Forgotten Writers, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch

Why is it that certain writers get forgotten or as Jeremy Reed puts it of Anna Kavan, discovered anew by each successive generation? Often these are writers that belong to no particular sect or school of writers. They are literary exiles, needles in a haystack that are rarely found. Why is it that Kafka, Woolf and Ballard are stocked on the shelves of any bookshop worth a diversion, but the peculiar delights of Anna Kavan and Denton Welch require dedication and perseverance.

In his Anna Kavan biography, A Stranger on Earth, Jeremy Reed writes, “If the author does not network or promote a book, it is as good as dead. Unless they are in the know, how does anyone differentiate the good from the bad? How do you find Anna Kavan?” I’ve known of Anna Kavan’s existence for some time but it was a Twitter comment from @FarSouthProject that drew an analogy between Julia and the Bazooka and Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that compelled me to urgently explore Anna Kavan’s work.

As I read Julia and the Bazooka, I laughed grimly. The analogy is perfect in some ways, not for the books’ subject matter but for their supersensitive and singular way of interpreting the world. I am too accustomed to that strange and formative concoction of a parent that dies in early childhood, followed by neglect, and being passed from household to household until old enough for boarding school. I come to Denton Welch and Anna Kavan as a familiar and can promise little objectivity. I recognise the emotional numbness and dissociative state that continually compromises social relationships. I recognise also the tendency to fantasy but unlike Denton Welch and Anna Kavan have been unable to turn that world of imagination into beautiful stories. Instead of writing I have a pleasant supply of rich books to distract me, and now and then I jot down here or in my notebooks some thoughts about them. I am a dabbler that wrestles between dreams and realities.

I have dropped my mask a moment because it is precisely what Anna Kavan does in the fifteen stories in Julia and the Bazooka. These, like Denton Welch’s stories, are deeply personal considerations that deal in different ways with the alienation of self and otherness. It is a mode of fiction that directly engages the imagination to unravel the influence of the unconscious on the writer’s conscious behaviour. It is influenced not only by Anna Kavan’s history, memory and trauma but also by collective and shared memories. Unlike Kafka, Woolf and Ballard, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch are not first and foremost storytellers, but writers that use fiction to try to understand how psychological projections and inflated identifications drive or drain psychic energy and underpin our deceptions.

11 thoughts on “Forgotten Writers, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch

  1. Good post again, Anthony. I take it you will be working through AK’s fiction in the coming weeks and months. I hope so & I look forward to any thoughts you might want to share with us.

    Have you come across the name Jocelyn Brooke at all? He was another mid-century English writer who worked in a similar terrain to Denton Welch & Anna Kavan (in fact, he edited the first – expurgated – edition of DW’s journals and later published an anthology of Denton’s writing). He is even more difficult to arrive at than they are, more forgotten – but not forgotten entirely by any means.

    I have quite a few books by Brooke on my shelf, but have only read two so far – The Image of a Drawn Sword and The Scapegoat. Both of these short novels would interest you, I think. The Scapegoat is about an bereft, orphaned boy who is sent to live with his strange, rather violent uncle. Extremely peculiar, highly-charged episodes ensue, with lurches into strange rural landscapes and homoerotic, pagan-like ritual behaviour. Again a dissociative mood prevails. The Image of a Drawn Sword is about a profoundly alienated young man living in Kent (another Denton connection) who is attracted to a sinister military outfit that is operating in the English countryside for purposes that are never quite specified. A Kafkaesque paranoia hangs over everything and again homoeroticism, violence and symbolism all collide. Brooke developed his own private mythology using images of the military, orchids (he was an expert botanist), fireworks, secret landscapes, violence, homosexual desire etc, etc. Like Denton & Anna Kavan he is an overlooked, English sort-of modernist of considerable interest.

    Anyhow, just thought I’d mention him in case you hadn’t come across him. Most of his books are out of print, but are not hard to find online.

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    • Thanks, Mark. I shall be reading my way through all Kavan’s work.

      My only recollection of Brooke is in the fine introduction to Denton Welch’s expurgated journals. I hadn’t thought to try his fiction but shall certainly do so now.

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  2. A very sensitive and engaging post Anthony. I do think that this collection of short stories is an Anna Kavan book that holds particular appeal. Naturally, although my favourite bookseller carries a number of her titles, this is a special order. Probably just as well for the moment. I do look forward to your reflections on her novels.

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  3. Kavan’s stories are on my list for the future, so I’ll keep a lookout for Julia and the Bazooka. It sounds like the collection to go for ahead of I am Lazarus. Ice is extraordinary – I read it a few years ago, but certain images from it still come back to me every now and again. I would also recommend Guilty if you haven’t read it yet. It starts out as (what appears to be) a fairly conventional story of a boy’s childhood in a middle-class family, but as the novel progresses it turns into something much more sinister. I found it quite haunting in the end. That’s the thing with Kavan’s writing – it has the ability to get under one’s skin in surprising ways.

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    • I couldn’t agree more about Kavan’s stories. I think a lot about the collection in Julie and the Bazooka. I’m saving Ice for the end of my Kavan journey.

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