The New Inquiry: Un(der)known Writers: Anna Kavan
Self-portrait by Anna Kavan
Anna Kavan was born Helen Woods in Cannes, France. She perceived herself as deeply unloved. Kavan was the main character in her novel Let Me Alone, and she adopted the name for herself after a stint in an asylum. She kept herself immaculately maintained, was severely addicted to heroin, and enjoyed the success of her own interior decorating business while she saw 16 of her works published before she perished — not by her own hand — in 1968.
From “the Birthmark,” as featured in Asylum Piece (1940)
“At first I could see nothing, it might have been a black cellar into which I was gazing. But soon my eyes penetrated the darkness and I could make out some sort of a pallet under the grating with a shrouded form lying upon it. I could not be sure whether it was a man or a woman who lay there, shrouded as if on a bier, but I thought I discerned a tarnished gleam of fair hair, and presently an arm, no thicker than bone, was raised, feebly, as if groping towards the light. Was it imagination, or did I really see on that almost transparent flesh a faint stain, circular, toothed, and enclosing a shape like a rose?
I cannot hope that the horror of that moment will ever leave me. I opened my mouth, but for several seconds I was not able to utter a sound. Just as I felt myself about to call out to the prisoner, soldiers appeared and hustled me away. They spoke roughly and threateningly, jostling me and twisting my arms as they dragged me into the presence of their superior officer. I was commanded to produce my passport. Falteringly, in the foreign language, I started to frame an inquiry about what I had seen. But then I looked at the revolvers, the rubber truncheons, the callous, stupid faces of the young soldiers, the inaccessible officer in his belted tunic; I thought of the massive walls, the bars, and my courage failed me. After all, what could I hope to do, an insignificant foreigner, and a woman at that, against such a terrifying and strongly established force? And how would I help the prisoner by myself becoming imprisoned?
At last, after much questioning, I was allowed to go. Two guards escorted me to the station and stood on the platform until the train carried me away. What else could I have done? It was so dark in the underground cell: I can only pray that my eyes were deceiving me.” Submitted by Kari Larsen