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Asylum Piece by Anna Kavan
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Asylum Piece (1940)

by Anna Kavan

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Reading Asylum Piece and Other Stories (1940) is a visceral experience. Picture yourself staring into a full body-and-mind mirror that Anna Kavan intentionally cracked so that you could feel and see yourself thoroughly shattered, and if you're empathetically bent at all, you may acquire an inkling of what it was like being one of Anna Kavan's unnamed isolated characters suffering from mental illness, looking into that mirror. Or catch a glimpse, in the least, of what it was like being a young and alienated and misunderstood and suicidal Anna Kavan. Contorted realities reflected back out of that impossible mirror come sneaking up on you, quietly shrieking. Background scenarios are terse and incomplete; we do not know how so and so ended up here in this asylum or there in that asylum; we only know that they are here or there, trapped inside, and perceive themselves incarcerated and persecuted unjustly by a real or imaginary litany of unknown "Enemies": jailers, nurses, husbands, advisors, and, in one stranger case, "Patrons". Don't assume, however, that these asylum occupants without proper identities are all unreliable narrators, or that they're all deluded, deranged, purely paranoid -- in a word -- insane. Some are; some aren't. Some are estranged from reality only some of the time; others, most of the time. Sometimes those labelled "mad" are in fact the most sane, as Kavan astutely noted elsewhere, in her next story collection I Am Lazarus (1945), I believe. Kavan crowned ambiguity king page after exquisite page with opaque clarity in Asylum Piece and Other Stories.

In "The Birds," for instance, one of Kavan's unnamed narrator's (or is every story narrated by the same unnerved, come-undone-narrator?, hard to say exactly, but it's likely the many narrators) notices two brightly colored birds outside her window. Her window where, exactly? Kavan either leaves the window's ill-defined whereabouts unknown, or the narrator doesn't know. Asylums, after all, in Kavan's captivating hands, can just as soon be houses, schools, churches, museums, as they can be literal institutional asylums. Her "servant" (i.e., a person of unspecified title who keeps a constant eye on her, a "shadow"), however, does not see the birds. Is it another hallucination?

What conclusion was I to draw from this? It seemed incredible that anyone could fail to observe those twin spots of color, more striking than jewels on the gray January background. No, I could only presume that the birds were visible to me alone. That is the conclusion to which I have held ever since: for my ethereal visitors have not deserted me.

We've all seen things, haven't we, from time to time; or at least thought we've seen things (and seen them whether we've ever been inside an asylum of one kind or another or not, if we're honest) that others have failed to see, right? Are we mad for seeing such things? Seeing things levitate? Seeing ghosts? Should we have been locked up indefinitely for what we've seen like so many of Kavan's unnamed narrators? Notice, also, the subtle implication in that last sentence italicized in the paragraph above: that even while the birds (i.e., the symbols now of the narrator's only means of expressing her hope for freedom or escape -- and that, too, even if they are just chirping hallucinations -- have not deserted her; whom then, we may wonder, perhaps already has "deserted her"? History is replete with misunderstood, or vilified, human beings, being abandoned to asylums.

"The Birds" and another of the few fully formed stories, such as "The Birthmark" -- my favorite in this collection, in fact, and one, with its crux of incarceration and climax pivoting off the curious birthmark, the image of a "rose", makes me wonder if maybe Jean Genet derived any inspiration from it a few years later when he sat down to write his second novel, The Miracle of the Rose -- and the many more multifaceted vignettes, make up the individual shards of Anna Kavan's complex shattering in Asylum Pieces.

Some shards are sharper than others, like "At Night" or the devastating "Just Another Failure", but they're all keen enough to cut you to the bone, so be careful turning Asylum Pieces' pages, lest your eyes begin bleeding: An iron band has been clamped round my head, and just at this moment the jailer strikes the cold metal a ringing blow which sends needles of pain into my eye sockets. . .; or your imagination begins reeling, and you find yourself trapped in her peculiar prisms, within the haunting "eternal fog" of some dark subterranean chamber filled with rats and roaches and little hope of escape, comrade of shut-in and shut-out characters voicing their confused consensus of victimized outrage from various obscure "asylums" they've had the misfortune to inhabit, these yes diagnosable "deranged" but somehow, even if for only a moment, still sane, still dignified, Underground Women of Anna Kavan's; all of whom, I'm positive, would've made Dostoyevski proud. ( )
10 vote EnriqueFreeque | May 7, 2015 |
Many of these stories read as three or four star worthy, but others didn't keep my attention well. I loved the author's "Ice", but I didn't find that magical connection between the book and myself here. I rate it two stars in the Goodreads meaning of "It was OK." ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 5, 2014 |
Many of these stories read as three or four star worthy, but others didn't keep my attention well. I loved the author's "Ice", but I didn't find that magical connection between the book and myself here. I rate it two stars in the Goodreads meaning of "It was OK." ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 5, 2014 |
4.5 stars

Anna Kavan needs to be more widely read. She is very much a stylistic link between Woolf and Bowen, but perhaps the sheer unclassifiable nature of Kavan’s work—and I’m judging this solely on Asylum Piece and Ice as I’ve not read more just yet—is the cause for the other two writers being better known.

Kavan mixes autobiography, surrealism, dream, fantasy, reality, and speculative fiction all at once. Coupled with all of these meandering genres and subgenres in her thematics is a prose style that is as inventive and unique in the modernist sense as Woolf's, as well as incisive in its social/political commentary as Bowen’s. Where Kavan differs is her highly subjective approach to the problems of identity, connection, and loss of autonomy: while these are all themes Woolf and Bowen explore in their own work, Kavan explores them textually at an unconscious level. While The Waves might be said to do just this (and it does), Kavan creates a world of no hope and no escape that more effectively mirrors a particular psychological state within modernist discourses. In other words, Kavan’s style is actually more in tune with the philosophical and self-analytical strains of modernism than even Woolf at her greatest.

My main issue with this collection is that it wasn’t Ice, an attitude I couldn't help but have when beginning the stories. Ice is a book of pure genius, such a bleak and yet beautiful portrait of a world that is also not a world. Another issue is how the book is marketed as being interconnected stories rooted in autobiography—one could very well read these stories as unrelated, and I think that the issue with reading too much of the author’s life into his or her own work is something very rooted in modernist British fiction. The “I” in Kavan isn’t only her; it’s everyone. This is something that she shared with Woolf and Bowen, and I think that not only should more people be reading Kavan who are interested in this period, especially those interested in women authors of this period, but readers should value the stories in this collection for works of art and brilliant insights into humanity and hopelessness rather than as autobiographical texts. Doing the latter reduces the philosophical engagement which is so markedly evident in Kavan’s work. ( )
2 vote proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
4.5 stars

Anna Kavan needs to be more widely read. She is very much a stylistic link between Woolf and Bowen, but perhaps the sheer unclassifiable nature of Kavan’s work—and I’m judging this solely on Asylum Piece and Ice as I’ve not read more just yet—is the cause for the other two writers being better known.

Kavan mixes autobiography, surrealism, dream, fantasy, reality, and speculative fiction all at once. Coupled with all of these meandering genres and subgenres in her thematics is a prose style that is as inventive and unique in the modernist sense as Woolf's, as well as incisive in its social/political commentary as Bowen’s. Where Kavan differs is her highly subjective approach to the problems of identity, connection, and loss of autonomy: while these are all themes Woolf and Bowen explore in their own work, Kavan explores them textually at an unconscious level. While The Waves might be said to do just this (and it does), Kavan creates a world of no hope and no escape that more effectively mirrors a particular psychological state within modernist discourses. In other words, Kavan’s style is actually more in tune with the philosophical and self-analytical strains of modernism than even Woolf at her greatest.

My main issue with this collection is that it wasn’t Ice, an attitude I couldn't help but have when beginning the stories. Ice is a book of pure genius, such a bleak and yet beautiful portrait of a world that is also not a world. Another issue is how the book is marketed as being interconnected stories rooted in autobiography—one could very well read these stories as unrelated, and I think that the issue with reading too much of the author’s life into his or her own work is something very rooted in modernist British fiction. The “I” in Kavan isn’t only her; it’s everyone. This is something that she shared with Woolf and Bowen, and I think that not only should more people be reading Kavan who are interested in this period, especially those interested in women authors of this period, but readers should value the stories in this collection for works of art and brilliant insights into humanity and hopelessness rather than as autobiographical texts. Doing the latter reduces the philosophical engagement which is so markedly evident in Kavan’s work. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
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Anna Kavanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aslanyan, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When I was fourteen my father's health made it necessary for him to go abroad for a year.
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