insanity

ASYLUM PIECE BY ANNA KAVAN

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.

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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.

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OPERATION SHYLOCK BY PHILIP ROTH

When I was twenty-one I left home, I left the north, and moved in with a Scottish woman, a friend of the mother of my then-girlfriend. I’d got a job in Leamington Spa and needed a place to stay. The morning after moving in I woke up and still in my underwear went to the bathroom to brush my teeth etc. As I made to leave, however, the door handle came off in my hand. I was stuck. The house was empty. I was in there two hours, contemplating jumping, until I managed to convince [with difficulty] a passing child to fetch his mother. While I was at University, during my first week in fact, I drank a pint of tequila and nearly died. I woke up midday the following day, covered in bruises and laying on a vomit covered bed in a room I did not recognise.

Once, after breaking up with a girlfriend I agreed to travel to London to see her. She turned up but had a funny turn on the tube and ran off. I tried to follow her but I couldn’t keep up. I never saw her again. I called a friend of mine and we agreed to go for a drink. I got so drunk, however, that I passed out on the train home, which happened to be the last train that day, missing my stop and ending up in the arsehole of nowhere. Pissed and lost, I had to hitchhike home. Another time, I managed to convince a girl that I was in a very famous band, my act being so convincing that when I next bumped into her, weeks later, she told me she had actually bought tickets to see the band expecting me to be on stage. I wasn’t, of course. These short anecdotes are merely the tip of the iceberg, the tip of the tip.

Life is messier than fiction. If I wanted to write a story would I consider any of the things that have actually happened to me? No, I would dismiss them as unbelievable, stupid, too full of silly coincidences and unrealistic choices or unsound psychology. Life is messier than fiction, unless, of course, you’re talking about Operation Shylock by Philip Roth. This is a novel that purports to be a true story, actually does feature genuine, verifiable, events, and yet all of it feels categorically, almost gallingly, unreal. Take the basic plot, which is that Philip Roth, the writer, finds out that there is another Philip Roth, an impostor, in Jerusalem espousing controversial views on his [the real Roth’s] behalf.

Roth travels to Jerusalem and becomes embroiled in a madcap game of cat and mouse and espionage, which involves crippled agents, a million dollar cheque, arab freedom fighters, a dying man with a prosthetic penis, and so on. Like, huh? Then there is the trial of John Demjanjuk, which features prominently in the text. John Demjanjuk was arrested on suspicion of being Ivan the Terrible, a brutal Nazi guard responsible for almost mind-boggling cruelty at the Treblinka concentration camp. He is, believe it or not, being defended by a Jew, whose own mother was a holocaust survivor! This lawyer, by the way, was actually attacked by a holocaust survivor [not his own mother], who threw acid in his face. Sounds like bullshit, don’t it? Who is going to buy this crap? An acid-throwing holocaust survivor? Yet it’s all true. Go look it up.

I guess the most pertinent question is how does Roth manage to manipulate this material, how does he mould it into a coherent novel? The answer is that he doesn’t. Operation Shylock is something of a clusterfuck [much like this review so far], but it’s a pretty fucking engrossing one. Part of Roth’s focus is the tension between truth and fiction, the tenuous grasp that we have on reality, on who we are and what is happening to us, and around us. For example, who is the real Ivan the Terrible? This is a genuine question, because there were, and still are, doubts, differences of opinion. Some say Demjanjuk, some say that the evidence against him was falsified, that Ivan the Terrible was another man, Ivan Marchenko. Yet the novel asks another question, one given even greater prominence, which is who is the real Philip Roth? Indeed, one cannot take anyone or anything in the book on face value. What’s real is unbelievable, what is fiction is, well, unbelievable also.

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[Demjanjuk’s Nazi ID card, which some claim is a forgery]

On Roth and his double: one could argue that Pipik, which is what Roth calls his impostor, does not exist. At the beginning of the novel Roth describes a mental breakdown that he suffered as a result of taking a drug called Halcion. This drug leaves him feeling suicidal and categorically not himself. It is not difficult, then, to see Piipik as a consequence of this breakdown, of this feeling of not being oneself. Indeed, at one point Roth looks in the mirror and does not recognise himself. Is this Pipik staring back at him? Is Pipik the crazy Roth, the broken down Roth? The irrational Roth? The whole novel is suffused with doubles: the Arab that he knew thirty years previously as a mild, moderate man turns up in Jerusalem as an extremist, the cripple Smilesburger is encountered initially as a holocaust survivor only to turn out to be an agent, Demjanjuk is both an old man from Ohio and, possibly, a sadistic war criminal etc. Perhaps the biggest indication that Pipik is not real is when towards the end of the novel Roth admits to mentally composing, to imagining, a letter from Pipik’s girlfriend describing his death. An imaginary death for an imaginary character, perhaps.

“…they’ll say, ‘He never recovered from that breakdown and this was the result. It had to be the breakdown–not even he was that dreadful a novelist.”

Throughout Operation Shylock there is a very weird tension between high seriousness and farce, which is something that I have only previously encountered in the work of the renowned modernist Witold Gombrowicz. Roth deals, in detail, with some very important issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Diasporism, Palestinian displacement, Jewish culpability, the Holocaust and whether it is  used as a propaganda tool, terrorism, extremism, anti-semitism, etc. Simultaneously, there runs throughout the novel the double-double agent caper I have previously mentioned, which is obviously ridiculous. In this way, Operation Shylock is like two books in one. Yet there must be a reason for this duality. What was Roth trying to achieve? I think on one hand he wanted to treat these issues with the gravity they deserve, while also making the point that a lot of the beliefs and behaviour and arguments around them are insane. So, we have the crazy Arab friend who wants to enlist Roth [a Jew] to fight for his cause, we have the imposter Roth who wants the Jews to leave Israel and return to Europe en masse, etc. Indeed, all wars, all conflicts, all ideologies contain some element of insanity, otherwise people would not be willing to die for them.

Maybe all of this sounds like trash to you. I dunno. I enjoyed it. I think there is a lot of Roth’s best writing in the book, although it is very centred on Jewish issues and Jewish history [which some may find alienating]. The biggest issue for me was the Roth-as-character stuff. I have always maintained that authors absolutely should not, under any circumstances, appear in their own work. Had Roth not been Roth, so to speak, but, say, Nathan Zuckerman, who is himself a thinly disguised Roth [this is getting so meta it’s hard to keep it all straight], I would not have questioned the book. So, why do I dislike authors-as-characters? I find it egotistical, unnecessarily self-obsessive; yes, Zuckerman might be Roth, or a kind of Roth, but Roth as Roth? This is just taking it too far. There are points in the novel when characters speak to Roth about his work, praising it and praising him as the author. Even when someone in the book criticises Roth they do so with back-handed compliments, for example, they will say something like oh, you, the important writer, who everyone knows, with all those fans, who wrote those wonderful books, why are you such a dick! Like, jeez. Was Roth getting off on all that?

At times I contemplated giving up, but then there were other times when I thought that Roth was being ironic, that it was a joke. Maybe he made it so that everyone he meets in the book is convinced of his importance and status because in reality that kind of thing never happened to him. I don’t know. Is this aspect of the novel a satire on authors and their fans or authors and the people who want to use them? Again, I don’t know. I do, however, believe that some of the stuff in the book, some of the jokes, can only be enjoyed or appreciated by Roth himself, and that isn’t good writing.  Having said that, I did not give up on the book, despite these misgivings, so it must have a certain kind of power. Operation Shylock is a strange, hysterical, almost nightmarish novel, which may not be Roth’s best but is certainly one of his most entertaining and thought-provoking.