I love Anna Kavan’s cold, burning prose and the intensity of her focus. Every line in this story is loaded with allegorical intent. The field of the title ‘always’ confronts the unnamed narrator on her travels. The grass is a luminous green and grows at a supernatural rate. On one sighting, she sees that the grass is cut by chained humans who resemble ‘struggling flies caught in a spider’s web’. A passing stranger explains that this form of employment – not a punishment, as the narrator imagined – is highly prized and that the workers’ ‘spasms and convulsions’ are ‘mainly just mimicry, a traditional miming of the sufferings endured by earlier generations of workers before the introduction of the present system’. Despite her horror, the narrator concludes by understanding why the grass needs to be cut: ‘That poison-green had to be fought, fought; cut back, cut down; daily, hourly, at any cost’. It is possible to read so much into the field – climate change, some kind of prophetic comment on capitalist realism, an externalisation of the paranoia that drives her narrator from place to place.
First published in A Bright Green Field and Other Stories, Peter Owen Publishers, 1979. Collected in Machines in the Head, Peter Owen Publishers, 2019
In my edition of Julia and the Bazooka, the blurb calls it ‘a classic of drug literature’, but I think that’s to do it rather a disservice. Drugs feature – heroin mainly, and specifically in this story –however, I think Kavan shows us more what it feels like to be other, to not feel part of the mass on the street, not to trust even oneself. The end of the story is the end of every junkie story, but still manages to bring new notes to the score.
First published posthumously in Julia and the Bazooka, Peter Owen, 1970. Reissued in 2009
Anna Kavan had three stories in London Magazine; ‘Happy Name’ was her first to appear there. Readers with any degree of familiarity with her work will not be surprised to learn that it’s a dark and nightmarish piece, despite what its title might suggest. Letitia, or Miss Letty, is a young girl dreaming of being an old woman, or an old woman dreaming of being a young girl. We’re never quite sure and maybe she isn’t either. The story features a powerful father figure, a shadow-strewn house around which it’s impossible to navigate and a series of wonderfully accurate and apposite images of birds. In the mirror across the hall Miss Letty sees a ‘tall pale girl’ with the look of ‘a solitary long-necked bird, wading and peering out warily from the shadows’. Miss Letty surveys another set of shadows ‘like a heron exploring a pool’. Later, when a development in the story has diverted it on to a similar track to the one taken in Wilkinson’s ‘Pillars of Ice’, the thought of having to search for a new home ‘made the bird of panic set up a disastrous flapping inside her’. ‘Happy Name’ was reprinted in the posthumous collection Julia and the Bazooka (Peter Owen) in 1970, an edition of which remains in print.
(London Magazine, December 1954)