Anna Kavan

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Anna Kavan (10 April 1901 – 5 December 1968; born Helen Emily Woods) was a British novelist, short story writer and painter.


Anna Kavan was born in France to British parents.[1] The only child of cold, wealthy parents, she grew up emotionally rootless, leading to lifelong depression and bouts of mental illness. She grew up in Europe and the United States, and lived in Burma for a time after her first marriage.[1] She married and divorced twice. Her one son, Bryan, died in World War II. Her daughter, Margaret, born during Kavan's marriage to Stuart Edmonds, died soon after childbirth. The couple adopted a daughter whom they named Susanna.

Her initial six works were published under the name of Helen Ferguson, her first married name. She eventually named herself after a character in her own novel Let Me Alone. Asylum Piece and all subsequent works were authored as Anna Kavan. Kavan was addicted to heroin for most of her adult life, a dependency which was generally undetected by her associates, and for which she made no apologies. She is popularly supposed to have died of a heroin overdose. In fact she died of heart failure, though she had attempted suicide several times during her life.

The first six of her novels gave little indication of the experimental and disturbing nature of her later work. Asylum Piece, a collection of short stories which explored the inner mindscape of the psychological explorer, heralded the new style and content of Kavan's writing. They were published after she was institutionalised for a heroin-related breakdown and suicide attempt. After her release, Kavan changed her name legally and set about a new career as an avant-garde writer in the mode of Franz Kafka. Her development of "nocturnal language" involved the lexicon of dreams and addiction, mental instability and alienation. She has been compared to Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin, as well as Kafka. (Nin was an admirer and unsuccessfully pursued a correspondence with Kavan.) On one occasion Kavan collaborated with her analyst and close friend, Karl Theodor Bluth, in writing "The Horse's Tale" (1949).

An inveterate traveller, Kavan spent twenty-two months of World War II in New Zealand, and it was that country's proximity to the inhospitable frozen landscape of Antarctica that inspired the writing of Ice. This post-apocalyptic novel brought critical acclaim, earning Kavan the Brian Aldiss Science Fiction Book of the Year award in 1967, the year before Kavan's death. She died at her home in Kensington on 5 December 1968.[1] Many of her works were published posthumously, some edited by her friend, Rhys Davies. London-based Peter Owen Publishers have been long-serving advocates of Kavan's work and continue to keep her work in print.

Many of her papers, artwork and ephemera are in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections and University Archives.


Kavan's friend, the Welsh writer Rhys Davies, based his 1975 novel, The Honeysuckle Girl, on Anna Kavan.

David Tibet, the primary creative force behind the experimental music/neofolk music group Current 93, named the group's album Sleep Has His House after the Anna Kavan book of the same title.

San Francisco post-rock band Carta entitled their song "Kavan" on their album "The Glass Bottom Boat" after Anna Kavan. The song was subsequently released as a remix by The Declining Winter on their album Haunt the Upper Hallways.


As Helen Ferguson[edit]

  • A Charmed Circle (1929)
  • Let Me Alone (1930)
  • The Dark Sisters (1930)
  • A Stranger Still (1935)
  • Goose Cross (1936)
  • Rich Get Rich (1937)

As Anna Kavan[edit]

Anthologized work by Anna Kavan[edit]

  • "Department of Slight Confusion." In Book: A Miscellany. No. 3, edited by Leo Bensemann & Denis Glover. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1941.
  • "Ice Storm." In New Zealand New Writing, edited by Ian Gordon. Wellington: Progressive Publishing Society, 1942.
  • "I Am Lazarus." Horizon VII, no. 41, 1943, 353–61.
  • "New Zealand: An Answer to an Inquiry." Horizon VIII, no. 45, 1943, 153–61.
  • "The Big Bang." In Modern Short Stories, edited by Denys Val Baker. London: Staples & Staples, 1943.
  • "Face of My People." Horizon IX, no. 53, 1944, 323–35.
  • "Face of My People." In Little Reviews Anthology 1945, edited by Denys Val Baker. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1945.
  • "I Am Lazarus." In Stories of the Forties Vol. 1, edited by Reginald Moore & Woodrow Wyatt. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945.
  • "Two New Zealand Pieces." In Choice, edited by William Sansom. London: Progressive Publishing, 1946.
  • "Brave New Worlds." In Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly. London, 1946.
  • "The Professor." In Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly. London, 1946.
  • "Face of My People." In Modern British Writing, edited by Denys Val Baker. New York: Vanguard Press, 1947.
  • "I Am Lazarus." In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time, edited by Mary Louise W. Aswell. New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1947.
  • "The Red Dogs." In Penguin New Writing, Vol. 37, edited by John Lehmann. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949.
  • "The Red Dogs." In Pleasures of New Writing: An Anthology of Poems, Stories, and Other Prose Pieces from the Pages of New Writing, edited by John Lehmann. London: John Lehmann, 1952.
  • "Happy Name." In London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. London, 1954.
  • "Palace of Sleep." In Stories for the Dead of Night, edited by Don Congdon. New York: Dell Books, 1957
  • "A Bright Green Field." In Springtime Two: An Anthology of Current Trends, edited by Peter Owen & Wendy Owen. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1958.
  • "High in the Mountains." In London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. London, 1958.
  • "Five More Days to Countdown." In Encounter XXXI, no. 1, 1968, 45–49.
  • "Julia and the Bazooka." In Encounter XXXII, no. 2, 1969, 16–19.
  • "World of Heroes." In Encounter XXXIII, no. 4, 1969, 9–13.
  • "The Mercedes." In London Magazine 1970, 17–21.
  • "Edge of Panic." In Vogue, 1 October 1971, 75–83.
  • "Sleep Has His House" excerpts. In The Tiger Garden: A Book of Writers’ Dreams. Foreword by Anthony Stevens. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1996
  • "The Zebra Struck" In The Vintage Book of Amnesia, edited by Jonathan Lethem. New York: Vintage Books, 2000


  1. ^ a b c Aldiss, "In Memoriam", p. 249.


  • "In Memoriam: Anna Kavan", by Brian W. Aldiss, in Anderson, Poul (ed.) (1971). Nebula Award Stories 4. London: Panther Books.

External links[edit]