- Nocturnal Transgressions in The House of Sleep:Anna Kavan's Maternal Registers
The human language is far too hard to learn after childhood, and with other forms of communication I've had no success.1—Anna Kavan
Despite the critical attention feminist theorists have paid both to redefining the boundaries of modernism and to recuperating "lost" twentieth-century women writers, there remains a conspicuous neglect of British experimentalists, among them, Anna Kavan (19021968).2 Although Kavan published ten of her eighteen novels and short-story collections between 1929 and 1947, the critical evaluation so far evades serious consideration of her placement in the history of modernist fiction by women; instead, it has focused on Kavan herself as a literary curiosity, driven by a raving solipsism.3 Kavan's experimental fiction becomes autobiographical evidence of her "mental illness" and lifelong drug-addiction; within this context her disjointed narratives—a salient characteristic of much of her work—are assumed to result from her unstable psyche, rather than interpreted as a radical challenge to realist notions of language and style.4 Kavan's fiction may also have eluded modernist inclusion [End Page 253] because it is so disparate, ranging in extremes from what critics have dismissively referred to as her conventional "romantic country" period of the 1930's, to her selection in 1967 as the best science fiction novelist of the year.5 More likely, however, her invisibility within the modernist canon has to do with the fact that it was not until 1940, with the publication of Asylum Piece, that Kavan inaugurated the elliptical, experimental literary style for which she is best known. Yet even evaluations that do characterize her fiction as "defiantly Modernist" inevitably conclude that her experiments are "exclusively autobiographical"—that is, idiosyncratic and cryptic rather than intentionally avant-garde—thus perpetuating the damaging conflation of the writer and her work which has repeatedly plagued Kavan's critical reception (Young 22-23).6
While there has been little consensus about the caliber of Kavan's literary achievements, several reviewers have praised her incantatory imagery, her precise, economical prose, and the poignancy of her nightmarish imagination.7 At the same time, readers have had trouble situating her fiction, diversely comparing her to writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Jean Rhys, and De Quincey, but never persuasively enough to secure her inclusion in any single tradition. Critics have astutely noted the influence of Robbe-Grillet, yet Kavan's frequent rejection of character, plot, and chronology in fact anticipates the work published by the exponents of the nouveau roman. Because much of her writing can be called psychological realism, exploring the existential conflict between amorphous enemies and bewildered victims, Kavan's work is often compared with Kafka's oeuvre. While "Kafkaesque" is another relevant comparison, a crucial divergence lies in the fact that, unlike Kafka, much of Kavan's writing interrogates the issue of what constitutes "psychic normalcy" specifically for women within an increasingly alienating and fragmented social context. Although this observation has never received much critical attention, several reviewers since the sixties have vaguely commented on what they regard to be a 'feminine' quality to her work. Lawrence Durrell epitomizes this trend when he asserts that Kavan "belongs to the great subjective feminine tradition (Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Anais Nin)" of twentieth-century women writers whose prose intricately probes internal states (qtd. in Stuhlman 56).8 Yet no analysis has attempted to correlate Kavan's interest in subjectivity and language with an exploration of femininity that is not dependent upon biographical or essentialist claims, but is informed by feminist theory. Among the most undervalued of Kavan's novels is The House of Sleep (1947), a work whose radical "feminine" [End Page 254] aesthetic emphatically illustrates the critical need to reevaluate this author's experimentalism within a context that foregrounds the conjunction of feminist literary discourse and modernist practice.
More than any other of Kavan's innovative texts, The House of Sleep has been both pathologized as the autobiographical result of a drug-induced nightmare, and construed as a failure to work within a literary tradition that demands order, coherence, linearity, and mastery, rather than evaluated as a deliberate challenge...