mental health


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.


The other day I was talking to a man who, impolitely, one might call ‘slow,’ and I felt myself getting annoyed and losing patience. He was easily confused; often repeated himself; and stuttered terribly. ‘I’ve had three strokes,’ he said, and I nodded, thinking this was merely an example of the strange compulsion people have to inform others of their problems or ailments. But then, a moment or two later, I realised that he was offering me this information as an excuse, as an explanation. He had obviously picked up on my irritation, and I felt ashamed, as, I suspected, he did too, but for different reasons. There are, of course, a lot of horrible things that can happen to a human being, but it strikes me that the loss of mental agility, and being aware of this loss, at least some of the time, must be a particularly potent kind of misery.

In The Birds, acclaimed Norwegian author, and one time Nobel candidate, Tarjei Vesaas tells the story of Mattis and his long-suffering sister Hege. While Mattis is an adult [he is thirty-seven], he appears to have the mental age, and physical capacity, of someone much younger. Certainly, Hege treats him like a child, looking after him, telling him what to do, and often humouring him in his strange preoccupations and mental flights of fancy. As far as the locals are concerned Mattis is ‘simple’ [his nickname is Simple Simon], and yet that strikes me as short-sighted. Mattis is not simple at all; he has a complex inner life, it just isn’t like most other people’s. For example, he says to Hege that she is ‘like lightning,’ referring to her flashing knitting needles, an association that is unusual, but imaginative, countering accusations of idiocy. Likewise, his experience with the woodcock, which plays such a central role in the early stages of the book, is full of intense, sophisticated and conflicting emotions.


Crucially, and movingly, as with the man I mentioned in my introduction, Mattis does have self-awareness. He knows that people think him stupid and incapable; moreover, he regards himself that way too. This leads to him feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, and worthless. Indeed, there are two subjects that are particularly painful, which are ‘thinking’ and ‘work,’ two things at which he considers himself a failure. Yet, in spite of these ‘failures’ there are aspects of his character that I found admirable, and that, in fact, I could relate to myself. First of all, Mattis’ cosmic sense of wonder, his relationship with the woodcock, with which he attempts to communicate by leaving it messages, is really quite beautiful. Secondly, his honesty, his inability to be diplomatic, is refreshing. I dislike lying, even so-called kind lies; I am, in fact, incapable of them; I lack tact, frequently upsetting people by not telling them what they want to hear. Mattis does this too, for example, when he points out that Hege, who is three years his senior, is going grey.

It is probably clear by now that Mattis dominates the novel. The Birds is not written in the first person, but it is largely concerned with one man’s thoughts and feelings, his fears and desires, with Vesaas making use of a free indirect style. However, Hege, of course, still plays an important role, although one only really sees her through her brother’s eyes. For Mattis, Hege is wise and strong. Yet one must not lose sight, and to be fair to Mattis he doesn’t, of how hard life is for her. Not only is there a certain stigma attached to having a ‘simple’ brother, but he also cannot work, and so earns no money. He is no real company for her either, because she finds it impossible to communicate with him in any meaningful way, what with his peculiar concerns. To be in her situation must, at times, be like trying to interact with an alien species; it must be, and is, a lonely state of affairs. This is why she gets so upset about the grey hairs. Hege feels, understandably, as though life is passing her by, that, specifically, she has no life, that, as she says herself, she ‘gets nothing out of it.’

As I, or more specifically my parents, get older I have begun to think increasingly about old age, mental health, and our responsibilities towards our loved ones. My mother has been seriously ill recently, and so I have had to ask myself ‘If it came to it, would I be prepared to be her carer?’ Am I selfless enough to make the necessary sacrifices? One of the cruel things about life is that it forces you to confront these uncomfortable questions; you cannot lie to yourself, you have to be honest. What kind of person am I? The truth is, I’d rather not know. I am not saying that this is always the case, but there is a real sense in the book that Hege has spent much of her time in bondage to Mattis, that she has missed out on her youth, or her best years, in order to keep him. Mattis himself acknowledges that without her he would die; she is all that he has, their mother and father having passed away.

“This gave him another opportunity to use one of those words that hung before him, shining and alluring. Far away in the distance there were more of them, dangerously sharp.”

Before concluding I want to return to something I have briefly touched upon earlier in this review, which is communication, because this is, for me, one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout, Mattis fails to make himself understood to people, including his sister. The importance of the woodcock is a fine example of this. Numerous times he tries to articulate what the bird means to him, but he never manages it. This inability to express himself clearly, and Hege’s reluctance to engage her brother – perhaps due to weariness or fear – ultimately has tragic consequences. As the novel moves towards its climax, Mattis worries that he is losing Hege. To prevent the crisis that envelops the siblings all Hege need do is treat Mattis like an adult, or even a mature child, one who deserves a frank and in-depth discussion relating to the future; Mattis, on the other hand, ought to explain his concerns, but simply cannot bring himself to say what is on his mind, and so acts out instead. This is the saddest thing of all: that two people can love and care for one another so much, and yet be so blind to the needs of the other.

I want to finish with some discussion as to Vesaas’ skill as a writer. He was, I believe, a poet as well as a novelist, and, well, it shows. I don’t like to throw the word poetic around when discussing prose, because I think that often it is used to denote flowery, overcooked sentences, but I find it apt here. The Birds is tight, evocative, beautiful. Vesaas displays wonderful control; his style is one of economy, whereby each word seems to matter. Moreover, there are at least three scenes – the fate of the woodcock, Anna and Inger, and the mushroom – that will stay with me for a very long time. If I had to compare the Norwegian’s work to that of another author, I would say that it is like a less curmudgeonly Patrick White, and that is a big compliment, because that pissy old goat could write like a motherfucker.