Introducing Anna Kavan


There’s an indispensable book called About Writing by Samuel R. Delany. In the first essay he cobbles together an eclectic list of authors that, ideally, the aspiring writer should read. Because Delany has read everything, you can bet his tastes are wide and varied.

And it’s thanks to that book that I discovered Anna Kavan.

Born Helen Ferguson, she began writing while living in Burma in the 1920’s but then after her second marriage collapsed, she had a nervous breakdown and changed her name to Anna Kavan, a character in one of her novels. Thereafter her books took a decidedly surreal turn.

In fact, downright weird and hypnotic and deranged, at least based on the two I just recently read: Ice and Sleep Has His House.

Besides being the author of nearly a dozen bizarre and influential novels and story collections, Kavan was also a lifelong heroin addict, car enthusiast, world traveler, painter and breeder of bulldogs. Her life seemed to be one long fever dream that seeped, by way of her fictional persona, into her unclassifiable books.

Ice has been cited as an influence on everyone from J.G. Ballard to Doris Lessing to Elizabeth Wurtzel.

What’s it about? Well, in an unnamed country an unnamed man is driving around trying to find his true love, a frail albino woman who is perpetually haunted by demons. But the man’s quest is hampered by ice and snow and floods and ruins; in fact, it is verily the end of the world by ice that is deterring him time and again. And also other suitors, including an evil, ice-blue-eyed man named the Warden who is something of a warlord and a sadist.

The unnamed narrator is also obsessed with capturing the strange music of the lemurs. But this music, while it delights him, is a true torment for his albino love. The story flows in meandering, non-linear, dreamlike fashion and it casts a spell on the reader who goes for that kind of intelligent, fractured weirdness.

So on that note, go explore the weird world of Anna Kavan.

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →