I Am Lazarus: Stories by Anna Kavan
Review by S. D. Stewart
Unlike Julia and the Bazooka, this collection of Kavan’s short fiction was originally published during her lifetime, and the significance of this distinction is clear. This book is more balanced, with most if not all of the stories written during a period of Kavan’s life in wartime London following her return from living abroad. While there are a few that stray beyond the more obvious parallels to Kavan’s experience, such as the gothic tale ‘The Brother’ and the horror snapshot ‘The Gannets’, most stories here reflect that distinct time in her life. Certainly Julia contains a few outstanding stories, some perhaps even better than any in this collection, particularly those written in Kavan’s surreal dream style that tends to outshine even her best modernist work. But when considering that posthumous collection as a whole, it’s hard not to wonder if the selections were strung together with more of an eye toward profit than artistic integrity (e.g., playing up the heroin angle feels cheap, and discounts Kavan’s significant literary achievements).
Evidence of Kavan’s familiar themes can be found throughout this collection. Several stories recall the parts of Asylum Piece that with cold brilliance capture and condemn the ‘benevolent’ evil bestowed upon those unfortunate enough to enter a psychiatric facility. In these stories, impassive older men pull all the strings, certain of the benefits of their nefarious practices while either oblivious or indifferent to the havoc they are wreaking on people’s psyches. These particular stories feature soldiers recently returned from the front with shattered minds, and the doctors determined to wrench them out of their silence using whatever means necessary. Kavan worked with these men in a military psychiatric facility during this time of her life, as well as having had her own experiences with the monolith of psychiatry, placing her in a unique position from which to write.
Other stories, including ‘All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive’, ‘A Certain Experience’ and the 10-part epic ‘Our City’, focus on another of Kavan’s favorite themes, futility in the face of authority. In these tales, a person is either unjustly accused and/or forced to negotiate a gauntlet of smug, irrational bureaucrats intent on making the person’s life a living hell. It is in these stories where Kavan feels closest to Kafka and yet she puts her own twist on them, specifically in how this theme intertwines with her exploration of the perpetual victim role. In ‘All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive’, the character of A feels ‘resigned to everything’, a concept Kavan later takes to its extreme outposts with the girl’s character in the novel Ice.
In addition to its concerns with bureaucracy, ‘Our City’ offers an extraordinary portrait of life in London during the Blitz. Kavan captures the unsettled tension pervading everyday life during this horrific period. Her narrator’s experience is compounded by her own uncertain role following a recent return from living abroad. She feels disoriented from being dropped into this wartime horrorscape, leading her to identify as both an outcast and a prisoner. She strives to continue her habit of walking in the open, even when so few of her fellow city dwellers are willing to risk the threat of death from above. She likens the city to a metaphorical triumvirate of octopus, leg-hold trap, and judge that also carries out its own sentence.
Most of the remaining stories in the collection lean toward the gothic, pervaded by an atmospheric sense of foreboding, though usually never culminating in any extreme act. They are haunting, uneasy tales, but they are tales of the small horrors of everyday living for someone who feels oppressed on all sides, someone whose trust in humanity has been broken long ago and yet who still grapples with ‘this indestructible, pitiless hope’.
What exactly is it that’s wrong with me? What is the thing about me that people never can take? Her thoughts wandered although she knew the answer perfectly well. It was the woolgathering, of course, the preoccupation with non-human things, the interest in the wrong place, that was so unacceptable. People took it as an insult. Intuitively they resented it even if they were unaware of it.