From Machines in the Head: Selected Stories
Anna Kavan doesn’t exist. Or, to be more precise, the writer who published under the name Anna Kavan used the pseudonym as a way of presenting to the world a persona that was distinct from the woman who published a series of realist novels in the 1920s and ’30s under the name Helen Ferguson. That is itself the author’s married name; her birth name was Helen Woods. Anna Kavan was a character in Ferguson’s 1930 novel Let Me Alone. (The book has since been released under the author name Anna Kavan, which Ferguson first used for her 1940 collection Asylum Piece.)
As perhaps befits fiction by a woman who adopted the name of a fictional character as her own, Kavan’s short stories are various and unclassifiable: part memoir, part fantasy, part surrealism, charged by a rambunctious style that is experimental and expressionist by turns. In her introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Kavan’s selected stories, Victoria Walker tries to nail down at least some of the writer’s defining features:
Kavan’s writing is not to everyone’s taste. Reading her work can be disorienting and discomforting; her narratives shift disconcertingly between past and present tense, first and third person. Her characters are often disagreeable, misanthropic, self-absorbed, priggish, or delusional, and the paranoia of her nameless narrators is infectious. In one of her literary reviews she describes how the “short story is like a small room in which is concentrated a brilliant light,” and she found this form well suited to the intensity of her writing.
The posthumously published story “Julia and the Bazooka” is typical of Kavan’s stylistic exuberance and exemplifies many of the technical elements Walker identifies above. It also contains autobiographical aspects; the story focuses on the eponymous woman – one of the few characters in Kavan’s short fiction granted a proper name – who, like her creator, is addicted to heroin. Kavan‘s dependence on heroin was aided by a prescribing psychiatrist named Dr. Karl Bluth (whose fictional stand-in appears in “Julia and the Bazooka”); in the Paris Review, Emma Garman writes that “Kavan more or less accepted the drug as an integral part of her existence.”
Those who adhere to the critical approach espoused by the New Critics will find this type of biographical information irrelevant; critics who are interested in placing work within the historical and biographical context of its author will find it indispensable. It is at the very least interesting, and possibly illuminating, but a reading of the story is not dependent upon knowledge of Kavan’s personal life. Indeed, many of the fictional tactics Walker enumerates are evident in “Julia and the Bazooka” independent of extra-textual considerations.
Foremost among these is the telescoping of time. The story comprises almost the entire life of its protagonist. In the opening sentence, she is “a little girl with long straight hair and big eyes”; by the first sentence of the third paragraph, she is dead. The movement from first paragraph to third – from girlhood to death – is effected through repeated reference to flowers. The second sentence of the story reads, “Julia loved flowers.” When the second paragraph opens, Julia is “a young bride in a white dress, holding a sheaf of roses in one hand.” More precisely, the sentence reads: “Julia is also a young bride in a white dress” (my emphasis). The word “also” conveys simultaneity: Julia is a young girl, and she is also a bride in a white dress. When the third paragraph kicks off with “Julia is also dead without any flowers,” the reader is beginning to grasp the narrative approach. Time is collapsed in on itself such that three stages in Julia’s life occur at once; we are presented with a triptych of contemporaneous images.
The absence of flowers in the third reference is also notable. The woman who, in life, loved flowers is denied them in repose, save for “a few frost-bitten flowers which have not been left for Julia at the foot of the wall.” Julia’s ashes have been deposited in a makeshift urn fashioned out of a tennis trophy; the container has been placed in “a pigeon-hole among thousands of identical pigeon-holes in a wall at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea.” The sentence has vague echoes of Joyce’s early identification of Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Stephen Dedalus / Class of Elements / Clongowes Wood College / Sallins / County Kildare / Ireland / Europe / The World / The Universe.” The outward panning camera in “a wall at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea” is a holdover from the Modernist writers to whom Kavan is frequently compared.
As did Joyce or Woolf (another frequent point of comparison), Kavan employs a variation on stream-of-consciousness narration, moving within one paragraph from the deceased Julia in her urn to a description of the tennis trophy to the syringe that a “tennis professional” supplies her so that she may shoot up and remain at the top of her game. The professional “is a joking kind of man and calls the syringe a bazooka. Julia calls it that, too. The name sounds funny, it makes her laugh.” Once again, the reader is presented with a shift in verb tense: the professional calls the syringe a bazooka; the name sounds funny and makes Julia laugh. For a reader devoted to chronology and linearity, this kind of free-floating narration can appear discombobulating at best, at worst outright incoherent. It is testament to Kavan’s skill that the narrative never loses control or flies off in unwanted directions (though it is constantly flying off in unexpected directions).
There is also humour here, not just in the nickname for the drug paraphernalia. The narration veers from the trophy that serves as Julia’s urn (which is funny in itself) to her victory as a young player, a victory made possible by the continuous administration of heroin:
Without the bazooka she might not have won the cup, which as a container will at last serve a useful purpose. It is Julia’s serve that wins the decisive game. Holding two tennis balls in her left hand, she throws one high in the air while her right hand flies up over her head, brings the racket down, wham, and sends the ball skimming over the opposite court hardly bouncing at all, a service almost impossible to return.
This is immediately followed by another temporal shift, which is as funny as it is startling: “Holding two balls in her hand Julia also lies in bed beside the young man with kinky hair.”
The ongoing conflation of time into a single moment provides a sense of dislocation but also a sense of almost epic sweep over the course of fewer than two full pages. The story goes on in a similar manner, flipping around from the pigeon-hole the doctor visits to pay his respects; to the moment doctor and patient first meet; to London during the Blitz; to the undertaker who inters Julia’s ashes; to the kinky-haired man who drowns after falling off the deck of a Second World War battleship.
If there is a pervading sensation through all of this, it is of cold. Kavan was enamoured with cold (one of the stories in the NYRB volume is called “Ice Storm” and Kavan’s most famous novel is called simply Ice.) When Julia is placed in her eternal resting spot, we are told “the winter sea is the colour of pumice, the sky cold as grey ice, the icy wind charges straight at the wall making it tremble so that the silver cup in its pigeon-hole shivers and tinkles faintly.” (Note the personification of the cup, which “shivers” as though alive.) A wartime bombing raid occurs during winter: “How cold it is in the exploding world. The Northern Lights burst out in frigid brilliance across the sky. The ice roars and thunders like gunfire.” A hallucinatory series of events takes us from the undertaker to a kind of reverie in which Julia returns to her wedding day, only this time “[s]now slants down between the rafters, there is ice on the altar, snowdrifts in the aisles, the holy water and the communion wine have been frozen solid. Snow is Julia‘s bridal white, icicles are her jewels.”
Cold is a pervasive symbolic pattern in the story; so too is the colour red. Julia is first associated with red in the opening lines, when she picks a bouquet of poppies; in her wedding photo she is holding a spray of roses. Before the bombs drop, Julia is pictured tending to “pots of scarlet geraniums” and at the story’s end, the omniscient narrator muses that Julia in her urn would be thinking there must be “some red flowers somewhere.” That is, “if she could still think.”
The reversal is perfectly typical of Kavan’s style in the story, which is fluid and protean, redounding on itself, contradicting itself, clarifying and expanding on itself in turn. It is a fascinating and invigorating performance from a consummate literary stylist.