Have you ever had the feeling that you’re being followed and watched? Lean into the darkness and what do you see? The alley, the wardrobe, the space under the bed, the cracks in the walls – lean in close and what do you see? Maybe you’re being paranoid, for when you root around in the dark corners of your life there’s no one there. Still, you’d better clutch your keys, or quicken your step or pull the duvet over your head. There’s a knife in the kitchen which gives you peace of mind but which, you note to yourself, could equally be a murder weapon. I once had a stalker. Once, perhaps still. Who knows how good she is at the task she has given herself. Stalking like anything else is a skill one can develop. I would see her, fleetingly, although we had never met, in shops and on streets. I knew her from her photographs, in which she was naked and her face was turned away from the camera. Someone, if not her. Something, if not her. A powerful force dogging my heels that never fully reveals itself. I lay awake every night, cat-eyeing the dark corners of my life.
“I know that I’m doomed and I’m not going to struggle against my fate. I am only writing this down so that when you do not see me any more you will know that my enemy has finally triumphed.”
It has been a number of weeks since I last read a book. I didn’t read this one, or certainly not with strict concentration. I dipped in and out of it as though it were a dream, my cat eyes skimming the white pages and always drifting towards the window in the room. Even now, as I write, I find my head involuntarily turning towards it and whatever conscious part of me that still exits is drawn into the snowy static that obscures the world. My relationship with Anna Kavan has been an uneasy one, but that isn’t it. My relationship with most things is uneasy. During my past periods of lucidity I found her work tiresome, not now. I’ve read Ice three times, and enjoyed it only once, most recently. Asylum Piece was written much earlier than Ice, in some year or other. Or years, perhaps, for I’m not sure if it is something whole, put together by the author, or a collection fashioned by a publisher from various sources. It reads – if my experience of it could be said to be that of reading, which I am certain it cannot – like a bit of both. The first half of the book is given over to a sequence of Kafkaesque* – in the truest sense of the word – short pieces, while the second is a cycle of stories concerned with patients in mental institutions.
It strikes me as necessary to concentrate on the first half of the book, for no reason other than that was when my attention was most focused on it. In fact, The Birthmark, which opens the collection, is the only story I know by name, whose details I can confidently associate with a title. This is fortunate in so much as it is representative of what I can recall of the first half as a whole. In it a young girl is sent away to boarding school where she meets another girl, H, whose arm, ‘as if traced in faded ink’, is blemished by a birthmark. The years pass and the girls lose touch with each other, although the narrator confesses to having never really forgotten about H. Then, one summer when she is travelling in a foreign country, the narrator visits an ancient fortress and, while walking around, notices a ‘barred window giving on to some subterranean cell.’ It is in this cell that she thinks she sees a woman with an identifying birthmark, in which he thinks she sees H.
With succinctness and clarity The Birthmark could be said to make much of the rest of the book redundant, and in fact much of Kavan’s oeuvre [with the obvious exception of Ice, which in hindsight becomes richer]. Certainly, when I finished it I felt as though I knew more about, and better understood, her principle concerns. The most compelling and insistent of these concerns is that of oppression. In her most famous work it is manifested in the elements, and in the girl’s partner, here it is the boarding school and the fortress prison and possibly the birthmark itself [which H is self-conscious of]. It is interesting that Kavan herself was said to be secretive about her age, as though that too – ageing – is an oppressive force, especially for a woman. In each of the rest of the stories in the first half of Asylum Piece the narrator – they are all told in the first person – is either being punished, persecuted, threatened, or imagines herself to be. In some she is at the mercy of an authority – such as the patrons in Going Up in the World – of whom she is aware, and with whom she interacts, and in others it is a shadowy, distant, unknown entity that she believes to be at work against her.
The tone of these stories is panicked and fearful; there is a sense of dread and unease, paranoia and futility throughout, regardless of the primary action. For example, in the early stages of The Birthmark the narrator speaks of feeling ‘strange and subdued’ and of how ‘nullification’ accompanied H. Indeed, the book is full of words and phrases such as ‘ill omened’, ‘gloomy inertia’, ‘doom’, ‘hostile’, ‘treacherous’, and so on. Moreover, frequent references are made to being or feeling alone or isolated. The prison speaks to this, of course, but so does the situation of the girl in Going Up in the World, where she is forced to live in a cold and dirty room, while her patrons live above her in luxury and brightness. Even in less restrictive circumstances, while apparently free, her narrator is ‘frightened and lonely in a nightmare world’ with ‘not a soul’ she can trust. I know very little about Kavan as a person, and so I would not want to make judgements about her mental state, but it is clear that she was at least interested in the mental processes of the hysterical depressive. This is perhaps how both halves of the book fit together. The first puts us inside the diseased mind of such a person, while the second observes these types from a distance.
*this is a word that I instinctively recoil from in most circumstances. However, if you are familiar with Kafka’s work the similarities should be apparent having read this review. In fact, there is a short suite of stories in Asylum Piece, in which the narrator has been charged with a crime she knows nothing about, that are on the borderline of plagiarism.