Ben Winch's Reviews > Julia and the Bazooka

Julia and the Bazooka by Anna Kavan
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really liked it
bookshelves: english, anglo, short-stories

Anna Kavan - my Anna Kavan - is the hallucinatory heir to Kafka, and like Kafka she conjures her most vivid effects in small spaces, sheltered from the demands of plot and characterisation. I say 'my' Anna Kavan because I'm well aware that I have focused on her short stories (these and Asylum Piece) excessively, and that beyond three fairly desultory stabs at Ice (her most famous novel) and a glance at Sleep Has His House, I know little of her work as a novelist. That said, everything that's good in Ice - the otherworldliness, the sense of place, the numbed visionary exaltation - is present in Julia and the Bazooka, but because the stories are so personal they seem to have weight where the novel has none. Take 'A Visit':
One hot night a leopard came into my room and lay down on the bed beside me. I was half asleep, and did not realise at first that it was a leopard. I seemed to be dreaming the sound of some large, soft-footed creature padding quietly through the house, the doors of which were wide open because of the intense heat. It was almost too dark to see the lithe, muscular shape coming into my room, treading softly on velvet paws, coming straight to the bed without hesitation, as if perfectly familiar with its position. A light spring, then warm breath on my arm, on my neck and shoulder, as the visitor sniffed me before lying down.

As in Ice, the setting is alien: a house 'made of palm-leaf matting, stretched over stout bamboos' amid a jungle in which 'the pattern of (the leopard's) protective spots blended so perfectly with the pattern of sun-spots through savage branches.' But the figure of the leopard, though enigmatic, is three-dimensional: though he doesn't speak he listens, and looks back at the narrator 'thoughtfully with his large, lustrous eyes'; during the day he hunts in the jungle, but never far from the house, and invariably he turns his head when he senses the narrator is watching; at one point he is on the beach, only just visible from the house, and gazing out to sea.
Sometimes he would suddenly come indoors, and silently go all through the house at a quick trot, unexpectedly entering one room after another, before he left again with the same mysterious abruptness. At other times he would lie just inside or outside, with his head resting on the threshold, motionless except for his watchful moving eyes, and the twitching of his sensitive nostrils in response to stimuli which my less acute senses could not perceive.

One night it starts raining, and next morning as the narrator is dressing the leopard leans against her for a moment, as if to suggest that she should follow him. She goes outside without a coat and follows through rain and bog until, soaked and shivering, she refuses to go any further. 'Then the beautiful head turned away, the muscles slid and bunched beneath the patterned fur, as he launched himself in a tremendous leap through the shining curtain of raindrops, and was immediately hidden from sight.' That night he doesn't come back. Over the next months as the seasons change the narrator makes a mosaic on the wall out of seashells: 'a noble animal with a fine spotted coat and a human head gazing proudly from the centre of the design'. One day, collecting shells on the beach, she sees 'out to sea, a young man coming towards the land, standing upright on the crest of a huge breaker'...
It was at this moment, when I was dazzled by the violent colours and the terrific glare, that the young man... reappeared like a mirage, the red of his flying cloak vibrating against the vivid emerald-green waves. This time, through a haze of shimmering brilliance, I saw that the leopard was with him, majestic and larger than life, moving as gracefully as if the waves were solid glass... I hurried towards the edge of the water, then suddenly stopped, intimidated by the colossal size of the giant rollers towering over me... Their exploding roar deafened me, I was half-blinded by the salt spray, the whole beach was a swirling, glittering dazzle, in which I lost sight of the two sea-borne shapes.

She never sees the leopard again.
But, very occasionally he still enters my dreams, which disturbs me and makes me feel restless and sad. Although I never remember the dreams when I wake, for days afterwards they seem to weigh me down with the obscure bitterness of a loss which should have been prevented, and for which I am myself to blame.

Sad, huh? And maybe you wouldn't think it personal, if so many of the other stories didn't seem to connect with it, from random directions, without leopards or jungles but as if they all were dreams or fragments of dreams or inspired by dreams and reconstructed in waking life by a dreamer who sees no need to connect them to the earthly sources of their inspiration. In Asylum Piece Kavan was more straightforward; the tone, the voice, the menace was Kafka, but the journey from cold lonely London through the labyrinth of vague requests and disappointments to the asylum in mainland Europe was virtual autobiography. That book, though relentless, was powerful. But the stories in Julia... are, for all their disappointments, wonderful, and singularly hers. The heroin-addicted narrator gets in a car in the fog and, overcome with directionless rage, runs someone down at an intersection. Or she's a racing driver, or fleeing to the mountains, or back in the now snake-infested jungle, with a lover who must be thwarted or seduced. Through it all persists that flattened effect of the mosaic, but animated by strong, direct emotion, so that whatever her subject we feel we are close to the real Anna Kavan.

True, at times the flatness is overwhelming, and she'll give way to sudden, muted histrionics, as though to fight numbness by invoking grief. She's a strange author, both haunted and pragmatic, her prose at times so direct it seems artless. But, when it works, that's her strength. She's a natural. And when she's on there are few better mediums. It may not be the fever dream of 'A Country Doctor', but it glows, this writing, even from behind its wall of ice.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 22, 2012 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye This review glows.

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Thank you, sir. I had a bit of help from Anna and her leopard.

message 3: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye That fantasy element really appealed to me.

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