A Stranger on Earth, by Doris Lessing

Ice in an outlaw's heart
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

On the cover is an old snap of Anna Kavan tinted to make her look like somebody she never could have been. Before colour photography, it was a profession: tinting photographs, flattering the sitter. If it was the novelist herself who agreed to this enhanced Anna, then the picture is probably a witness to another of her attempts to be just like everybody else, and that is painful.

In those days, the cheaper women's magazines showed wholesome all-purpose young women in serviceable dresses. This photograph could have gone straight on to the cover of something like Housewifes' Own. Anna Kavan wears a bright pink "tailored'" dress, waist cinched in, hair permed or marcelled, and she is very blonde, with a lot of rosy make-up. What she was really like is shown by a self-portrait, all great eyes and a helpless mouth, which has to make you think of The Scream.

An unhappy childhood? Yes, but to ascribe one to Anna Kavan (1901-1968) does rather devalue the currency. A cold hell, she said it was. She saw her mother for 10 minutes every day. She was cared for by Sammy, a nurse, for six years, but there are no reminiscences of cuddles and kindness. At six she was sent to an American boarding school and left there during holidays.

Her father, from whom she improbably expected affection and some interest in her, committed suicide. Her mother sent her to boarding school in Switzerland, then to others in England. Despite these disruptions, she was offered a place in Oxford, but her mother told her she must marry well, as she had done at 18. She fobbed Anna off with an ex-lover of her own, Donald Ferguson, much older, worldly wise and sexually unlikeable.

So off she went to Burma, an unhappy wife. Neither with husbands or lover did she succeed in finding her ideal life: "a primitive animal kind of life with one chosen man who satisfies me physically... I want to sleep a long time, eat a lot, sit a lot and be sexual pretty often... I am an animal, lazy, intelligent, unsociable animal."

She was as unlikely to achieve this as to become a merry housewife. In fact, she was very early on heroin, cocaine, pot; she had breakdowns, threatened suicide. Her mother sent her to a clinic in Switzerland, and that was the end of normality.

While she was still Helen Ferguson she wrote several novels, which were all well reviewed. They were critical of men, husbands, domesticity, and feminists claimed her. In Change the Name we see what may happen to a girl without training who has to get a husband. But, while these are interesting novels, Anna Kavan had not been born.

Changing her name, changing husbands, she destroyed letters, diaries, anything that might assist a biographer like Jeremy Reed - who has done pretty well, with no assistance. This biography is a good enough introduction: reliable, but it is a bit short on insight.

Anna Kavan wanted to be an enigma and succeeded to the point where she could have disappeared altogether. If you want continuity, it was described in a review of a Ferguson novel: "the essential solitude of the individual".

An analyst, Dr Karl Bluth, remained her friend and support through a hundred vicissitudes. She tried jazzy relationships with men but acquired a circle of friends at odds with society - homosexuals, mostly. It is often forgotten now that they then risked arrest, imprisonment, and blackmail. Gay men, junkies ex-junkies, eccentrics: all people who could understand that poor outlaw Anna Kavan.

The start of the Second World War set her back. Her novel, Asylum Piece, suffered. Then she was travelling, improbably, to Norway, California, Singapore, Bali, New Zealand. It looks as if she was trying to escape from something, and not the war. Her son was shot down over Germany and there was another suicide attempt.

I think the war's effect on us all is generally overlooked. Everyone was changed by it, essentially changed. Six years it all went on, and then there was the nasty aftermath, the camps, the refugees, the hunger, the chaos. How could this woman, wired for calamity, not have suffered? Ice, her best-known novel, is supposed to be about drug-taking, or an Ice Age, but ice is a pretty good description of the cold dread we felt, watching the war engulf everything. I think Ice is her Second World War novel.

She found it hard to find and keep publishers. While recognised as a real talent, she was not easily categorised. She has been sought out by junkies, and by the lovers of writing about madness. JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and others all admire her. She is mentioned with Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys; "like Dostoyevsky", they might have said. A late, posthumously published book, The Parson, puts her on that level.

But she has her own original voice in one startling novel after another. Mercury, Asylum Piece, Sleep Has His House, My Soul in China: in each Anna Kavan speaks, and with authority. She is being recognised as the most distinctive of 20th century novelists. Her experience with drugs may have added phantoms and fantasies to her landscapes, but it is the cool lucid light of that unique mind which makes her Anna Kavan.

Doris Lessing's new novel, 'The Cleft', appears from Fourth Estate in January