I Am Lazarus (Peter Owen Modern Classic), p.1Anna Kavan
I AM LAZARUS
‘So well are they written, so clearly and baldly told, and with such narrative power, that you feel you are a doctor caught as in the spell of a mad Ancient Mariner.’ – John Betjeman
‘For quality of writing this week there is nothing to equal the fifteen short stories contained in I Am Lazarus.’ – Guardian
‘The sensitivity and understanding are impressive.’ – Birmingham Post
‘Written with most subtle poignancy and great range.’ – Observer
‘One cannot doubt that what is here is the truth.’ – Tatler
Anna Kavan, née Helen Woods, was born in Cannes in 1901 and spent her childhood in Europe, the USA and Great Britain. Her life was haunted by her rich, glamorous mother, beside whom her father remains an indistinct figure. Twice married and divorced, she began writing while living with her first husband in Burma and was initially published under her married name of Helen Ferguson. Her early writing consisted of somewhat eccentric ‘Home Counties’ novels, but everything changed after her second marriage collapsed. In the wake of this, she suffered the first of many nervous breakdowns and was confined to a clinic in Switzerland. She emerged from her incarceration with a new name, Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her 1930 novel Let Me Alone, as well as an outwardly different persona and a new literary style. She suffered periodic bouts of mental illness and long-term drug addiction – she had become addicted to heroin in the 1920s and continued to use it throughout her life – and these facets of her life feature prominently in her work. She destroyed almost all of her personal correspondence and most of her diaries, therefore ensuring that she achieved her ambition to become ‘one of the world's best-kept secrets’. She died in 1968 of heart failure, soon after the publication of her most celebrated work, the novel Ice.
I Am Lazarus
Palace of Sleep
Who Has Desired the Sea
Face of My People
The Heavenly Adversary
All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive
A Certain Experience
Now I Know Where My Place Is
First published in 1945, I Am Lazarus was Anna Kavan's second collection of stories under her new name. Having previously published under the name Helen Ferguson, by this time she had begun using Anna Kavan (the name of one of her fictional characters) in all areas of her life. Readers familiar with her work will find echoes of the dystopian world of Asylum Piece and the hallucinatory, apocalyptic atmosphere of Ice. Written and set during the Second World War, the war not only provides a historical backdrop to the stories but shapes and saturates these narratives. On her return to England late in 1942, after more than three years travelling on five continents, Kavan was obliged to settle in London and find work. Her letters reveal that the Blitz-torn capital and the dull terror of everyday life there penetrated her self-assurance more profoundly than the far greater hazards she had risked in crossing the oceans. She writes of the relentless misery of the blackout, poor food and rationing and the atmosphere of terrible apprehension; she notes, ‘O, but it's dreary here, the war and the winter, the blackout, the dismal faces, the cold, the shabbiness, the feeling of death in the air’ (14 November 1943). We read these sentiments in the Lazarus stories, and in these fictional contexts Kavan's pacifism makes this a war without the possibility of a positive outcome. There is no right side to the conflict and no hope of victory; we see the human race destroying itself both physically and ideologically.
In 1943 Kavan worked at the Mill Hill Emergency Hospital in London, a military neurosis centre that was an outpost of the Maudsley Hospital during the war. The patients treated at Mill Hill were soldiers suffering from ‘effort syndrome’, known more colloquially as ‘soldiers’ heart’. Their symptoms included fatigue, shortness of breath on exertion and pains in the left side of the chest; the condition had previously been believed to be a form of cardiac disorder. However, these physiological symptoms were without physical cause, and ‘effort syndrome’ was now identified as a psychosomatic disorder – a type of war neurosis. The early method of community therapy practised at Mill Hill offered Kavan a unique opportunity to become directly involved with treatment, and the job allowed her, for a time, to swap the role of psychiatric patient for that of psychiatric worker. Her main task was to interview patients about their history and symptoms, and her letters reveal that she felt an uncharacteristic sympathy for the men with whom she spent time.
Kavan's experiences in working at Mill Hill were clearly a strong influence on the I Am Lazarus stories. ‘Who Has Desired the Sea’, ‘The Blackout’ and ‘Face of My People’ all take a hospitalized soldier suffering from war neurosis as their protagonist, but these are not the shell-shocked figures one might expect from war literature. The trauma of battle is not the sole cause of their psychological damage – childhood experiences and social circumstance play equal parts in their distress; war exacerbates old psychological wounds. Feelings of displacement and homesickness, the awful responsibility for the lives of others and the sight of so much pain and wasted life, these more than violence and bloodshed are the precipitants of the soldiers’ breakdowns. These are some of Kavan's most touching and finely rendered protagonists. Although they are unable to communicate their suffering to those around them, their emotional pain and depression are achingly palpable to the reader.
Cyril Connolly's offer of an assistant's job at the literary journal Horizon, which would allow her more time to write, prompted Kavan to leave Mill Hill after just four months. At Horizon she socialized with London's literary élite including Connolly, Peter Watson and Arthur Koestler, although her drug-taking and psychological instability sometimes made her unpopular. She published articles and literary reviews in the journal, as well as two of the stories in this collection. In ‘The Case of Bill Williams’ Kavan exemplified her ease in slipping across the boundaries between fact and fiction by presenting the character of Private Bill Williams, a fictional patient in a military psychiatric hospital, and persuading the psychiatrist Maxwell Jones and the psychoanalyst Edward Glover to comment on her imaginary character. We see the subversive Bill Williams reappear here in a cameo role in the story ‘Face of My People’. Kavan's interest in anarchistic politics is manifest in this article, and she mounts an attack on the normative standards of both the psychiatric profession and modern society as a whole, predicting that the fate of mankind is in peril unless ‘a tonic epidemic of madness blazes across the world like a comet’ (Horizon, No. 50, February 1944). This is Kavan's solution to the crisis of humanity – universal neurosis. Madness, for her, is not a disease but salvation, a resistance to conformity, and we see these sentiments echoed in the collection.
Kavan's critique of psychiatric confinement and treatments is clear in a number of these stories, especially those portraying the use of psychiatric drugs and prolonged narcosis, which she herself experienced. Thomas Bow, the Lazarus of the title story, has been revived from catatonia but remains institutionalized and isolated, an uncanny automaton acting out a conformity that he does not understand. Like the patients undergoing narcosis in ‘Palace of Sleep’, the treatment has not resurrected him to life; he is the walking dead.
Other stories locate disturbing experiences and emotional trauma outside the institution; ‘All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive’ and ‘A Certain Experience’ evoke the Kafkaesque dystopia of Asylum
There is no trace in these stories of the cultural myth of the Blitz; no collective spirit, no triumph of grit and resilience, no cheery motto of ‘We can take it’. Instead, Kavan's narrators are frightened and isolated figures, and her literary representations reveal the awful apprehension and emotional fragility of London's inhabitants during the Second World War. The air raids of ‘Glorious Boys’ and ‘Our City’ are the most graphic evocations of war here. In ‘Glorious Boys’ the narrator remembers standing in the street after a raid and feeling ‘the anguish of exploded walls, burst roof, torn girders wrenching away’. In ‘Our City’ what is at one moment outside the black windows, far away over the city, is in the next buzzing round the narrator's head, ‘scissoring through my nerves’ and ‘ultimately on top of me’. These nameless narrators feel the devastation wreaked on the city and its buildings as their own. Things play a prominent role in many of the Lazarus stories, and in the fantastic, war-ravaged world of ‘Our City’ they become genuine protagonists. During the raid the clock remains diligent and indefatigable, the bottles on the dressing-table snigger against one another, but the pale-blue carpet never turns a hair. Things conspire and delight in the narrator's fear, but they can also be her allies; her books are ‘honourable and precious’ to her, ‘like members of a suicide squad who do not hesitate to engage the enormously superior enemy, life, on my behalf’. Literature weighs into the battle, a salvation not from death but from life, revealing Kavan's belief in the redemptive qualities of fiction.
Kavan's time working with soldiers suffering from ‘effort syndrome’ can be seen to shape the stories in ways that extend further than her representations of war-shocked men. The intimacy of psychological distress and physiological feelings that characterizes the syndrome surfaces in her representations of the effects of war throughout this collection. Kavan described in a letter to her lover Ian Hamilton her feelings on returning to Blitz-torn London with few possessions and fewer friends:
And then the awful force of inanimate things: a broken umbrella on the steps of a blitzed house, a barrage balloon on the ground in an empty park in the rain. It's very ridiculous that those things should make you feel as if your heart were broken up in small pieces. (14 February 1943)
This letter usefully calls attention to the peculiar status of inanimate objects in Kavan's wartime London – that is, their awful force. In these stories familiar, comfortable and quotidian things become strange and absurd; their poignant incongruity skews into a complicity in the horror. Kavan's heartbreak recalls the symptoms of war neurosis in her patients – for her the evidence of war brings on the symptoms of a metaphorically broken heart, just as war brings on the psychosomatic symptoms of the same thing in ‘effort syndrome’. The strange happenings in Kavan's fictional London manifest the psychological trauma of war.
Kavan's war years were scarred by bouts of ill health, depression and the loss of her son, but they were also some of her most adventurous, creatively prolific and politically engaged. In I Am Lazarus she offers a profound critique of social conformity and represents the experiences of those who are marginalized and dispossessed, inside asylums and out in a hostile world. In her peculiar and fantastic fictional worlds, madness and war initiate a radical dissolution of the boundaries between bodies and emotions, people and things and the city and its inhabitants. Edwin Muir best captured the essence of these stories and their power to move when he wrote that ‘we do not know the world in which these things are happening, and yet we feel their truth, and feel that they are telling us something which could be told in no other way’ (Listener, 5 April 1945).
Anna Kavan Society
I AM LAZARUS
THE English doctor had not particularly wanted to visit the clinic. He distrusted foreigners and their ways, especially their medical ways. He distrusted anything he did not understand. In particular he distrusted this insulin shock treatment there had been such a fuss about. Why should putting imbeciles into a coma make them sane? It didn't make any sense. He did not think and he never had thought that there was a cure for an advanced dementia praecox case like young Thomas Bow.
The English doctor was not a very good doctor. He was middle aged and frustrated and undistinguished and he would never have been consulted by the rich Mrs. Bow if she had not happened to buy a country house near the village in which he practised.
When Mrs. Bow had heard that the doctor was taking his wife for a motor tour on the Continent for their summer holiday she had suggested that he might call in to see her son if he should be anywhere near the clinic. The doctor realized that a suggestion from Mrs. Bow was practically a command. No one understood better than he did the importance of keeping on the right side of a wealthy patient. Besides, it would sound well when he visited his colleagues at home after the trip. He imagined himself drinking a glass of sherry with old Leigh and casually talking about it. ‘Oh yes, I had a look round the Dessones clinic when I was over there. One must keep in touch with modem developments, you know.’
The English doctor thought about these things as he walked with the superintendent in the grounds of the clinic. He also thought of the time nearly a year ago when Mrs. Bow had told him that she had decided to send her son to this continental place someone had told her about. The doctor had opposed the idea. It was a useless expense. It couldn't possibly do any good. But she was determined. Well, she had plenty of money, so what did it matter? A pretty penny it must be costing her too, he thought. The thought gratified him. He glanced at the beautifully kept gardens. The grounds were really magnificent, the watered lawns green in spite of the dry summer, every tree pruned to perfection, the borders brilliant with flowers.
Out of the blue foreign sky the sun lavishly and impartially poured itself upon the two doctors, the handsome grey-haired superintendent with his white coat, the Englishman in his hot looking tweeds.
‘Wonderful place you've got here,’ the visitor said in the ungracious English way that made the remark sound patronizing.
The superintendent spoke English and four other languages with complete fluency. He gracefully signified his appreciation of the other's approval. He had exactly estimated the unimportance of his companion but it was his policy to treat everyone with polite attention. This was one of the secrets of his success.
‘We're very proud of Mr. Bow,’ he said. ‘He's an outstanding example of the success of the treatment. He responded wonderfully well from the start and I consider him a quite remarkable cure. In a few months he should be well enough to go home. We're just keeping him under observation now.’
The English doctor began for the first time to think about Thomas Bow whom he was to see in a few moments and whom he had last seen hopelessly insane. He wondered how he would see him to-day. They walked on. Behind stood the big main building, white like a smart hotel with striped awnings and window boxes bright with scarlet geraniums. In front were the workrooms, the studios, where the patients were employed at various handicrafts.
The superintendent opened the door of a well-lighted room with a long table at which men and women were working. The sun came through the windows and shone on their hands moving over the table. So
‘Quite a hive of industry, you see.’ The superintendent was bland.
The Englishman looked uneasily at the faces and at the hands which seemed to be rising and falling of their own volition in the banded sunshine above the table.
The superintendent stepped up to the table.
‘Good morning, Mr. Bow. I've brought you a visitor.’
A young man of about twenty-two, very neatly dressed in a grey suit, was sitting there with a strip of leather held in his hands. He had a pale, full, rather nice-looking face and dark hair brushed very smooth. His nose was aristocratic. He was well-built, on the big side; a little fleshy, perhaps. He looked squarely at the two doctors out of flat hazel eyes.
‘You remember me, don't you?’ the English visitor said, giving his name.
He held out his hand and after a slight pause the other man put down the piece of leather and shook the hand. He did not smile.
‘Glad to see you looking so fit,’ said the doctor, bringing into action his falsely hearty professional tone. He unobtrusively scrutinized the young man who sat stiffly correct in his place at the sunny table, holding the strip of leather again.
‘What are you making?’ the superintendent asked him.
‘A belt,’ said the patient, and smiled.
He liked making the belt and so it pleased him to have someone notice it and he smiled.
‘It's pigskin,’ he explained. He liked speaking about the belt.
‘Very nice,’ the English doctor said, not quite at ease.
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