Photo: Walker Evans

Anna Kavan
(1901 - 1968)

Anna Kavan was born Helen Emily Woods on April 10, 1901 in Cannes, France of English parents (Claude Charles Edward Woods and Helen Bright). She was raised and educated in Europe and California. While the family was in Southern California, the father committed suicide; Helen was thirteen.

She married (and divorced) twice. The first marriage (at age seventeen, to Donald Ferguson) took her to Burma, where she began writing. She had a son (Brian Ferguson). The second marriage (in 1931, to artist Stuart Edmonds) took her to Bledlow Cross, the Chilterns, England where she bred bulldogs. She also lived in France, Switzerland, New York, Australia, and New Zealand before settling in London.

Owing to a painful spinal disease, Kavan was a heroin addict for thirty years -- a fact not made public until after her death, when her friend, the writer Rhys Davies, revealed it in his introduction to Julia and the Bazooka (1970). She also used amphetamines on a daily basis when writing and spent two long periods in mental hospitals in Switzerland and England. She attempted suicide at least three times -- in 1938 after her second marriage fell apart, in 1942 after the death of her son in World War II, and in 1964 when her friend and co-author Dr. Karl Theodor Bluth died. When Rhys Davies found Anna dead in December 1968, it was with a full syringe beside her; in his words, "Her palliative had not obliterated the last moment."

Besides being an acclaimed author, Kavan was also considered a talented painter (of "bizarre studies of tormented women") and a successful interior decorator. An exhibition of her "Landscapes in Oil" was held in 1935 at Wertheim Gallery in London. During World War II she worked in New York as a researcher for a military psychiatric unit. In 1942 she was an editorial assistant Horizon magazine, which published some of her stories and book reviews, and also worked intermittently as an editorial assistant to Cyril Connolly. In 1950 she established the architecture and design firm Kavan Properties, and through the 1960s she bought and renovated old houses in London. She herself designed her final home and oversaw its construction. A number of articles were published in the English press concerning her interior design work.

Her early novels of the 1920s and 1930s were conventional stories of the "Home Counties," classified as manners and customs fiction and published under her married name, Helen Ferguson. But after she moved to New York in 1939 and legally changed her name to Anna Kavan (from a character in A Stranger Still, her fifth published novel), her books would share the same shelf as Kafka -- for alphabetical as well as other reasons. According to Rhys Davies, "Kafka's work was found to contain the modern scriptures." Thereafter, her stories and novels explored dark and twilight regions of the human mind, with enough occasional sunlight to allow us to recognize what we have seen. Ana´s Nin, in her poetic literary study The Novel of the Future (1968), praised Kavan for such "nocturnal writing" -- alongside Djuna Barnes, John Hawkes, and others -- and called Asylum Piece (1940) "a classic equal to the work of Kafka."

The brilliant and memorable novel Ice (1967) is generally considered Kavan's masterpiece. It is sometimes classified as science fiction (Brian W. Aldiss, who wrote the introduction to the American edition, selected the novel as science fiction work of the year), but it is perhaps the most Kafkaesque of her works (Eagles Nest is a close second in this regard). Sleep Has His House (aka House of Sleep, 1948 and 1947, respectively) and Julia and the Bazooka (1970) are also highly recommended. Recent posthumous publications of Kavan's manuscripts from the McFarlin Library (see below) include Mercury (1994) (MS title, "The Words of Mercury Are Harsh After The Songs Of Apollo") and The Parson (1995). Peter Owen Publishers of London has been her primary publisher since 1947 and seems intent on keeping Anna Kavan in print. Her work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and Japanese.


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First posted: February 22, 1996
Last updated: January 13, 2011

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