Short stories addressing the surreal realities of mental illness, from an incredible cult writer often compared to Kafka and Woolf
The tortured life of Anna Kavan brought her some reward in terms of great pieces of art. Her drug addiction bore fruit in the Julia and the Bazooka collection of stories; while this companion volume recalls her experience of the asylum—powerful, haunting works which can be harrowing but are full of sympathy too.
About the Author
Anna Kavan (1901–1968) was a novelist, short story writer, and painter. Her works include Asylum Piece, Ice, and Sleep Has His House. She has been often compared to Djuna Barnes, Franz Kafka, Anaïs Nin, and Virginia Woolf. She was a long-term heroin addict and suffered periodic bouts of mental illness, and these facets of her life feature prominently in her novels and short stories.
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I Am Lazarus
By Anna Kavan
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2013 Victoria Walker
All rights reserved.
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. Some of them were talking. There was a little froth of talk in the room which bubbled away into nothingness as the door opened. A man in an overall was in charge. He had a good humoured face with freckles across his cheeks. He stood behind one of the patients showing him what to do. The different pairs of hands, large and small, rose and fell over the table.
'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.
'Yes,' Thomas Bow said. 'I made another before but it was too narrow. This is a much better one.'
He looked satisfied, sure of being on safe ground. The superintendent patted his shoulder, a few more remarks were exchanged, and the doctors went out again.
'I should never have believed it possible,' the Englishman said with emphasis and repressed indignation. 'Never.'
He felt disapproving and indignant and uncomfortable without quite knowing why. Of course, the boy looks normal enough, he said to himself. He seems quiet and self-controlled. But theFe must be a catch in it somewhere. You can't go against nature like that. It just isn't possible. He thought uneasily of the young inexpressive face and the curious flat look of the eyes.
In the workroom the unsustained talk started again like the twitter of nervous birds in an aviary. Mr. Bow took no notice. He spoke to no one and nobody spoke to him. He methodically went on sewing the pigskin belt with steady, regular movements of his soft hands. It was satisfactory. What had he to do with talking? All around the table were different coloured shapes whose mouths opened and closed and emitted sounds that meant nothing to him. He did not mind either the shapes or the sounds. They were part of the familiar atmosphere of the workroom where he felt comfortable and at ease.
A buzzer set in the wall made a noise like an angry wasp. The patients rose from the table and went away, some singly, some in small groups. Now it was quiet in the workroom. The man in the overall started tidying up. He moved round the table arranging things neatly and putting other things away on the shelves.
Mr. Bow sat on in his place sewing the pigskin belt. He did not want to go out of the workroom where he felt confident and secure. Outside things were different.
The freckled man left him in peace until the whole room was tidy. Then he came up and touched his arm. 'Time to go to dejeuner, Monsieur Bow.' He put out his strong brown hand for the belt and the white hands of Mr. Bow reluctantly yielded it up.
'See, I take great care of it for-you,' the man said kindly. He rolled the belt and wrapped it in a clean cloth and put it away in a special place at the back of one of the shelves.
Thomas Bow watched carefully. When he was sure that the belt was finally and safely disposed of he went out of the workroom. The other man followed him out and shut the door and locked it and dropped the key into his pocket and walked quickly away to his lunch.
Mr. Bow sauntered slowly in a different direction, towards the main building. Once or twice he glanced back at the workroom. Each time he saw the door still blankly closed against him and he sighed. He walked rather stiffly on a path that crossed a park-like expanse of ground. The grass here had not been cut but grew up tall between clumps of fine trees. Moon daisies grew in the grass. They had yellow eyes that squinted craftily through the grass.
The grass grew up tall and feathery. The grasses whispered together and turned their heads in the breeze. Mr. Bow touched the heads of the grasses with his soft fingers. The grasses responded felinely; like thin sensitive cats they arched themselves to receive the caress of his finger -tips. The young man stood still and picked one of the grasses and brushed it against his cheek. It touched his skin lightly, prickingly, like the electrified fur of a cat in a thunderstorm. He picked several more grasses.
Suddenly he was aware of a presence. The gym mistress cycling along the path had approached noiselessly. She skipped neatly off her bicycle. Like everyone else employed in the clinic she was big and healthy and strong. The sun-bleached hairs on her muscular brown arms glittered like gold. At the gymnastic class she often spoke sharply to Mr. Bow because he was clumsy and slow. Now, however, she spoke in a friendly way.
'Why, Mr. Bow, what are you doing with those?'
The young man laboriously assembled words in his head. He wished to explain that the grasses turned into soft-furred cats and arched their backs under his hand.
The gym mistress did not listen to what he was trying to say. It was not the fashion at the clinic to listen to what patients said. There was not enough time. Instead, she put out her hand. Steadying the bicycle with her left hand, she stretched out her right and took the grasses away from Thomas Bow and threw them down on the path. A few seeds had stuck to his jacket and she brushed them off briskly.
'You don't want those,' she said. 'Nobody picks grass. We could pick some flowers though, if you like.' She reached down for a handful of moon daisies and offered them to him. 'There, aren't they pretty?' She was very good-natured about it.
Mr. Bow unwillingly accepted the flowers.
'Come on,' she said. 'You'll be late for lunch if you don't hurry.'
She walked strongly beside him wheeling the bicycle. Some part of the mechanism accompanied them with a soft whirring noise.
The young man glanced with dislike at the daisies he carried. Their yellow eyes had a base and knowing expression. When the gym mistress was not looking he dropped them and trod on them with his brown shoe.
Inside the clinic he went into the washroom. Several coats hung on the wall. Thomas Bow avoided the wash-basins nearest the coats. The hanging shapes filled him with deep suspicion. He watched them out of the ends of his eyes to make sure they did not get up to anything while he was washing his hands. Just as he was ready to go someone else came into the cloakroom, an Italian two or three years younger than he. He frowned and hurried towards the door. He did not like Sanguinelli who had eyes like black minnows that darted about in his face. Sanguinelli's face was never at rest; the muscles jumped and twitched like mice caught in traps under the skin.
'Goo-ood morn-eeng,' he said. He grinned. He only knew a few English words.
The other man did not answer-but hastily opened the door. The Italian arrested him with a shrill whistle and pointed mockingly towards the Englishman's lower middle. Mr. Bow looked down guiltily. Sometimes he forgot to do up his fly buttons and when this happened one of the doctors would reprimand him. The buttons were fastened now. Sanguinelli let out a hoot of derision.
In the passage a nurse was going towards the door that led to the staff-rooms. The door-female situation was one with which Thomas Bow was quite familiar. The doctors had impressed upon him what he must do whenever it presented itself. He stepped forward politely and opened the door. He smiled. It pleased him that he knew so well what to do. The nurse smiled back. She thanked him and said how well he was looking. Then she went through the door and shut it behind her.
'Flirting with Mr. Bow?' said her friend who was passing by.
'I'm sorry for him,' said the nurse. 'He does try so hard to do what he's told. He's a nice-looking boy, too. It's a shame.'
'He gives me the creeps,' said the other girl. 'Like an automaton walking about. Like a robot. When you think what he was like when he first came it's uncanny. And he always looks so worried.
I believe he'd have been happier left as he was. What d'you suppose goes on inside his head?'
'Heaven knows,' said her friend.
Mr. Bow was sorry that there were no more doors which he could open for ladies to pass through. He went into the hall where most of the patients were already assembled. He sat down on a hard chair in the background. He was relieved because nobody spoke to him. There was the same sort of noise here as there had been in the workroom, the sort of sporadic twittering that might come from a collection of timid cage -birds. The young man looked round cautiously. The pretty dresses of the women gave him pleasure but he was not at ease. At any moment something might pounce on him, something for which he did not have the formula. He waited tensely, on enemy ground.
The gong sounded, the doctor on duty appeared, and the patients flocked after him into the dining-hall. The table places were altered at every meal and each patient's place was marked with a card on which was written his name. The waiters, like well-trained sheepdogs, skilfully manoeuvred the patients towards their chairs. Mr. Bow was glad to find that he was not to sit beside one of the so called hostesses who were spaced round the big table to watch what went on. The patients stood at their places, waiting for the doctor to sit down. The doctor glanced round to make sure that everybody had found the right seat. Then he sat down. It was the signal. The room was full of loud scrapings as the patients pulled back their chairs.
Mr. Bow prepared to sit down with the rest but there was an obstruction; something impeded him. Sanguinelli had slipped quick as an eel between him and his chair. The Italian's eyes, full of malice, writhed like insane tadpoles from side to side.
'Excuse – my place.' He pointed towards the name card with a thin yellow finger.
'No,' said Thomas Bow, frowning. He was angry. He was tormerited and persecuted and he would not endure it. He snatched at the back of the chair but Sanguinelli was seated in it already. Everyone was sitting down now except the waiters and Mr. Bow.'
A hostess two places away took charge of the situation. Her hair went in hard, regular waves.
'This is your seat here, Mr. Bow,' she said amicably. There was a chair empty beside her.
'No,' said the Englishman slowly. 'No,' He frowned deeply. 'My card is here.'
The Italian burst out laughing. He triumphantly displayed the card in front of him on which was written the name Sanguinelli. The hostess looked down and saw that the card next to her was indeed the name card of Thomas Bow.
'Come along, Mr. Bow. You've made a mistake,' she said in a firmer tone.
The young man recognized the firmness that was in her voice. He moved obediently and sat down in the empty chair and spread his table napkin widely over his knees as he had been shown how to do. He ate what was put before him, looking carefully at his neighbours to make sure that he used the same knives and forks as they did. All the time he was eating he felt angry and sad and confused. Something had happened which he did not understand. The card with his name had been there, he had seen it distinctly, but when he looked at it again Sanguinelli's name had appeared. Sanguinelli had triumphed over him in front of the whole room and it was unfair. He had heard the laughter go round the table. His heart was full of sorrow and shame. From time to time the Italian boy leaned forward and grinned at him from the stolen place, triumphant because no one had seen him exchange the cards.
After lunch the patients went out into the grounds. Games were organized. Mr. Bow was directed to take part in the simplest game which consisted in throwing large wooden balls at a smaller ball some distance off. Mr. Bow did not understand the game. He did not understand why some of the balls were brown and some black or why one player threw before another. He stood with the large shiny ball in his hand, waiting till he should be told to throw. He was not thinking about the game. He was thinking about the pigskin belt he was making. It seemed to him that the belt was his friend. Only the feel of the cool leather could assuage the hurt and the anger inside his heart.
The time came for him to make his throw. He held the ball cupped in his hand as he saw the other players do. He aimed conscientiously at the little ball lying out on the grass but his ball disobeyed him and flew far beyond. There was laughter. 'Champion! Champion!' jeered the Italian voice.
Thomas Bow wandered away from the game. No one noticed him going. He wandered towards the workroom. He held out his hands to the grasses, but now they did not caress his skin like soft fur but pricked sharp as needles. As he walked he hoped very much that the workroom door would be open. It was shut, and blinds were drawn over the windows.
The young man sat down on the step in front of the workroom door. He looked bewildered and worried and very sad. He did not know what to do. It troubled him that the belt was locked away in there. He felt the belt lonely for him as he was for it. He glanced up. A cloud had passed over the sun. He would have liked to share his worry with the cloud but the cloud would not stay. He sat disconsolate on the step staring flatly ahead.
Presently he heard voices and two men came round the corner of the building. One of them was a man who visited the clinic periodically to do X-ray work. The other was a doctor with black hair and a bluish chin. Mr. Bow was afraid of the doctor who for many months had put him into a hideous sleep with his poisoned needle.
Excerpted from I Am Lazarus by Anna Kavan. Copyright © 2013 Victoria Walker. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
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,
What People are Saying About This
"Anna Kavan explored the nocturnal worlds of our dreams, fantasies, imagination, and nonreason . . . Such an exploration takes greater courage and skill in expression." —Anaïs Nin
"The best introduction to Kavan." - Harper's Magazine