BOOK REVIEW / Ice-maiden stung by a spider: 'Change the Name' - Anna Kavan: Peter Owen, 15.50

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The Independent Culture
ANNA KAVAN wrote quite a few novels, some under her own real name. She is better known in Europe, but if her reputation here is still small it is secure and growing. The nets of mystification she wove about herself have frayed a little, but her intention that her life should not be known frustrates biographers. Some facts are certain. She was coldly treated as a child, saw her mother for ten minutes every day before dinner, was neglected, found herself aged six in a boarding school. She suffered mental breakdowns, took heroin and finally died of it.

Change the Name was an early work, and there cannot be a better novel about the fate then of a middle class girl denied training. Celia Henzell's course was determined when her father would not let her go to University. She at once got herself a husband to escape from a home like a cold hell. Soon she was a colonial wife in the East, where her husband died leaving her with an unloved baby. Again unwelcome in her parents' home, she again used a man to escape. People who tried to help her were exploited and hurt. She became a writer. Her neglected daughter killed herself. A first-class bitch, but she is pitiful too, for there is something stunned and blind about her, as if she has been stung by a spider. I met women like this when I was a child, cynical, scheming, using sex, for men were their meat and without them they could have no decent future. This is a conventional novel, short, bleak and shocking because of its honesty.

My Soul in China (Peter Owen, pounds 7.95) begins 'Once there was a house somewhere, a small house on a hill, and it had an innocent look . . .' This novel's intensity compresses it into a sort of poetry. 'Wandering lost and aimless without even a name to connect me to life I begin to add up dismal accounts of loss . . .' Kay is well-married, lives in an atmosphere of cocktail shakers and hearty parties. She attempts suicide, is in a mental hospital, but has to go home to good times. She drifts off with an Australian to a paradise of Pacific coasts, Californian poppies and sea zephyrs. Love, too. But she does not enjoy love. This idyll is to last six months, when the lover must return to his wife. No use offering a short-term idyll to a little girl who is longing for Daddy's strong arms to enfold her and never, ever, let her go. He thinks she should enjoy what there is while they have it, he thinks she is neurotic. But her soul is in 'China', and 'No mirror will reflect the face of a person whose soul is in China.' A miscarriage. Breakdown . . . Yes, we are in Jean Rhys country, women doomed by their natures. This very short novel is kept company by nine fine short stories.

Ice (Peter Owen, pounds 13.95), a late book, is a phantasmagoria, and was claimed by Brian Aldiss as the best science fiction of 1967. 'She is De Quincey's heir and Kafka's sister' he said. However we class the book, there is nothing else like it. The narrator is forever pursuing and missing, then finding but losing, a girl, 'the girl' with her glittering falls of hair. She is the property of someone else but at last she becomes his. Too late, for the world is freezing up. Later, in one of my novels, the earth was swallowed by ice, but I had not read Anna Kavan's. Is this half-conscious terror of another ice-age deep in all of us? We may glimpse perspectives of ice all over the place, in scientific predictions, let alone science fiction and in dreams.

The human race has every reason to fear ice. But this Ice is not psychological ice, or metaphysical ice, here the loneliness of childhood has been magicked into a physical reality as hallucinatory as the Ancient Mariner's. Anna Kavan, an aging woman - it is easy to fancy - peers back down the years to a girl, 'the girl', trying to find the young creature she so thoroughly cocooned in fantasy, for even her diaries, she exults, are a fake. When she does find the girl there are only minutes left to the terrible cold world of ice and death. In an interview just before she died Anna Kavan said, 'I haven't felt anything for 20 years.'

Novelists are always being asked if their work is autobiographical. Exasperated, they reply that it is or it isn't, but the question is off the point. One might offer these three novels to such an enquirer, together with David Callard's The Case of Anna Kavan (Peter Owen pounds 16.95), the biography where the girl, the woman, and their images of herself are like the smiles of the Cheshire cat. 'My mind is quite honest; it is my foul imagination that destroys me.' Discuss.

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