Asylum Piece (1940, Anna Kavan)

Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.

In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.

Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:

The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.

Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.

After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.

The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths.