Monday, November 26, 2007

Book Review: A Stranger on Earth

A Stranger on Earth: The Life and Work of Anna Kavan by Jeremy Reed

Let me say first that Jeremy Reed annoys me. Every time I turn around it seems he's written another book on a subject in which I am interested. From my desk I see two of his books on my shelves (Chasing Black Rainbows about Antonin Artaud and Delirium about Rimbaud), so I'm familiar with his work. But when I saw that he'd put out a book about Anna Kavan, someone hose work is relatively obscure, about whom there hadn't been a single book written when I first discovered her, I was annoyed. I've read David Callard's biography The Case of Anna Kavan, and she remained a mystery. I'd always imagined myself going down to the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa and pouring over her papers and fashioning my own biography of Anna Kavan. But then there's Jeremy Reed.

Reed is not an objective biographer, and that's okay with me. He clearly is impressed with Kavan's work and for someone who praises her work ever chance I get, I was happy to see someone else fawn over her phrases and to be enamoured with her character. He doesn't show her, though, from only one side. Reed, in fact, spends a fair amount of time on her problems with social interaction. She clearly had difficulty with people, though at times her circle of friends was quite large. Reed also charts the course that her writing took over the years, from writing, as Helen Ferguson, plain and not altogether really imaginative books, to the split with her former self, renaming herself Anna Kavan after one of her characters, and writing extremely imaginative, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes fantastical, always fantastic fiction. And he places it all within her biography, even getting into the difficulties she had at times with publishers and editors.

It is impossible to talk very long about Kavan without mentioning her life-long heroin habit. I'll call it habit over addiction because by all accounts she was in control over her use. Reed reasons her drug use as a mechanism for facing the world, for moderating her emotion. This is understandable. Self-medication is a method of coping for many creative types. It is this drug use that leads to her cult attraction. And one can easily wonder whether the drug is responsible for what is other worldly in her writing. I see her drug use as more than a tool for controlling her emotions, for keeping herself and the world in check. It was a method of escape. Just like the fast cars in her stories "Out and Away" and "Fog," it was a way of getting away, of escaping the real world. And so I think some of her writing came directly out of heroin use, which of course comes from an infinitely perceptive and creative personality.

Jeremy Reed seems extremely proud of himself. He spends time expounding on the drugs, clothes and music of sixties London with a time that says "I know all of this and more. And you don't." And much of these sorts of details are irrelevant to Kavan, being as she was cut off from the world outside her door. Reed also spends too much time focused on the fact that most of the men who Kavan kept as friends were homosexuals. While it is understandable that she might be drawn to these sorts of friendships out of safety, to avoid the men of the past, as a reader I'm not much interested in the sexuality, nor the style of dress, of her companions.

A cause for greater concern in this text, greater than my own dislike for Reed's focus at times, is his lifting from the work of others. As noted by Jennifer Sturm, credited in the acknowledgments of this biography and author of the introduction to Kavan's Guilty, in the comments of this blog, Reed appears to have pulled some things nearly verbatim from Sturm's work. In her essay, Anna Kavan Meets a New Zealand Writer on his Special Day, published in KĊtare, Sturm writes:

The couple forged a relationship in England in 1939, when Hamilton’s sister Margery began an affair with Kavan’s husband, Stuart Edmonds.

Reed writes:

In 1939 Anna met Ian Hamilton, with whom she was to travel extensively in the early war years, when Hamilton's sister Margery began an affair with Stuart Edmonds.

Sturm writes:

Hamilton was an expatriate Englishman who had travelled back to his homeland hoping to achieve some success with his anti-war three-act play Falls The Shadow , prophetically written in 1936....

Reed writes:

The conscientious objector Hamilton was an English expatriate who had returned to his birthplace from New Zealand hoping to score a hit with his anti-war three-act play Falls The Shadow, a work he had written in 1936....

Bothersome. I have to wonder if Reed didn't approach other sources in the same fashion.

As bothersome and annoying this biography was at times, I found it both illuminating and inspiring. I learned much that was not previously available about Kavan and her life, including details of her writing process, and it makes me want to re-read all of her work. Maybe next year.

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