Trying not to look at the stars: Julia and the Bazooka, by Anna Kavan (Peter Owen Modern Classics paperbacks, 2009; first published 1970).
Writers such as Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard have praised the writings of Anna Kavan, but I find her work uneven – I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages of self-indulgent, rambling dream visions in Sleep Has His House, first published in 1948. Julia and the Bazooka is also uneven, but serves as a good introduction to the qualities (and weaknesses) of Kavan’s fiction.
Born of wealthy British parents in Cannes in 1901, Helen Woods (she assumed the name Anna Kavan later) was brought up in Europe and the USA. Her glamorous mother was a feckless socialite who largely abandoned her daughter to the erratic care of a series of nannies, relatives and boarding schools; this emotionally fraught childhood probably contributed to the nervous and mental problems that Kavan suffered from throughout her adult life.
Her early life was also troubled. When she was fourteen her father drowned at sea, possibly a suicide. At nineteen she wanted desperately to take up a place at Oxford, but her mother refused to let her, and instead encouraged her to marry an engineer on the Burma railways by the name of Donald Ferguson, twelve years older than Helen, and possibly one of her mother’s own ex-lovers.
She lived with him in Burma for some time, but the marriage was a failure: her husband was a boorish drunk, and she eventually left him and obtained a divorce. This difficult period of her life furnished the material for her novel Who Are You? (1963).
Her first six novels were published between 1929 and 1937 under her married name, Helen Ferguson. After a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt in 1938 she took on the identity of a character from her 1930 novel Let Me Alone, Anna Kavan; she used this name for the rest of her professional life. She dyed her hair blonde and adopted a chic persona at odds with the stereotypical figure of the addict she had become. Her associates were largely unaware of her double life.
This transformation also took place in her writing; from Asylum Piece (1940) onwards her literary work became more intense and unconventional – the polished and eerie avant-garde style she called ‘nocturnal language’. It has traces of influence from Kafka and other modernists, and is suffused (sometimes excessively so) with the surreal symbolism and structure of dreams, and the psychology of drug-related experience, mental instability and a profound sense of alienation.
Her second husband (there is no formal record of their marriage) was an alcoholic artist
named Stuart Edmonds. Her life with him is the subject of the story ‘Now and Then’ in this collection. In this account the artist stops working and spends his time drinking and smoking. He becomes an obese, lazy brute who feels repelled by his wife and stops talking to her. She’s reduced to smashing plates in the kitchen. If this portrayal is accurate this sounds very like marriage number one.
She left Edmonds in the 1950s and moved to London, where she set up a property development business. She lived there for the rest of her life.
Anna Kavan’s tennis coach in the 1920s had encouraged her to use cocaine ‘to improve her serve’, says Virginia Ironside in her sympathetic introduction to this book, although it seems more likely that her addictions arose out of the desire to self-medicate; she attempted suicide several times in her life, and underwent detoxification treatment in a number of clinics in Switzerland and England – but she never overcame her drug addiction. The racing drivers she took up with in the South of France after her divorce introduced her to heroin, which was to become her lifelong ‘friend’.
I’m no psychologist, but it’s interesting to note how she describes these racing drivers in the story ‘World of Heroes’: ‘they live in a wartime atmosphere of recklessness, camaraderie and heightened perception’, the narrator declares excitedly, lending them a ‘personal glamour’ she finds ‘irresistible’.
They were all attractive to me, heroes, the bravest men in the world. Vaguely, I realised that they were also psychopaths, misfits, who played with death because they were unable to come to terms with life in the world.
This gushing is quite disturbing, especially when she goes on to say that it’s their doomed sense of detachment from the mundane lives of ordinary people that also attracts her; she’s drawn to those who, like her, find everyday life too much. Whatever the case, these are the only people she feels accepted by; she trusts them and believes ingenuously that they’ll never let her down.
At the end of the story the tone shifts and the narrative voice is chilling; her heroes have all gone and she is, as always, abandoned and alone:
I don’t look up now. I always try not to look at the stars. I can’t bear to see them, because the stars remind me of loving and of being loved.
Confessional literature can be interesting only to the writer, but this controlled, minimalist strain is Kavan’s writing at its best.
These fifteen short pieces were first published two years after her death in 1968. They mostly portray the terrifying, tormented inner world she inhabited for the last decades of her life. Her main drug supplier was a married psychiatrist, Dr Theodor Bluth (1892-1964), a near neighbour, who started treating her when she was in a psychiatric ward in 1943. She had an intense but apparently platonic relationship with him; he figures in several of these stories, usually known only as ‘M’.
He was an unconventional practitioner and may well have done more harm than good to his vulnerable patients. As the story ‘Obsessional’ shows, to Kavan he became ‘a famished longing’; she craved his occasional visits almost as much as the heroin he supplied her with – she describes there the ‘instantaneous charge of purest joy that went through her like an electric shock’ at his reappearances. ‘Cosmic rays and the mystery of mutation’, the narrator enigmatically claims, had committed them to each other.
These strange, rather silly images reappear in the other stories involving this older male doctor-figure, who seems to be both longed-for lover and father. I find this sci-fi strain in her writing one of the weakest features; her biographers say she was a fan of the television show ‘Doctor Who’ – not an auspicious influence, in my view.
‘Obsessional’ shows her tortured sense of anguish at his absence and loss – an emotional pain and isolation that pervades the whole collection. Without him the narrator feels ‘estrangement’ from the chaos of London life that rushes past her in the streets outside; after his death doctor ‘M’ becomes a ghost for her in a way that ‘was not altogether pleasant, although, like an addiction, it was essential to her.’
Bluth seems to have accepted her assertion that heroin provided her only relief from the tortured sensibility and suffering depicted with such rawness in her writing. Even if the character of ‘M’ is a kind of personification of her addiction to drugs, her narrator’s distress when he leaves her (withdrawal symptoms?) is intense; in ‘Mercedes’ he drives away in the eponymous car:
Suddenly, to my horror, the car started to move. I sprang at the door again wildly, determined to open it and get in, or else drag him out. Too late. The Mercedes was far out of reach already, my hands only grasped the air. ‘Stop!’ I shouted in desperation. ‘You can’t leave me behind!’ All these years he’d been saying we’d drive off together, I simply couldn’t believe he would go without me. Like a lunatic, I started running…
The hallucinatory tendency frequently turns surreal, most notably in ‘The Zebra-Struck’. The narrator, a Kafka-esque ‘K’, lies in hospital after her fourth suicide attempt (once again to escape that recurring image in these stories, the prison of life). Those annoying cosmic rays reappear; she believes that they cause mutations like the stripes on a zebra, and have connected her with ‘M’. He is the only one who understands her, who enables her to endure the metaphysical horror of her existence. He’s kind and clever and praises her. As always she’s doomed to be bereft, left isolated in her unbearable, haunted loneliness.
The title story relates in a hallucinatory sequence how the narrator was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach, and the drug helped her to win a silver cup. His practice of calling the syringe a ‘bazooka’ is taken up by the narrator (and the author), and this enables her to laugh off the ‘sensational stories’ about drug addiction, making the ‘whole business seem not serious.’ Other scenes from the life of Julia, surely a fictionalised Anna, pass by like dream visions, with childhood, marriage, the death of a husband, a roof garden during the London blitz, another kindly doctor who understands that she needs her drugs as a diabetic needs insulin. The ending is bleak – the undertaker has left, her ashes are in the trophy cup she won at tennis:
It has got quite dark outside, the wall has turned black. As the wind shakes it, the faintest of tinkles comes from the pigeon-hole where all that is left of Julia has been left. Surely there were some red flowers somewhere, Julia would be thinking, if she could still think. Then she would think something, she would remember the bazooka and start to laugh. But nothing is left of Julia really, she is not there. The only occupant of the pigeon-hole is the silver cup, which can’t think or laugh or remember. There is no more Julia anywhere. Where she was there is only nothing.
This again is Kavan at her best: crisp, spare prose deployed with icy lucidity.
In the first story, ‘The Old Address’, another unnamed first-person narrator has been discharged from what is presumably a rehab clinic; she steps into the ‘absolute mob’ that surges along the pavement outside:
I search in vain for a human face. Only hordes of masks, dummies, zombies go charging past, blindly, heads down…Cold enemy eyes, arrow-eyes, pierce me with poison-tipped suspicion, as if they know where I’ve come from.
Terrible eyes. Terrible noise. Terrible traffic.
The sky is full of unnatural light, which is really a darkish murk and makes everything look sinister, a black conspiracy hanging up there in the air. Something frightful seems to be happening, or going to happen.
This hellish nightmare becomes even more infernal when the narrator sees herself crushed by a car; she spouts blood ‘like a whale’, and passers-by slip in the mess, which is poisonous to them. She hates them all, calls them ‘bastards’, delights in this sanguinary revenge, drowning them ‘as if they were so many eels’.
But the sense of freedom is illusory: she realises she’s trapped and will never escape. The streets are deserted but cars continue to roar past; in a panic she feels she’s been (a now familiar theme) ‘betrayed and abandoned’ in this terrifying prison:
Above the din of their engines louder crashes erupt all round. Avalanches of deafening noise explode in my ears like bombs. In all the thunderous booming roar I can distinguish the sobs of heartbroken children, the shrieks of tortured victims and addicts deprived of drugs, sadistic laughter, moronic cries, the moans of unsuccessful suicides- the whole catastrophe of this inhuman city, where the wolf-howl of ambulances and police cars rises perpetually from dark gullies between the enormous buildings.
Why, the narrator asks, is she ‘locked in this nightmare of violence, isolation and cruelty?’ Then she realises this hell is self-created, and that she can’t possibly live in ‘this terrible, hideous, revolting creation of mine.’ Neither can she escape.
So there’s to be no end to my incarceration in this abominable, disgusting world…My thoughts go round in circles. Mad with despair, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t remember or think any more. The terror of life imprisonment stupefies me, I feel it inside me like an intolerable pain. I only know that I must escape from this hell of hallucination and horror. I can’t endure my atrocious prison a moment longer.
There’s only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered, and needless to say I haven’t forgotten that.
So now I wave my arm frantically at a passing taxi, fall inside, and tell the man to drive to the old address.
Her syringe is in her handbag. I don’t recall reading a more searing account of the mental torment and the doomed psychology of the addict.
Other stories are at times more lyrical but equally haunting, if slightly less harrowing. Most of them depict a central character lost in various kinds of nightmare or distorted reality – and at times, it must be said, these traumatised, disorientated characters become repetitive and tiresome. But there’s just about enough variety to offset this tendency: in ‘A Visit’ there are visions of a leopard in a jungle by the sea; the narrator is saddened when it departs over the waves with a young man, seen earlier in another vision. It’s pretty silly again, but strangely beautiful, like a Rousseau painting, which her own illustration for the story demonstrates.
Cars feature centrally again in ‘The Mercedes’, ‘Clarita’ and ‘High in the Mountains’; they are often seen as a means of attempting to escape into solitude or oblivion, as well as instruments of destruction – Kavan’s preoccupations.
These stories are not a cheerful read, but there is a strange kind of uplifting hope to be found in some of them, even when the narrators confront obliterating despair. ‘The universe has no meaning’, Kavan once wrote, but these fragments of prose prove that she was capable of circumventing, if only temporarily and incompletely, the absurdity and terror of existence.
The Anna Kavan website has a list (with links) of all of her published works.