The details of Anna Kavan’s life loom large over her work, says Chris Power, but the brilliant light of her short fiction illuminates psychological trauma and mortality
Anna Kavan’s 1943 essay about her time living in New Zealand begins with unusual reluctance: “I have not got any useful information about New Zealand,” she writes, and “would not attempt to give it to you if I had. The transmission of information is not my department. The only job for which I am qualified as an individualist and a subjective writer is the recording of my personal reactions.”
It is an irony that not merely in Kavan’s essays but also her fiction, “the transmission of information” – chiefly about her personal life – has taken on significant weight. If she is known for anything beyond her 1967 novel Ice, it is for having suffered mental illness, having been disastrously married (twice), and having been addicted to heroin, all of which she explored in her writing. You would have to search very hard to find an article about her that doesn’t mention the police statement, following the discovery of her corpse in December 1968, a fully loaded syringe in one arm, that her Notting Hill flat contained “enough heroin to kill the whole street”.