About the writings of Anna Kavan

"Anna Kavan made a significant beginning as a nocturnal writer with House of Sleep and achieved this kind of revelation with a classic equal to the work of Kafka titled Asylum Piece in which the nonrational human being caught in a web of unreality still struggles to maintain a dialogue with those who cannot understand him. In later books the waking dreamers give up the struggle and simply tell of their adventures. They live in solitude with their shadows, hallucinations, prophesies."

"One of the most original writers of the 20th century."

"Kavan's prose is like pollen, frail yet enduring. She is De Quincey's heir, Kafka's sister and a true writer."

"Her stories are. . . rich with a fresh kind of peril."

"Her luminous novels are haunting and original."

"The most remarkable female novelist since Virginia Woolf."

"A brilliant visionary . . . The evocation of the loneliness of emotional failure is her sphere of absolute success."

The following critical citations appeared on the covers of English and U.S. editions of Kavan's books; descriptions come from the Dufour Editions catalog.

A Charmed Circle (1929)

"A powerful exposition of constrained lives." -- Times Literary Supplement

"Not a word is wasted in her spare but painterly prose." -- Sunday Telegraph

This early novel foreshadows Kavan's later development. "This 1929 novel, set in an English industrial town, depicts the lives of a woman and her children who suffer at the hands of an oppressive husband and father." -- Library Journal. Kavan describes the struggles of the young people to escape from their malign environment.

Let Me Alone (1930)

". . . a pioneering effort for Women's Liberation. . . . Miss Kavan . . . is fast becoming something of a cult figure, one of the saints of Women's Lib and the drug culture." -- New Statesman (on the 1974 reprint)

An early and powerful novel of special interest as an autobiographical account of the personal stresses which Kavan was later to use and develop in her more experimental fiction. The account masterfully interweaves a vast array of experiences, settings, and characters ranging from the suicide of her father, to her adoption by a rich, beautiful and ruthless aunt, to her time at a boarding school, and her loveless marriage to a bourgeois husband who takes her to Burma.

A Stranger Still (1935)

Set in the 1930s, in Bohemian London, Paris, and southern France, the story concerns a rich family and their financial and emotional vicissitudes. The autobiographical element (repression in childhood) is implicit for those familiar with the author's enigmatic life. The author actually identified so strongly with the glacial character of Anna Kavan that she subsequently wrote under that name.

See also: Midwest Book Review, 03/15/96

Asylum Piece (1940)

"I have always thought of her as belonging to the great subjective-feminist tradition (Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Ana´s Nin) which has tried to give us a poetic notation of the female artist's world." -- Lawrence Durrell

". . . there are gems here, passages of startling poignancy and radiance . . ." -- Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review

"There is a beauty about these stories which has nothing to do with their pathological interest, and is the result of art. Two or three, if signed by a famous name, might rank among the story-teller's memorable achievements. There is beauty in the stillness of the author's ultimate despair." -- Sir Desmond McCarthy, Sunday Times

". . . clearly establishes her as a cult figure of considerable interest." -- The Scotsman

" . . . should not be missed by anyone that cares for contemporary writing." -- Robert Nye, Great Writers of the English Language

Change the Name (1941)

"There cannot be a better novel about the fate of a middle class girl denied training... Short, bleak and shocking." -- Doris Lessing, The Independent

Sleep Has His House (1948)

"A testament of remarkable feverish beauty" -- The Guardian

"It must stand by its individual truth . . . Sleep is the prelude to a life, strange, beautiful, tragic, mad and drug-addicted." -- Times Literary Supplement

"A near masterpiece in the imaginative speculations of those whose paradise simultaneously contains their hell." -- The Times

"A fascinating clinical casebook of her individual obsessions and the effects of drugs on her imagination . . . in the tradition of the great writers on drug addiction, De Quincey, Wilkie Collins, Coleridge." -- Weekend Telegraph

Eagle's Nest (1957)

"A writer of such chillingly matter-of-fact, unself-pitying vigour that her vision transcends itself." -- The New Yorker

In this powerful fantasy, Kavan describes the life of an individual who cannot face the harsh impact of modern civilization. Exploring the shifting territory between the concrete world and the world of dreams, she questions both the ultimate reality of personal identity and of existence itself.

A Bright Green Field (1958)

"An artist of great distinction." -- L. P. Hartley

"A remarkable writer." -- Sir Desmond McCarthy

Admirers of Kavan's work will not be disappointed. The title story is allegorical writing at its best and bears the stamp of the author's compulsive power. Other stories show her grasp of the conflict between dream and reality, and an acute awareness of human dignity constantly threatened by insensitive unkindness.

Who are you? (1963)

". . . justifies those of us who feel that Kavan is worth attention. . . . There is a vision at work here which dismays." -- The Guardian

Ice (1967)

"Brooding, mysterious . . . a fascinating marriage of the Goth novel with science fiction." -- Publishers Weekly

"Unique . . . its incantatory powers move it beyond the scope of science-fantasy . . . nearer Cocteau than Arthur C. Clarke. . . . Despite an atmosphere of doom . . . alert and lively and mobile as a good spy thriller." -- Brian Aldiss

"One of the most terrifying postulations of the end of the world." -- The Times, London

"A repetitive dream world not unlike that of Kafka . . . originally and masterfully written." -- Columbus Dispatch

"Marvelously gifted writer . . . an abundance of writing that astonishes with poetic brilliance." -- Sunday Telegraph

Julia and the Bazooka (1970)

"A writer of hypnotic power and imagination." -- Times Literary Supplement

"She has fashioned stories which are often as chilling, hard and imperishable as diamonds." -- Clive Jordan, New Statesman

"A remarkable poetic writer who could transmute the most ordinary matter of daily life into a dangerous, haunting vision . . . her work transcends the agony of the confessional and stands on its own as a triumphant achievement." -- Janice Elliott, Sunday Telegraph

Ed. by Rhys Davies. This posthumous collection of stories contains some of Kavan's most compelling work. It owes much to her personal experiences, particularly her lifelong addiction to heroin. An important literary work, it highlights the shadowed world of the incurable drug addict and proves the psychological aspects of addiction.

My Soul in China (1975)

". . . shows the full range of her distinctive skills." -- Oxford Mail

Ed. by Rhys Davies. Tells the story of a woman facing the nightmare of mental breakdown, who finds brief happiness in an idyllic but doomed love affair.

Mercury (1994)

"This glittering hallucinogenic novel is surely one of the best of the books inspired by drug-taking. . . You have entered a realm of the marvelous, like a latterday Ancient Mariner compelled to follow the tale, hypnotized by this storyteller who is at last getting the attention she deserves." -- Doris Lessing.

"Nowhere else in modern fiction is the cellular lushness of 'snow' brought to such icy beauty, becoming the very earth the characters walk on. . . . [A] work of genius." -- Publisher's Weekly

"Exquisite, lapidary prose brilliantly illuminates the eerie land that lurks deep within the mind, waiting to surprise and torment." -- Kirkus Reviews

"An intriguing book." -- World Literature Today

"A most unusual literary experience." -- Small Press

This novel from Kavan's most creative period is a work of sustained imaginative vision, containing some of the novelist's best hallucinogenic writing. It is the story of a man's search for a woman who has left her sadistic husband and is set against a world facing apocalypse. The narrative is projected like a series of dream sequences, enigma and illusion intertwined in the manner of Kafka. This is a powerful work, an important addition to drug-influenced literature.

The Parson (1995)

"A compelling blend of heady description, dime-store plot and Poe-like devotion to the characterization of inner demons. Kavan's narrative consists almost exclusively of the interior monologues of Oswald, a soldier so upstanding he is nick-named the Parson, and Rejane, a ferocious beauty for whom only nature is a fair match. The brief novel encompasses their meeting, their month-long acquaintance amid ghostly moors and their parting -- with emphasis on all base, disturbing desires and conflict. Kavan fans will revel in the lyrical risk-taking of her prose, the emergence of some of her hallmark images and themes and her brilliant juxtapositions of ancient and modern, rich and poor, good and evil. This edition features three facsimile pages from an original draft with revision." -- Publishers Weekly

"Until now, her novel ... remained a manuscript in a drawer, and the discriminating reader of fiction will thank the literary heavens that it has finally seen the light of publication. It's a marvelously realized little novel, as startling as a face slap and, belying its brevity, as sustaining as a feast. It rest on a simple premise: an attractive man, in this case a young army officer on leave, and an attractive woman, in this instance one who is according herself some distance from her persistent lover, find mutual attraction and have a brief affair. For her, the relationship is simply an interlude; in his mind, this is the love of his life, for which he has been breathlessly waiting. Kavan's stylistic exquisiteness makes a perfect medium for capturing every nuance of the sexuality and conflicting psychology involved in this impermanent moment, during which two very different people's lives intersect." -- Booklist (starred review)

A tragic love story unfolds against a visionary landscape in this novel from Kavan's later period. "The Parson" of the title is not a cleric but an upright young army officer, so nicknamed in his British regiment. On leave he meets a rich and beguiling beauty whom he equates with the girl of his dreams. This is less a tale of unrequited love than an exploration of divided selves, momentarily locked in an unequal embrace. Passion is revealed as a play of the senses, as well as a destructive force. It is this pervasive quality in the writing that allows the narrative to be judged as more than pure romantic invention.

The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography by David Callard

"Kavan's childhood was marked by an emotionally distant mother and a father who killed himself when she was 14. Twice divorced and deeply depressed, she coped by taking heroin daily for 40 years. Despite her addiction and several suicide attempts, Kavan continued to write, producing novels and experimental stories that critics compared favorably to works of Kafka." -- Publishers Weekly

Drawing extensviely on unpublished diaries, Callard traces Kavan's development as a writer, examining her mental illness, her failed marriages, and the influence of her heroin addiction on her writing. Her novels possess an intense, hallucinatory quality which made her a cult figure. Callard's biography verified that she was first an artist and second an addict.

"The American distribution of D. A. Callard's biography will perhaps bring her [Kavan's] brilliant, haunting writing to an academic and general audience." -- World Literature Today

Catalog descriptions provided by Jeanne Dufour and Dufour Editions, Inc., Post Office Box 7, Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007. No affiliation with this or any other publisher is intended or implied.

Last updated: December 16, 2002.

Return to Anna Kavan