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Submitted Literature

Asylum Piece

By Anna Kavan

Review

This collection of short stories was Anna Kavan’s first publication under the name of one of her own fictional characters, she had previously published under the name Helen Ferguson.  The stories are loosely connected, featuring a first person narrator experiencing severe depression and suffering either a series of surreal persecutions or major paranoia.  These chapters are interrupted by a sequence of tales about the inmates of a Swiss psychiatric clinic.  Kavan’s prose is sparse and bleak, typically combining prosaic realism with dream-like fantasy.  This collection of stories was the beginning of her writing in this style, which has been described as Kafkaesque.

 

As with all Kavan’s representations of early to mid twentieth-century psychiatric treatment, she portrays the psychiatric profession as cold, hostile and lacking in human care or understanding. 

Key Themes:

  • Asylums

Significant Quotes / Pages

‘I try to imagine myself in the skin of a newborn infant, without future or past.  If the jailer looks into my mind now, I think, he cannot raise any objection to what is going on there.  The face of the Dutch doctor, thin and sharp and hard like the face of a sea captain, passes before me.  Suddenly a cock crows near by with a sound fantastic, unearthly, in this world still locked in darkness and frost.  The cock’s crow flowers sharply in three flaming points, a fiery fleur-de-lis blossoming momentaneously in the black field of night.’ 

‘So many dreams are 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.  I lie between the bare wall and the medicine bitter with sediment in its dwarfish glass and try to recall my dream.’

‘I am alone for ever in this room where the light burns all night long and the professional faces of strangers, without warmth or pity, glance at me through the half open door.  I wait, I wait, between the wall and the bitter medicine in the glass.  What am I waiting for?  A screen of wrought iron covers the window; the house door is locked though the door of my room is open.  All night long the light watches me with its unbiased eye.’ 

‘Already it seems to me that I have spent a lifetime in this narrow room whose walls will continue to regard me with secrecy through innumerable lifetimes to come.  Is it life, then, or death, stretching like an uncoloured stream behind and in front of me?  There is no love here, nor hate, nor any point where feeling accumulates.  In this nameless place nothing appears animate, nothing is close, nothing is real; I am pursued by the remembered scent of dust sprinkled with summer rain.’

Reference: Anna, Kavan. 1940. Asylum Piece. Peter Owen, 2001

Reviewer

Victoria Walker
Date Review Submitted: Thursday 25th February 2016