I once listened to a record of William Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch. “I'm looking for a fix in Pleasantville, Iowa," he rasped. Much laughter all around. My eyes widened. Marijuana: okay. Heroin: no. I never forgot the time a friend on LSD forgot how to read and we took care of her until she was sane enough to return home. Insanity was only postponed: a few years later she ended up in a mental hospital. Did the LSD do it? And unfortunately those were the days when psychiatric treatment consisted of a regimen of drugs that resulted in personality change. She seemed so somehow slow and thickened when she came out. And so I have never read William Burroughs. Get real, I always think. But perhaps this is the year I overcome my prejudices and read these "drug" classics.
Some drug literature, however, fascinates me. Who can be consistent? [LEFT: detail of self-portrait of ANNA KAVAN] Anna Kavan, an English writer whose heroin addiction shaped her fiction, is known as a “cult” novelist (a phrase I recently applied it to Winifred Holtby’s socialist novels, just showing you can apply it to anything). Her most famous novel, ice, is sometimes considered science fiction, other times a surreal allegory. “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” says the narrator of Ice. This allegorical world is on the brink of an icy nuclear war and the narrator is searching for a mysterious, fragile girl who has eluded both him and her husband (who thinks she is in need of psychiatric treatmen). It's fairly obvious that Kavan is the fragile girl (who charmed men but rejected them in favor of heroin). A few years ago I considered writing a paper on Kavan, but my notes led me nowhere. I should have concentrated on one book (Julia and the Bazooka, a book of short stories, is my favorite), but I wrote notes on all of them. Too much material for a single paper.
There is a biography of Kavan. And Rhys Davies, a Welsh writer and friend of Kavan, wrote a novel based on her life. He wrote that she once threw a chicken at him during a dinner party, but she also worked as an interior decorator and could be charming.
It would have to be inconvenient to be a friend of an addict. I mean how good a friend could they be? Chickens thrown at us at dinner? But I love Kavan’s writing: she is as good as (or better than) Jean Rhys, only completely unknown in this country.