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Asylum Piece by Anna Kavan
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Asylum Piece (1940)

by Anna Kavan

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Showing 5 of 5
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 |
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 |
Kavan struggled with a heroine addiction along with events of hopelessness leading her to psychiatric institutions. Asylum Piece provides a collection of intimate writings of her time in an asylum. A bleak, poignant expose into her deepest thoughts, self-analysis in a plush tasteful prose.

I couldn't help but feel intrusive as I read Asylum Piece, a front row seat of her kaleidoscope of thoughts as her mind aimlessly wonders from paranoia with heavy ominous tones. Despite the disturbing nature of her writings they have a lovely ethereal feel which creates a conflict bordering on a brutal beauty. Insightful collection of a woman allowing herself to be exposed in all her nakedness unveiling her mind to the world.

Thanks s.penkevich for the reco ( )
  Melinda_H | Apr 22, 2014 |
Kavan struggled with a heroine addiction along with events of hopelessness leading her to psychiatric institutions. Asylum Piece provides a collection of intimate writings of her time in an asylum. A bleak, poignant expose into her deepest thoughts, self-analysis in a plush tasteful prose.

I couldn't help but feel intrusive as I read Asylum Piece, a front row seat of her kaleidoscope of thoughts as her mind aimlessly wonders from paranoia with heavy ominous tones. Despite the disturbing nature of her writings they have a lovely ethereal feel which creates a conflict bordering on a brutal beauty. Insightful collection of a woman allowing herself to be exposed in all her nakedness unveiling her mind to the world.

Thanks s.penkevich for the reco ( )
  Melinda_H | Apr 22, 2014 |

When I brought this book home from the library, I opened the cover to find half a pack of matches taped with tip side down to the front endpaper. Flipping through the pages, I also found a series of water-stained pages. Fire and water. Intrigued, I began to read. The stories in this volume comprise two discrete types. The collection begins with a series of first-person pieces, many of which conjure up strong parallels to Kafka's The Trial, and in general portray a narrator consumed with the interior life, specifically its decay under the assault of depression, while being oppressed by some unidentified official body (as in Kafka's work, the faceless nameless authority never explains itself).

Following these stories is the eight-part section from which the book takes its name, Asylum Piece. In these sketches, Kavan switches to a third-person omniscient viewpoint, thus taking a step back from the action of the stories and allowing for a wider commentary on her subject. These tales are set in a Swiss mental health asylum, possibly the same or different ones, and each piece describes the situation of a particular patient. Kavan is pointedly distant in these descriptions yet also clearly on the side of the patients. There is an overarching sympathy toward these people who have been placed in this 'clinic,' not of their own free will, by others who purport to care about them and think they are doing what is in the patients' best interests. In these stories, Kavan also displays a subtle yet distinct disdain for the staff and administration of such places.

As an asylum patient herself, it seems natural for Kavan to have developed these attitudes, yet I find it interesting how she chooses to divulge them. In the initial story cycle, she lays herself bare in first-person, quite clearly describing the horrors of (presumably) her own depression, suffered alone in her own home. And yet, when she takes on the enemy of the asylums, she backs off and adopts a much more impersonal tone, allowing for the stories of others to illustrate the injustice of this type of mental health 'care,' including the callousness of family members who clearly used the asylums as dumping grounds for their 'problem' loved ones. In this way, utilizing these two separate viewpoints, she manages with this collection to present a remarkably balanced snapshot series of those struggling with mental health issues. That the book is not solely her telling about her problems through thinly-disguised fiction lends credence to both the asylum critique and the very real despair of chronic depression.

The final two stories continue the first cycle, bringing it to an ominous conclusion, with the maddening titles 'The End in Sight' and 'There is no End.' The juxtaposition of these stories after the asylum sketches is interesting and makes me wonder if Kavan ordered the pieces in this collection herself. If so, she clearly knew what she was doing. The last piece in particular is crushing and leaves me wanting for more of Anna Kavan.

As for the matches, well, there is a beggar holding a tray of matches in one story, who the narrator says had 'an expression of complete apathy on his face that in an instant began to dissipate for me all the optimistic influence of the day' and 'with whom I seemed in some way to connect myself.' Maybe I am now reaching into thin air here, but it's not every day I find a pack of matches taped inside a book. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 5, 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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