Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
The reputation of Anna Kavan, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s most haunting and original fiction, exists in a shadowy realm not unlike those inhabited by her alienated characters. Since her death fifty years ago, Kavan has built a cult following, with all that phrase implies. Her fans, who have included Anaïs Nin, Jean Rhys, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, Jonathan Lethem, and Patti Smith, are scarce yet passionate. “Few novelists,” declared Ballard, “match the intensity of her vision.”
Kavan’s stranger-than-fiction life, meanwhile, has become mythologized, murky, the truth overlaid by details from short stories and novels that were taken for straight autobiography. An enduring piece of Kavan apocrypha, for example, is that she intentionally shrouded herself in mystery. “What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be,” muses one of her fictional alter egos. Whether deliberately or otherwise, Kavan did little to assist future biographers. Elusive and capricious, with the restless, questing nature of the malcontent, she drifted from country to country and man to man, formed friendships and dropped them, concealed her real age, and destroyed diaries and letters. “She cast doubts, she lied, she fabricated, she spoke the truth, she was most honest,” wrote the drama critic Raymond Marriott, a friend and coexecutor of her estate. “But where did it begin and where did it end?”