A 20th century author I had never read before…

17 Jun

… which in itself is hardly surprising, given that if one thinks globally there were so many, and more in English alone than anyone could possibly ever have exhausted in a lifetime. Hence the popularity of books like 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. (See also here.)

I had a go a couple of years back constructing a “canon”. In my undergraduate days at Sydney U some fifty years ago the trend for canons was full on, and what we ought to read was neatly reduced to about twelve authors! Seriously! The whole exercise is dubious of course, which is not to say that all works of literature are equal in quality, obviously not the case. Mind you, back then we were not really encouraged to think critically about the exercise we were engaged in, perhaps laughingly called “criticism”. There were some exceptions to that generalisation, but English scholars were in general not noted for their depth of historical or philosophical knowledge.

This brings me to a writer of the World War II and mid twentieth century periods, Anna Kavan. There is also a web-site about her work. Guilty (2007) was in fact written much earlier.

Set in an unspecified but eerily familiar landscape, Guilty is told from the point of view of a young man named Mark. The novel begins in his childhood and as his father returns from war. In spite of being garlanded as a hero, Mark’s father declares himself a pacifist and is immediately reviled in a country still suffering from wartime divisions. When he is forced into exile Mark meets Mr Spector, a mysterious figure who becomes a dominant force in his life, overseeing his schooling, his employment and even his accommodation. When he tries to break way from Mr Spector to pursue and engagement with the beautiful Carla, Mark’s life begins to unravel. Thwarted at every turn by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, he falls prey to the machinations and insecurities of his guilt-ridden mind.

Drawing on many of Kavan’s familiar themes, Guilty will be welcomed by those who already know and appreciate her work and a revelation to those who don’t.

I was at times reminded as much of Edgar Alan Poe as I was of Kafka, but the novel, despite an ending I found unsatisfactory, is quite a triumph of unreliable narrative viewpoint. It certainly stands comparison with most other 20th century fiction I have read.


self portrait of Anna Kavan

There is an account of the publication of Guilty in The Guardian of June 28 2007: Found Guilty: Anna Kavan’s latest novel.

A lost manuscript of a novel by the British writer Anna Kavan – which turned up at the University of Tulsa of all places – will be published next week. I, for one, am deliriously happy about the publication of Guilty, since Anna Kavan, who died in 1968, is one our greatest and most original novelists.

Born in 1901, she is perhaps the only novelist ever to have taken on the name of one of her characters. Whilst in her late thirties – a succession of reasonably successful novels, a bout of depression, and a severe nervous breakdown already behind her – Helen Ferguson (née Woods) decided not only to change her writing style and philosophy, but her entire identity…

This new publication is a timely reminder that most debut novels today don’t break new ground and it is down to great British writers such as Anna Kavan – in these crass, commercial, sanitised times – to restore my true faith in literature.

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Posted by on June 17, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, reading, writers


2 responses to “A 20th century author I had never read before…

  1. Davo

    June 17, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    “The Sleepwalkers” by Arthur Koestler should be in the top 100. Reads like an entertaining novel, but firmly based on “history”.

  2. Davo

    June 17, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    (and oy, have included the link .. i want me hat back .. heh.)

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