Just before 1940, in the wake of a severe mental breakdown and stint at a sanatorium, the onset of global war, and the discovery of Franz Kafka’s fiction (especially The Trial and the short stories in The Great Wall of China), Helen Ferguson changed her name to Anna Kavan (the latter being a phonetic nod to Kafka) to signal psychological renewal and a dramatic shift in her creative life. She turned away from social realism and cultivated a taste for the surreal and the Dionysian elements of the human mind — “the fauna of the night,” as Auden writes in his elegy for Freud. She dove deep into the literature of psychoanalysis and began to pen thinly veiled accounts of her lifelong battles with heroin addiction, depression, and suicidal behavior. Victoria Walker, Kavan’s best critic, begins this new collection with stories from Asylum Piece (1940), the first book published under the name Anna Kavan carrying the mark of her new style.
For the most part, the stories in Machines in the Head present us with a series of first-person narrators (which typically read like masks of Kavan herself) on the brink of madness in isolated, claustrophobic, clinical worlds. The border between reality and fantasy is troubled, wavering. Fog and darkness dominate the external and internal landscapes. Mysterious enemies haunt her, imprison her, judge her; in a room “as dark as a box lined with black velvet,” an omniscient and omnipotent jailer breaks through the ceiling and towers up “towards the icy mountains of the moon,” then suddenly grows small, crouching beside her on the floor like a demented Alice. In “Machines in the Head,” we find Kavan’s narrator subjugated to the cogs and wheels of a “senseless” machine, in a world that is hermetic, unmapped, and “in a place faraway from the sun.” Another narrator dreams of “mineral caves” and ice ages. Kavan loves to problematize the distinctions between present and past, self and other, human and nonhuman, the natural and the industrial. Mental anguish unlocks doors to (often terrifying) worlds beyond the normative order of things.
Kavan constructs a surrealistic metropolis in her 1945 story “Our City,” in which a simulacrum of an unnamed London “metamorphoses” first into an “octopus,” then into “a trap,” and finally into “a judge.” In this dystopian city, lion-like dogs are the gold standard of citizenship, and the narrator is both “banished” and “imprisoned”; searchlights “scissor” “through [her] nerves,” turning the urban environment into a “pandemonium” in which her room floats “[l]ike a lighted bubble.” Strange conflations of the animate and inanimate world amid landscapes of fire and Blitzkrieg demonstrate Kavan’s intricate and lively braiding of historical and fantastic registers.
“The Old Address” continues to exhibit Kavan’s penchant for the grotesque and surrealist discontinuity. A car strikes the narrator at full speed and mangles her body, but she doesn’t die; rather, she keeps on thinking as a tide of blood erupts from her wounds, rising until all the pedestrians drown in her blood. But as is typical with Kavan’s stories, interspersed throughout this architecture of psychological and perceptual violence are moments of solemn reflection about the condition of solitude in an impersonal universe. Suddenly the tone shifts, and the narrator professes: “[O]f course, I’m alone, as I always am. […] Once again I’ve been betrayed and abandoned; by the whole human race this time.” The voice of the autobiographical Kavan, who never entirely recovered from a childhood of maternal neglect and a chain of failed romances which left her feeling cruelly betrayed, can be detected in many other passages, such as the following:
The frightful slowness of a child’s time. The interminable years of inferiority and struggling to win a kind word that is never spoken. The torment of self-accusation, thinking one must be to blame. The bitterness of longed-for affection bestowed on indifferent strangers. […] It’s so lonely, so terribly lonely. I hate being always alone. I so badly need someone to talk to, someone to love. Nobody looks at me now, and I don’t want them to; I don’t want to be seen. I can’t bear to look at myself in the glass. I keep away from people as much as I can. I know everyone is repelled and embarrassed by all these scars.
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.
In one of my favorite stories in the collection, “A Bright Green Field,” the narrator, whenever she travels abroad, encounters a version of the same landscape — a radiant meadow bordered by dark trees. The meadow generates its own light and burns incandescently, not even dimming at nighttime. In the particular iteration of the landscape she stumbles upon in this narrative, the meadow occurs high up in the mountains, rising vertically like a sheer cliff and flickering with emerald brightness. There’s one further curiosity, however; an apparatus of ropes and pulleys covers the meadow, from which countless humans are suspended. A local explains to her that these workers are not criminals undergoing an archaic form of punishment (like those subjected to the torture apparatus in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”), but rather mowers fighting back the inexorable growth of grass blades on the vertical field. Without this mechanical system, and without those brave volunteers, the grass might multiply infinitely and “rear up like a great green grave […] sweeping over all boundaries, spreading in all directions, destroying all other life, covering the whole world with a bright green pall beneath which life would perish.” Eventually the grass would “threaten the life of the planet.” Kavan’s short fiction (along with her novel Ice, which depicts a glaciating earth) frequently expresses deep anxieties about environmental crisis, atomic warfare, and mass extinction. Traumatic experiences during World War II, such as the death of her son, a close call with a German submarine while she was a passenger on a ship, and her work in a military psychiatric hospital, infused her writing with (highly justified) doomsday phobias and a “conviction that human beings were hell-bent on their own destruction, and that of the natural world around them.” Kavan was a damning critic of the Anthropocene and the logic that asserts taxonomic hierarchies and mankind’s estrangement from the ecological nexus on which it depends. Apocalyptic scenarios — a favorite trope of science fiction and fantasy writers — gave Kavan’s imagination free range to articulate genuine fears about her present historical moment (from World War II to the Cold War), while marshaling her private vision to reflect upon what she termed a “universal” problem — that is, how to conceive of “a new earth and a new man to inhabit the earth.”
The fables of Rainer Maria Rilke, Christoph Meckel, and Franz Kafka — and their human-animal hybrids — inform “The Visit.” Corporeal hybridity was a favorite trope of modernists seeking to problematize the concept of the human (especially at a time when the human species was under threat from nuclear war and seemed more ephemeral than ever before) and explore the seams between the self and other through experiments in zoological metaphor. In “The Visit,” a panther with a head “domed rather than flattened,” whose skull is “singularly human,” wanders into the narrator’s room at night, climbs onto her bed, and falls asleep beside her. This occurrence happens night after night, until one day she follows the leopard through the jungle but flunks a mysterious test the animal sets for her there. On a deserted beach she sees her animal friend for the last time. She calls to him but cannot reach him. He moves atop high, distant waves “as gracefully as if [they] were solid glass.” A young man with a red cape accompanies him, and the two recede into the watery expanse. “[P]aralysed by depression and disappointment,” she makes her way back home alone, once again failing to achieve a way out of her rational and mundane existence; she squanders the chance to change her life, to live dangerously and perhaps pass through the gauntlet of death to a superior knowledge.
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. While no one necessarily needs another genre, literary category, or conceptual box, the term autospec strikes at the marrow of Kavan’s art. I wouldn’t presume to introduce this neologism unless it had gained some popularity among my writer friends, who find themselves engaged in a similar mixing of seemingly incompatible modes. Of course, all writers do this to some extent, toggling between the literal and the metaphorical, the factual and the fabricated, but practitioners of autospec, like Anna Kavan, have the added challenge of integrating and systematizing these clashing elements over extended passages of prose. Even the etymologies of the two words, auto and spec, convey this portmanteau’s peculiar appropriateness. Auto means “self” in Greek, while the Latin specula means “watchtower”: the self’s watchtower, fully embodied yet seen from a high vantage point — at times giving insight and wide perspective and at times obscured by clouds. This paradox expresses the earthiness and mystique of Anna Kavan’s fiction.
Gregory Ariail lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, The Common, CutBank, The Offing, and others.