Sunday, November 04, 2007

Book Review: Guilty

Guilty by Anna Kavan
The full manuscript of this novel was found among her papers in Tulsa, the library I'd been itching to get to from the moment I learned they were there. It is, though, not the best novel. I've read some of her work that didn't move me, but others are among the best books I've ever read. This one, though, is worse than unmoving. It is not fleshed out. It reads like a quick first draft. The first-person narration is distant, as if told from some far-off, removed location, long after the issues raised have been settled. While scenes are described in this way, we are never given that feeling of being there.
Maybe this impression comes from a bias. It is easy to believe that the pages put together to form this new "found" novel are not pages that Kavan ever intended to be published. It is easy to assume that these were not finished pages, the manuscript not a completed whole. The novel's introduction, by Jennifer Sturm (whose has commented here previously) , does an excellent job as serving as a Kavan primer and properly placing this novel among her others. What I want to hear is a little history, though. Had this manuscript ever passed before the eyes of any editors? Anyone at all? Peter Owen, her publisher, was also a good friend. Do we really think she would have had trouble getting anything of which she was proud published? My suspicion was that this book was one of those bottom-drawer manuscripts, ones we think we'll get back to, edit, and revise into the masterpiece we intended it to be.
The novel does redeem itself, though. Despite, the fact that Kavan relies here on a fever for the narrator's mind to loosen, for things to become surreal and ominous, the effect at times is in full force, the images precise and moving. The ending is saved from the downward spiral we see in much of Kavan's work, and realizations reached are realistic and believable. Some might say that a sort of tacked-on revelation happens here, but what I read was heart-felt.
I would hate, despite what I've said here, for this review to turn readers away from Anna Kavan. Her work is mostly brilliant. Even her earlier "county novels" display enough insight and terror to make them worthwhile. Her collections Asylum Piece and Julia and the Bazooka are indispensable.


  1. Damon, You are right - 'Guilty' has the feeling of an early draft, with Kavan's usual succinct word choice and fleshing out of a concept not fully developed. Her manuscripts are characteristically sprinkled with revisons, deletions, amendments, but the ms of 'Guilty' is comparatively clean. This may explain the book's deferred publication. Nevertheless, even in a possibly unfinished state, the narrative has a chilling effect, possibly enhanced by its ordinariness. The reader finds a discomforting familiarity in the text - because it has not been worked over and taken to the next level of disconnection the story has a personal proximity factor, which is quite disconcerting. Set in an English city, rather than in the misty heights of an unnamed mountainous terrain [cf Kavan's Ice, & Eagle's Nest & Mercury], the plot is not too distant ... not too unlikely ... not impossible.
    PS Peter Owen is quite elderly now, he has just turned 80. It may be that work he examined some forty years ago might not have seemed as publishable as it does today. Kavanites like yourself are hungry for ANYTHING she wrote, whether brilliant or slightly less than brilliant.

  2. Yes, I'd read anything by Kavan (what can we do to get her remaining journals published, anyway?). It's just that at a time when she might begin to get more attention, 'Guilty' is a little sub-par. I have my fingers crossed that Peter Owen will continue to reissue her books, ones like 'Who Are You?' or 'Julia and the Bazooka' which might fare better than 'Guilty' with a new audience.

  3. I have a manuscript, which is in effect an edited publication of Kavan's wartime memoirs and letters, sitting at a publishers as I write. Heaven knows why these things take a lifetime to get past the publisher's reader. Early next year....????
    Just a little titbit for you ... she spent time in New York with such people as Louis MacNiece, James Agee, W.H. Auden - not bad company, huh?