. Yet she was a prolific writer and an accomplished painter. Her literary work, widely acclaimed, has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish and Japanese. She was born in Cannes of English parents and spent her childhood in Europe, California and England. Her life was haunted by a rich, glamorous mother, beside whom her father remains an indistinct figure. Twice married and divorced, she began writing while living with her first husband in Burma. To separate fact from fantasy is a near-impossible task for her biographer, since Anna Kavan destroyed most of her personal correspondence and all of her diaries save those covering an eighteen-month period. Even these she doctored and falsified: 'I was about to become the world's best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be,' she wrote in an unpublished story. D. A. Callard has made a fine, sensitive and illuminating attempt to unravel the enigma.


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Anna Kavan died in 1968 aged sixty-seven, a victim of the heroin to which she had been addicted for the last thirty years of her life. Yet she was a prolific writer and an accomplished painter. Her literary work, widely acclaimed, has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish and Japanese. She was born in Cannes of English parents and spent her childhood Anna Kavan died in 1968 aged sixty-seven, a victim of the heroin to which she had been addicted for the last thirty years of her life. Yet she was a prolific writer and an accomplished painter. Her literary work, widely acclaimed, has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish and Japanese. She was born in Cannes of English parents and spent her childhood in Europe, California and England. Her life was haunted by a rich, glamorous mother, beside whom her father remains an indistinct figure. Twice married and divorced, she began writing while living with her first husband in Burma. To separate fact from fantasy is a near-impossible task for her biographer, since Anna Kavan destroyed most of her personal correspondence and all of her diaries save those covering an eighteen-month period. Even these she doctored and falsified: 'I was about to become the world's best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be,' she wrote in an unpublished story. D. A. Callard has made a fine, sensitive and illuminating attempt to unravel the enigma.

30 review for The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nate D

    When was the last time I intentionally read a biography? Anna Kavan has that peculiar sway over me that I'm actually fascinated to grab at a few more of her life details and bits of otherwise unavailable thoughts from letters, reviews, essays, journals. Callard, Kavan's first book-length biographer in 1992 (preceding Jeremy Reed in 2006-or-so), does a decent job of pulling together what material and anecdotal record exists of this often very private life. His style tends towards invisible, succi When was the last time I intentionally read a biography? Anna Kavan has that peculiar sway over me that I'm actually fascinated to grab at a few more of her life details and bits of otherwise unavailable thoughts from letters, reviews, essays, journals. Callard, Kavan's first book-length biographer in 1992 (preceding Jeremy Reed in 2006-or-so), does a decent job of pulling together what material and anecdotal record exists of this often very private life. His style tends towards invisible, succinct reportage, and his investigations never probe much deeper than quoting her writings and personal accounts from friends, and correlating fiction to life particulars, yet by merit of its subject I found this compulsively readable, and it's not for nothing that bits of it turn up in practically every longer article or dissertation on Kavan I've managed to dig up. Terribly useful for the Kavan obsessive, though far from exhausting its source. Notes/quotation below. Longtime friend Rhys Davies' first meets Kavan as Kavan: One day a letter arrived from her. We were both living in London, and when I kept the arranged meeting, I failed to recognize the women running to me from under the trees of one of those suburban estates of dwelling. Helen Fergusan had vanished. The spectral women, attentuated of body and face, a former abundance of auburn hair shorn and changed to metallic gold, thinned hands, restless, was so different that my own need to readjust to her was a strain. She had not long been discharged from her second period ijn a hospital, and later I came ot uinderstand why she called one of her Anna Kavan books I Am Lazarus. She herself had returned from an abeyance of personality in the shades. The Lazarus myth always attracted her. I'd seen this passage reproduced before in my personal favorite piece of Kavanalia, but it certianly bears rpeating: The most distinguishable literary influence on the book is Robbe-Grillet and his theories of the nouveau roman: in its rejection of character, plot, conventions of geography and chronology, and its sense of an indeifferent world. However, Anna Kavan's writing had tended towards this before the nouveau roman had appeared on the scene. Her enthusiasm for this school, the only group of writers to whom she ever expressed a partiality, was almost certainly because they moved in areas she had already explored" (p.141) Incidentally, I've always enjoyed the irony of Kavan's re-tuning of some of Robbe-Grillet's tools of subjective ambiguous narrative and eroticized violence to feminist purpose in Ice. (Not that I'd consider R-G hostile to feminism, exactly, but he's far too submerged in his own fever-visions and aestheticized body-forms to be much help in that area.) On the other, the Robbe-Grillet's greatest refinements in that area seem actually to have come after Ice in his interlinked 70s metatexts. Eerie findngs in Kavan's flat at the time of death: ...a series of paintings depicting gruesome executions and people being hung by their entrails. These were so ghastly that [executors Rhys Davies and Raymond Marriott] had them destroyed. (p.149) I'd rather meant to excerpt more here, but am running up against a lack of time at the moment. Perhaps can add more later. In any event, it was well worth my time, I think, though I could certainly stand to delve deeper, if avenues to do such are available. (ie the massive Anna Kavan collection at the University of Tulsa, I suppose, which is where pretty much all of her papers have wound up at this point.)

  2. 5 out of 5

    K.

    "I want to live a primitive, animal sort of life, with one chosen man who satisfies me physically and with whom I can talk nonsense, behave childishly or be silent just as I please. I want to sleep a long time, eat a lot, sit about in the sun and be sexual pretty often. I don't want anybody else at all. I don't want the bother of being friends with people and having to talk to them. I don't want emotional (or any other) excitements. I want to love and be desired and appreciated. I want to be com "I want to live a primitive, animal sort of life, with one chosen man who satisfies me physically and with whom I can talk nonsense, behave childishly or be silent just as I please. I want to sleep a long time, eat a lot, sit about in the sun and be sexual pretty often. I don't want anybody else at all. I don't want the bother of being friends with people and having to talk to them. I don't want emotional (or any other) excitements. I want to love and be desired and appreciated. I want to be comfortable and happy and at peace - (not all strung up and excited as I am now whenever I am happy). My tastes are not in the least cultured. I dislike most plays, all reviews, picture galleries and 'highbrow' music. I prefer not to change my clothes during the day; not to eat elaborately served meals; not to wash more than is absolutely necessary. I would rather go to bed than sit up and dance. In fact I am an animal: a lazy, intelligent, unsociable animal."

  3. 5 out of 5

    S̶e̶a̶n̶

    The dearth of primary sources necessary to craft a proper biography of Anna Kavan should likely have precluded this bland attempt to do so by D.A. Callard. Nonetheless, he plodded forth, drawing heavily from fictional source material, including Rhys Davies' novel Honeysuckle Girl (currently stagnating on this site with zero reviews--any takers?) and virtually all of Kavan's fiction, writing both as Helen Ferguson and as Anna Kavan. It's true that Callard did not have much other material with whi The dearth of primary sources necessary to craft a proper biography of Anna Kavan should likely have precluded this bland attempt to do so by D.A. Callard. Nonetheless, he plodded forth, drawing heavily from fictional source material, including Rhys Davies' novel Honeysuckle Girl (currently stagnating on this site with zero reviews--any takers?) and virtually all of Kavan's fiction, writing both as Helen Ferguson and as Anna Kavan. It's true that Callard did not have much other material with which to work. Most of her diaries she destroyed, leaving only an 18-month period extant. Beyond that there were some letters left behind, and the recollections of a few of Kavan's associates, captured here and there, though not providing many details of interest. Even with Callard compensating for the lack of primary source material by padding the text with historical filler, mainly surrounding the war, psychiatry, and heroin use, the book still barely makes it past the 150-page mark. I can't help feeling that it's quite possible I would have been better off not having read it. [One of the more intriguing pieces of information I gleaned from this book is the existence of a Helen Ferguson novel with which I was unfamiliar, entitled Goose Cross (not currently in the Goodreads db). Callard likens its style to that of John Cowper Powys, and his description, albeit brief, made it sound more interesting than the majority of the Helen Ferguson novels. Jacket copy and cover image available here.]

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    As is often the case, I liked the subject more than I liked her biographer. His concluding thoughts made me want to kick him. P.S. Anna was a Whovian!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    Sensitive and insightful bio of the mysterious Anna K. When she died, the cops found "Enough heroin to kill the whole street.", in her apartment. She was stockpiling it in case the government decided to use enforced detox, as a method to deal with addicts. She believed this was entirely possible, and later of course, that's exactly what happened. Just like here, with the media-fueled opioid "crisis", where the true source of the problem, major distributors supplying pill mills, not arthritis pat Sensitive and insightful bio of the mysterious Anna K. When she died, the cops found "Enough heroin to kill the whole street.", in her apartment. She was stockpiling it in case the government decided to use enforced detox, as a method to deal with addicts. She believed this was entirely possible, and later of course, that's exactly what happened. Just like here, with the media-fueled opioid "crisis", where the true source of the problem, major distributors supplying pill mills, not arthritis patients, is rarely mentioned, let alone investigated. Instead, they bomb the airwaves with pictures of homeless addicts shooting up from a bottle cap, under a dirty, tattered plastic tarp, in some American homeless camp. Of course, it all started with that Vicodin they got from the dentist for a rotten tooth. Or was it that bong hit of seedy Mexican dirt weed they took in 1988? Depends on which useless drug crusader/reformer piece of shit you ask. Word on the street is the whole thing was CIA from the git go. Legalize the shit in pill form, give a whole bunch of rubes a taste, then cut 'em off! Watch 'em flock like lemmings to the Dope Man, who us of course, as any reasonably intelligent well-informed creature knows, is THEM. The perfect con.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jennyb

    Can't remember why I wanted to read this, or how I heard of Anna Kavan. It's ... interesting. Kavan sounds like a difficult person to like, and I'm guessing a lot of her writing -bleak and self-loathing, if not self-pitying- might be hard to like too. I got this free on Open Library (a fantastic resource to discover in these quarantined times). Can't remember why I wanted to read this, or how I heard of Anna Kavan. It's ... interesting. Kavan sounds like a difficult person to like, and I'm guessing a lot of her writing -bleak and self-loathing, if not self-pitying- might be hard to like too. I got this free on Open Library (a fantastic resource to discover in these quarantined times).

  7. 4 out of 5

    Aveugle Vogel

    "go to Bedford" "go to Bedford"

  8. 5 out of 5

    Luis

    I guess this is as good a Kavan biography you can get. Commendable effort by Callard, and a fascinating read. However, I was a bit disappointed not to find any references to The Parson, one of my favorites alongside Ice. Understandable, since it was published after this biography came out, but there are so many insights on the rest of her work, in the end that made me wish he had dug a bit deeper.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Emilie

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jon Richards

  11. 5 out of 5

    Krystian Piotrowski

  12. 4 out of 5

    Anna O'Meara

  13. 5 out of 5

    Moon Child

  14. 4 out of 5

    M. E.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Dan Gamble

  16. 4 out of 5

    Puma Perl

  17. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  18. 5 out of 5

    Charlotte2563

  19. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alex Jamal

  21. 5 out of 5

    Damon Garr

  22. 5 out of 5

    Linda

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shane James Bordas

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  26. 5 out of 5

    Maddy

  27. 5 out of 5

    Eline

  28. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  29. 5 out of 5

    aya

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lily

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