Machines in the Head: Selected Stories
by Anna Kavan
NYRB Classics (2020)
170 pp

I only know of Anna Kavan because of her final novel, Ice, published in 1967. I have not read that book yet, though people keep speaking of it with high praise. When a collection of her stories, Machines in the Head, arrived from NYRB Classics, then, I knew next to nothing about the author. For example, I didn’t know that Anna Kavan first published under her married name, Helen Ferguson, and that Anna Kavan is actually a character in two of her first novels, Let Me Alone (1930) and A Stranger Still (1935). She adopted this name after her second marriage ended in 1938, after which she attempted suicide and was hospitalized (for the first of many times) for depression and addiction.

This selection of stories harvests stories from the collections she published as Anna Kavan, starting with the first thing she published with her new name, Asylum Piece, from 1940. These nine stories read less like fiction than like the frightening experiences of alienation and paranoia suffered by a woman who foresees her impending incarceration. They often begin with poignant observations and sensations, such as this, from the first story, “Going Up in the World” (which reminded me pleasantly of Bong Jun Ho’s Parasite:

In the low-lying streets near the river where I live there is a fog all through the winter. When I go to bed at night it is so cold that the pillow freezes my cheek. For a long time I have been lonely, cold and miserable. It is months since I have seen the sun. Suddenly, one morning, all this becomes intolerable to me. It seems that I can no longer bear the cold, the loneliness, the eternal fog — no, not even for another hour — and I decide to visit my Patrons and ask them to help me. It is a desperate resolve, but once I have made it I am filled with optimism. Perhaps I deliberately trick myself with false hopes as I put on my best dress and carefully make up my face.

Night-time paranoia and distress come up often in this collection; the narrator is clearly intimately familiar with long periods (years?) of anxiety and depression. We see some of that in the first part of “Going Up in the World,” before the narrator goes up out of the ground to see her patrons, but it comes again, for example, in “At Night”:

How slowly the minutes pass in the winter night, and yet hours themselves to not seem long. Already the church clock is calling the hour again in its dull country voice that sounds half stupefied with the cold. I lie in bed, and like a well-drilled prisoner, an old-timer. I resign myself to the familiar pattern of sleeplessness. It is a routine I know only too well.

This is also mixed nicely with the fear of waking after a sleepless night in “Machines in the Head”:

There is some quite trivial, distant noise; a sound, moreover, which has nothing to do with me, to which there is not the slightest need for me to pay any attention, yet it suffices to wake me and in no gentle way, either, but savagely, violently, shockingly, like an air-raid alarm. The clock is just striking seven. I have been asleep perhaps on hour, perhaps two. Roused in this brutal fashion, I jump up just in time to catch a glimpse of the vanishing hem of sleep as, like a dark scarf maliciously snatched away, it glides over the foot of the bed and disappears in a flash under the closed door. Useless, quite futile, to dash after it in pursuit. I am awake now for good or, rather, for bad; the wheels, my masters, are already vibrating with incipient motion; the whole mechanism is preparing to begin the monotonous, hateful functioning of which I am the dispirited slave.

In “Asylum Piece II” dreams and nocturnal fears pursue the narrator in the morning:

I had a friend, a lover. Or did I dream it? So many dreams crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false: dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.

While each story can be read on its own, some characters recur. I think the narrator is the same woman. I think the “official advisor,” when he is brought up, is the same person she trusts and fears. I think the friend/lover who recurs is the same person to Kavan. Consequently, it was not surprising to me to learn, after I read the stories here, that much of this is autobiographical, and even called a “journal” in a New York Times article I read.

I wondered if this was going to be the tone and progression through this whole collection. While Kavan returns to these images a bit, each collection has its own verve and purpose. The first piece in her 1945 collection, I Am Lazarus, “Palace of Sleep,” led me to think we were in a mental hospital, perhaps with the narrator of Asylum Piece:

The wind was blowing like mad in the hospital garden. It seemed to know that it was near a mental hospital and was showing off some crazy tricks of its own, pouncing first one way and then another and then apparently in alld directions at once. The mad wind sprang out with a bellow from behind a corner of the nurses’ quarters, immediately tearing around the back of the building to meet itself halfway along the front in a double blast that nearly snatched the cap from the head of a sister hurrying towards the entrance. With a clash and a clatter the door swung to admit her indignant figure huddled in its blue cloak. The wind came in, too, with a malicious gusto that died drearily in the recesses of the hall where two doctors were talking.

However, this collection mines her experiences among injured soldiers at a military neurosis center, where she worked during the London Blitz. I thought this collection was fascinating because it is so different from other war-time documents. Kavan clearly understands the pain that will go on, even if the soldiers and nurses and doctors can claim to be the victors in the end. The mad wind will come back.

We get only three of the thirteen stories from A Bright Green Field, from 1958. They make me feel unsatisfied! I need the rest!

Next in the collection is Julia and the Bazooka, published in 1970, a couple of years after Kavan’s death. These are chilling. I think they could still be considered autobiographical, and they don’t suggest that the woman who wrote Asylum Piece nearly three decades prior had found any healing she may have received lasting. These pieces are a bit more abstract than the already somewhat abstract ones in Asylum Piece, and I think I prefer the earlier pieces. I must admit, though, that I read these a lot faster and didn’t take as much time to re-read them. I will do so, though.

The last story to come from a collection is “Five More Days to Countdown,” the only story selected from her 1975 collection My Soul in China. This story was originally published in Encounter in 1968. That magazine was a left-wing magazine critical of communism. This story fits the bill. I don’t know anything else about My Soul in China, but I’m curious if it was a place for her previously uncollected (and maybe lesser) stories.

Speaking of unpublished, in Machines in the Head we get a final, previously unpublished story: “Starting a Career.” This story has a fun setup, but one that will remind readers of Asylum Piece as well: a stranger arrives, there is a summons, there is the mystery of what the narrator could have done wrong. It also ends with this tantalizing line, fitting for the end of this collection: “What a thrilling enigma for posterity I shall be!”

Indeed! But also an enigma that reveals so much. I’m very glad to have finally touched the work of Anna Kavan. These short (often very short) stories seem like the perfect way to get in there and get to know the author’s take on a troubled life.

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