Kavan’s place in NZ literary history (by Lawrence Jones)

Otago Daily Times
(30 May 2009): Books 49, rev. of Anna Kavan, Anna Kavan’s New Zealand, ed. and intro. Jennifer Sturm (Random House, 2009).

ANNA KAVAN is probably known in New Zealand, if at all, primarily for her rather unflattering portrait of the country in “New Zealand: Answer to an Inquiry,” published in 1943 in Horizon. This book, the fruit of eight years of research by Jennifer Sturm, has attempted to change that situation, to bring about the recognition of “Kavan’s role in the literary history of New Zealand.”

Sturm has done this by editing and publishing for the first time Kavan’s manuscript “Five Months Further or What I remember about NZ,” together with a full biographical introduction, notes, an account of Kavan’s correspondence with Ian Hamilton (pacifist, conscientious objector and writer of the account of his imprisonment, Till Human Voices Wake Us), and an essay on her as a New Zealand writer. In addition, the Horizon essay is included as an appendix.

Sturm in her introduction and her other commentary attempts to set the record straight about Kavan, especially in her relationship to New Zealand. On the one hand, she is shown as a ‘‘troubled and emotionally abject woman’’—self-absorbed, addicted to heroin (and alcohol), dependent on men in a series of unhappy relationships, depressed and mentally unstable; on the other hand, Sturm from a feminist psychological perspective defends her against the masculinist criticism of such as Frank Sargeson and Denis Glover and presents her as the victim of bad parenting and male prejudice, one who if she could not find a secure home in this world could show herself in her writing to be ‘‘an astute and meticulous recorder of experience, a collector of images and illustrations’’.

Her experience in New Zealand in 1941-42 was ‘‘a Pacific interlude in a turbulent life’’ so that New Zealand ‘‘came to represent a respite and a haven, adding a little colour to an otherwise sombre literary palette’’. Thus there is a case to be made for her as a New Zealand writer, one who had ‘‘more of New Zealand in [her] writing’’ than can be found in the writing of Katherine Mansfield.

Sturm perhaps overstates the case of Kavan as a significant “New Zealand” writer (only a handful of her 20 published books deal with New Zealand), but she has in this book, as C.K. Stead states in the foreword, made available for readers “an essentially ‘New Zealand’ work, previously lost to us—a piece of recovered history.”

Kavan’s manuscript, made up of 18 stories that form a slightly fictionalised autobiographical account of her stay at Torbay with Ian Hamilton and her wartime sea journey from New Zealand to England afterwards, is worth recovering. In her first story Kavan described her strategy as being not to fight history but to ‘‘simply submit and record what happens,” and she does this with sensitivity and insight. She captures the feel of life in Torbay — the sea and sky and shore; the eccentric neighbours; the Maori man with “two faces,” caught between his given Maori and his assumed Pakeha identities; the slow rhythm of communal life; the very different world of Sargeson and the North Shore intelligentsia.

She also captures the feel of the strange, dreamlike yet dangerous journey to England, the ship a self-contained, seemingly timeless world that left her “feeling unequal to facing life apart from [it], just as a person who has been ill a long time shrinks from living without the buffer of his disease.”

Kavan’s account is an attractive piece of impressionistic observation of the self and the worlds which it passes through, not a major New Zealand text but a welcome one, while Sturm’s editorial material adds considerably to our knowledge of an interesting international writer.


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