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Change the Name by Anna Kavan
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Change the Name

by Anna Kavan

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Although it was not much after nine o’clock, the village already seemed to be deeply asleep. The cottages, the church, the farm buildings, all struck her as strangely dark and deserted. There was something sinister in the darkness. She walked on. She no longer felt as though she had escaped. Depression closed in on her. She had the sensation of having come to a place that had recently been abandoned by all its inhabitants. The dark dwellings surrounding the green had an ominous secret air. Perhaps if she entered one she would find the occupants sitting dead round the table, overtaken by some sudden, unimaginable doom. (p 250) ( )
2 vote danlai | Sep 1, 2014 |
Note: I found it difficult to write in detail about what matters in this book without discussing the plot in detail. So, rather than wrap the entire review in a spoiler alert, I'm offering this disclaimer up front:

In writing about this book, I either hint at or reveal the fates of every major character.

Love is rewarded with death. That is one theme in the book. Maybe love precipitates death. It's something to that effect. I was a bit leery of reading this book because of its advertised 'traditional' nature when contrasted with her later writing. But I was intrigued by both the timing of its publication (one year after Asylum Piece), and the title, Change the Name, a likely allusion to Anna's own transformation from the persona of Helen Ferguson to that of Anna Kavan. It seems that while she must have written this novel as Helen, it was not published until soon after she became Anna. In my wild imaginings, I thought that perhaps it would be some missing link between these two personae, straddling the evolutionary step, so to speak. I was also reminded of my experience with reading Philip K. Dick's so-called 'mainstream' novels many years ago. Despite their realist settings, i.e. Planet Earth in the 1950s, they did not seem very 'mainstream' to me. The characters inhabiting these books were outsiders, oddballs, social failures: in short, my kind of people. I embraced these books, and to this day have yet to read as many of Dick's science fiction novels.

There is a cold theme. The house where Celia lives with her parents, Frederick Henzell (the solicitor) and Marion Henzell (the invalid), is freezing. In the hallway, "the black and white tiles rang like slabs of ice under foot, breath steamed frostily in the air." Does this prefigure Ice...perhaps. The coldness in the house here is a rather obvious metaphor, I think, for the void of emotion between these people. There is no love here. Celia's parents do not love her and they do not love each other. The solicitor is in charge, he tolerates everyone as long as they stay in line:

He was absolutely without curiosity as to what went on in the minds of his family. He asked no more of them than that they should behave in the same decorous manner which he himself always maintained. Their private feelings and thoughts were of no interest to him.

And yet, his daughter Celia gets to him. She is the wild card in the family, poised to upset the balance, such as it is. Celia makes both her father and her mother uneasy. But we'll get to her mother a little later. The solicitor has put his foot down and refused to pay for Celia to attend Oxford. She is 18 and ready to get the hell out of freezing Desborough House, where her father rules with impunity and her mother pines for Celia's brother Harold, dead at age 13 from pneumonia, and now haunting the house in the form of Marion Henzell's thick smothering grief.

Celia, having gotten word through her school that her father has rejected her Oxford plan, boldly approaches him after dinner one night, as he and Mrs. Henzell are reclining in the only heated room of the house, the study, an ugly, stuffy room that Celia routinely avoided. Of course, then, her arrival disturbs them...

Frederick Henzell removed the glasses which he wore for reading as his daughter came into the room. Celia looked calm and quiet as usual, but his eye, professionally experienced in summing up the mental state of a client, discerned that the calmness was a trifle forced. The set of her mouth and her straight shoulders held the suggestion of a person braced to some particular effort. The lawyer perceived at once that something disturbing to the mechanical tranquility of his existence was about to take place.

Celia makes her plea, strategically bringing up the dead Harold in the process, which then sends her mother off into hysterics and shuts down all chances of changing her father's mind, chances which admittedly were already lingering in the infinitesimal range.

What Celia does then is find the closest warm male body nearby and gets him to marry her. It seemed to be her only choice. She doesn't love him, but that doesn't matter. What does she know of love, anyway. Nothing. She knows nothing of love. But she knows it's cold in the house, she senses the meaning behind the cold, the empty core, the lack of any heart, inside her family. So she goes off to Asia.

(The prose can be a stumbling block. Its straightforward drabness bothered me off and on. It is plain, though what Kavan is writing about is not plain. It is, in fact, terrifying.)

Celia returns from Asia with a child, a daughter, whom she will ignore, unwittingly starving the girl of love and affection, just as her mother starved her. Sometimes we perpetrate that which has been perpetrated upon us. Not always, sometimes we take the complete opposite tack (which can also be problematic), but if we don't know how to show love and affection, if we have only known coldness, distance, lack of human touch, how are we to know what to do. This is Celia's plight, though she really doesn't even know it is a plight. It is her reality. She, who fears any fumbling attempts at contact by her own mother:

The boards of the landing creaked. Someone was evidently coming towards her room. The door handle turned hesitantly with its slight grating noise, the hinges emitted a whine. 'It's mother; and I don't want to talk to her. I want to go on sleeping,' Celia thought. She had an instinctive dread of becoming involved in some pseudo-intimate conversation which would seem shocking and even obscene between two such disconnected individuals.

In fairness to Marion Henzell, she often feels like she should feel some sort of empathy toward her daughter, but it's simply not there. She can't just muster it up from under the layers and layers of heavy grief that has been steadily piling itself upon her since her son's death. And so, when the moments pass, whenever Celia leaves, she feels relief, as if she has been unburdened.

There are hints, though, that Celia is not merely a cold, one-dimensional person completely divorced from the possibility of human warmth. There is still a line, albeit a tenuous one, from her to other people. A family friend's "motherly support" causes her to relax, "the girl smiled, and her expression softened," even to feel tears in her eyes. It is a brief moment, but a telling one, for it is one of very few in the book that indicate this potential for emotional vulnerability within her.

When Celia marries again (and quickly), her parents are at first shocked, but then once again relieved to have her out of the house. When her husband goes off to war, and she is forced to leave her daughter Clare at Desborough House, Marion is pleased to have the child around, without actually having to take care of her. The solicitor, meanwhile, continues thinking "the girl seemed fated to be a trouble to him," as he muses over how "everything connected with her seemed to go wrong." He is used to his wife, whose invalid nature has become normal to him, and who can always be easily bent to his will.

Celia did love her second husband. He was, it would seem, the true love of her life. As with the family friend who embraced her, bringing her to tears, Anthony Bonham provoked foreign feelings in her:

The passionate love which she felt for the first time altered her face so profoundly that it was almost unrecognizable. It no longer looked neutral and inexpressive, but tender, vivid, intense, with soft parted lips and sparkling eyes. A tremendous force of life, youth, and love seemed to emanate from her.

But Celia is not destined to benefit from the duration of true love, and she soon finds herself alone again. In an odd twist of fate, when the head of the Bonham household dies, Anthony's sister Isabel offers a fraction of her tiny inheritance to Celia. She feels pity for Celia, and she feels tender toward her because they both loved Anthony so much. Isabel is an empathetic character, the only truly empathetic character in the book, and as such she will have her hopes and dreams repeatedly crushed to fine powder. But before that starts happening in rapid succession, Celia arrives at her house and instead of taking the money, asks Isabel if she and Clare can live there. In a moment she will likely come to regret, Isabel agrees and soon grows quite close to young Clare, eventually becoming the mother figure that Celia was never able be.

It is not a happy book. No one is happy in the book, not for longer than a few sentences at least. The closest a character comes to happiness is when Marion Henzell is left all by herself following her husband's death: "Mrs. Henzell at last felt as she had all her life wished to feel: protected, relieved of all responsibility, independent without being alone." She is so pleased when Celia walks away, leaving her alone, for "the presence of her daughter was always rather disturbing."

Mrs. Henzell lost her son and was cold to Celia. Celia lost two husbands and was cold to her own daughter Clare. The cycle continues. Clare grows into a young woman sheltered from everything except her own mother's coldness. She finds some solace in Isabel, but it is not enough. She will marry young, like Celia, and it will be a mistake. She is not ready. She has not been awakened to the ways of the world. It is a harsh reality she must face, that of her husband's expectations and her own failure to meet them.

Every once in a while Celia's guard is lowered, usually involuntarily. When Isabel confronts her about sending Clare to school (Isabel thinks she should go so that she'll have a chance to better develop socially), Celia balks at the normally staid and gentle woman's abrasive manner. But it is only for a moment, and then:

Gradually the defences which she had mobilized against the griefs and vexations of life, defences which had been temporarily scattered by Isabel's surprise attack, reassembled themselves an presently restored her to her usual impregnable position.

I keep thinking of her then as a cyborg, or like Agent Smith in The Matrix films, splitting into a million pieces that then join back together to make a person again. It's chilling to think of people being like this, so hardened over but maybe with invisible hairline fractures winding through their armor, and yet there are many who operate from behind such impenetrable screens, and for just as many reasons.

Celia sees this ability of hers to protect herself as a strength in her character. It is linked, in part, to her ability to leave this world, so to speak. The passage above continues...

Taking up her pen she began to write. All her doubts vanished in the absorbing, accommodating, unreal world where she spent so much of her time, escaping to the unassailable realms of her imagination.

For Celia, like Anna Kavan, is a writer. A writer of moderate success who has begun to publish novels. And as it so happens, Celia sees her publisher as the next man in line to extricate her from a place she no longer wants to be.

There is a point when Celia is leaving her mother after settling her father's affairs, and I have already written of her mother's relief at seeing her daughter walking away. As Celia speaks meaningless words of comfort to her mother, not thinking at all of what she is saying, she has a feeling, a feeling that I think is the key to her character:

All the time she was talking she was conscious of the mystery of her own individuality. No one could approach her inmost self. Her essential solitude was absolute. This gave her a peculiar feeling of power.

Celia has been forced to shelter herself, "her inmost self." So much has happened to her. She was deprived of love from the beginning of her life, and when she finally found it, it was stolen from her. And she never recovered. She has come to terms with "her essential solitude." But it comes at a price. It means that she will never connect with her mother, or her daughter, or likely anyone else in her life in the future. For she sees it now as a power, this absolute solitude, and it is a power that she is learning how to wield, to get what she wants.

Her daughter Clare was doomed from the beginning. A shadow followed her from when she was small. As such, her fate did not come as a complete shock. She had opened herself wide to love and when she discovered that it was actually her mother, Celia, who had pushed her husband Hugh toward her, it was too much. She thinks then that he has never actually loved her, and she is probably right. Hugh is only interested in his career as a small-town doctor, and a component of that role is having a wife, and since his true interest, Celia, would not be appropriate given her age and reputation, why not young Clare. As he muses, "at her age she was unlikely to have any set ideas. He would be able to mould her to his own pattern. Most young girls were amenable, and she appeared specially so." As such, it is not surprising when not long after their wedding, he seemed to begin "regarding her simply as a rather inefficient helper with whom he occasionally became impatient."

Clare's story is perhaps the bleakest one of all. She does not fit in anywhere, but then she is hardly given a chance. No one ever wants her, except Isabel, and even Isabel knows that Clare needs more than what she can offer to her in this tiny rural village. She was duped into marriage by her own mother, a ruse to rid Celia forever of the responsibility of a daughter she had never wanted. There is a point near the end where Clare is beginning to fray at the edges as she is struggling to prepare for a dinner party. She hears her husband getting ready...

He put on his shoes, and at once his footsteps of a man who knew where he was going and would undoubtedly arrive at his destination. Clare began to count his steps. If she closed her eyes, the steps seemed to form themselves into a pattern against a black background of emptiness. Sometimes the pattern was a simple star shape. Sometimes it wove itself into a complex mazy involution. She herself seemed to be at the centre of the maze. The idea came to her that life was the maze from which she must extricate herself, and escape...whither? She did not understand her own thought, but she suddenly felt drawn towards some escape, towards darkness and silence, as she sat on the bed, listening to her husband's firm steps in the next room.

Clare would indeed have her escape. And when it is all over and her mother Celia is preparing to leave the village for good, she feels “as though a burden which she had carried for many years had at last been removed from her.” This burden being her own daughter.

She felt powerful, strong, successful, at the peak of her existence. There was nothing which she could not achieve. The world, the whole excited world, infinitely wide and wonderful, full of unlimited possibilities, lay invitingly stretched out before her.

It's an unsettling moment, given the circumstances, that makes it harder to cheer for Celia. She is a difficult character to fully embrace. There are times when I felt empathy toward her and other times when I recoiled from her actions. But I had to keep considering her life growing up in Desborough House. It was not an easy life, not a life of warmth, and she was trying to navigate it with a broken compass.

I don't know how much Anna Kavan put of herself into Celia, but my interest in her as a writer and person certainly enhanced my enjoyment of this novel. As with most, if not all, of her fiction, there are evident parallels to her life here. There is the cold, distant mother, in this case persisting through two generations. There are relationship troubles, loss of love, and inability to love. But how much of Kavan's personality is reflected in Celia remains elusive. Anna was said to be "a difficult personality all her life." I can't even begin to discern what that means, for it could mean many things. What I do know is that if she was endeavoring to draw parts of herself into Celia, her complexities as a person, then she displays a sophisticated insight into her own inner workings. And regardless of how much of her is indeed woven into the fabric of Celia's character, the book shows she knew there are no simple ways to map out the jagged trajectory of a life, especially one knitted so tight to the cold and to the dark. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
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