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Kavan, Anna

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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Name under which French-born, much travelled UK painter and author born Helen Emily Woods (1901-1968) wrote all her later fiction, her first six novels (1929-1937) being published under her married name, Helen Ferguson; the orphaned protagonist of Let Me Alone (1930) and A Stranger Still (1935) is named Anna Kavan, and after 1938 Edmonds went by that name, signing all her later books Anna Kavan (though she did not, as has been suggested, change her name by deed poll). Her life was severely complicated by heroin addiction and bouts of depression, and in most of her work fantasy and mental illness surreally intermingle. She was well known for her work outside the sf field, though a lack of awareness that Helen Ferguson and Anna Kavan were the same writer may have delayed full recognition of her stature.

Most of her work as by Ferguson is realistic, though highly stressed; of some interest as fantasy is Goose Cross (1936), in which a curse is brought down upon an English village by the discovery of a Roman skeleton. As Kavan, she became initially known for intense, autobiographical and dream-like short stories, often dealing with mental illness and drug addiction from a highly subjective viewpoint, beginning with the stories assembled as Asylum Piece (coll 1940) and I Am Lazarus (coll 1945). A Bright Green Field (coll 1958) contains generically more adventurous work, most notably a novella, "New and Splendid", the young protagonist of which – like the protagonist of Franz Kafka's Amerika (written 1911-1914; 1927), which this story homages deeply – is transported to a Dystopian City like an Eastern European vision of New York, its skyscrapers literally rooted in the airless labyrinths where the underpeople labour; though he is subjected to "cleansing" Memory Edits, he is judged inadequate to the upper world, and sent below. Among Kavan's longer works, House of Sleep (1947; vt Sleep Has His House 1948) is phantasmagoric; A Horse's Tale (1949) with Karl Theodor Bluth (1892-1964) is a fable with autobiographical elements; and Eagles' Nest (1958) is a surreal quest fantasy.

Kavan's last novel, the exceedingly intense Ice (1967), depicts, through compulsively compact imagery which links her again with Kafka and the Surrealists generally, a Post-Holocaust search for a woman through a world increasingly shadowed by an approaching ice age. Later editions of Ice carry an introduction by Brian W Aldiss, in which he claims Kavan as one of the great sf writers; Aldiss also edited the posthumous My Madness: The Selected Writings of Anna Kavan (coll 1990), which was much later supplemented by Machines in the Head: Selected Short Writing (2019). [JC/LW]

see also: End of the World; Women SF Writers.

Anna Kavan

born Cannes, France: 10 April 1901

died London: 5 December 1968


  • Goose Cross (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1936) as Helen Ferguson [hb/]
  • House of Sleep (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1947) [hb/]
  • Eagles' Nest (London: Peter Owen, 1958) [hb/]
  • Ice (London: Peter Owen, 1967) [hb/D Smith]
  • Mercury (London: Peter Owen, 1994) [foreword by Doris Lessing: hb/Thomi Wroblewski]
  • Guilty (London: Peter Owen, 2007) [pb/Alexander Parsonage]

collections and stories

about the author


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