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Asylum Piece - Spine 2014 > Discussion - Week Two - Asylum Piece - Second five stories

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
This discussion covers the second five stories, p. 103 – 212 and Conclusions/Book as a whole


An Unpleasant Reminder, p. 103 – Doubles troubles, and a cruel prank

Machines in the Head, p. 113 – Just another cog in the wheel

Asylum Piece, p. 121 – Life on the estate

The End in Sight, p. 197 – Sentence is passed

There Is No End, p. 207 – “If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there”

And so we reach the end, if there is an end. A powerful journey, understated in style, but terrifying in its implications.


Anna Kavan had a long struggle with mental illness. Some of what we’ve read here can be considered autobiographical. Does knowing that these stories spring from direct experience alter our reception of the stories? What if we didn’t know the author’s history? How might that change our view of this book?


Whitney | 326 comments So glad that you chose to include Anna Kavan in this year's choices. I am now on a mission to find all of her books.

I'm fairly certain that, even without knowing her history, it would have been obvious that these were very personal stories about clinical depression and mental illness. I can't think of any other books I've read that better express the complete prison that mental illness creates, both literally and metaphorically. (At least, standard disclaimer, as I understand it.)

One recurring theme was the indifferent authority figure as a type of jailer, usually an older male who casually condemns the narrator to continued misery. Not too surprising considering the times in which these were written. Another, even more heartbreaking, theme is how the narrator frequently considers herself to blame for the condemnation or indifference of others, the "I belong in the fog" of the second story.

I plan to add some more comments as they relate to the individual stories. I hope more people will show up here. Kavan's writings are more than deserving of the rediscovery they seem to be undergoing.


message 3: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Whitney wrote: "One recurring theme was the indifferent authority figure as a type of jailer, usually an older male who casually condemns the narrator to continued misery. Not too surprising considering the times in which these were written. Another, even more heartbreaking, theme is how the narrator frequently considers herself to blame for the condemnation or indifference of others, the "I belong in the fog" of the second story...."

I couldn't help thinking about the doctor in The Yellow Wallpaper, as well as the two doctors in Mrs. Dalloway and their attitude towards Septimus - and naturally Woolf's own relationship with mental illness and breakdown. What I like about Kavan, and what is most impressive, is that she writes pretty directly from inside her own experience of insanity/incarceration, whereas Woolf writes through the proxy of Septimus.


Larry (larst) | 45 comments Jim wrote: "Whitney wrote: "One recurring theme was the indifferent authority figure as a type of jailer, usually an older male who casually condemns the narrator to continued misery. Not too surprising consid..."

I thought of the doctors in Mrs. Dalloway as well. I think I definitely would have thought about these stories differently if I didn't read some background on Kavan.
I also knew Kesey had worked in a State Hospital as opposed to being a patient when I read Cuckoo's nest.
Re-linking my review, can't think of too much more to add, and ready to move onto Ice.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


Jonathan | 108 comments An Unpleasant Reminder was an excellent story, I wasn't expecting the humour of the ending...a very grim humour. The sort of thing a Gestapo officer might find funny.

After the early stories in the collection, the Asylum Piece stories came across as quite 'normal' and yes, possibly autobiographical. The early stories were menacing and ambiguous about the nature of the threat. In Asylum Piece the threats and fears are more real. The characters are confused over their incarceration and have a natural desire to be free.

The second Asylum Piece story starts with the line 'I had a friend, a lover. Or did I dream it?', in the middle is the line 'I am forgotten and lost' and the story ends with the line, 'I had a friend, a lover. It was a dream.' This story almost reads like a diary entry, but it's powerful nonetheless.

I'm looking forward to Ice.


Peter | 6 comments I read Ice shortly after it was published, when Anna Kavan was "rediscovered" and it became a minor cult classic. I think I was vaguely aware that she had written other books - but you never saw them in bookshops or libraries, only Ice. I was therefore quite surprised to find a copy of Asylum Piece a few years ago, simply because I'd got it in my mind that she was a one-book author. The internet makes this kind of discovery hugely easier.

Anyway, this seemed an opportunity to read the book - and I am suitably impressed. I like Anna Kavan's spare prose style. It often seems simple, even prosaic, but then an odd choice of word or phrasing catches your attention. Somebody suggested it reads like a translation. There's a touch of the alien about it.

The Peter Owen edition that I picked up is intriguing. He was Anna Kavan's publisher and knew her well - but on the back cover Asylum Piece is referred to as a collection of short stories in one paragraph and as a novel in another. I assumed the first when I started reading, but the latter by the time I'd finished. Makes a difference, because short story collections are typically edited by publishers who may well select the stories and arrange them. But surely Asylum Piece is a unitary work, published as written. Anyone know for sure?


Peter | 6 comments ...and here, for what it's worth, is a review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


message 8: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Peter wrote: "The Peter Owen edition that I picked up is intriguing. He was Anna Kavan's publisher and knew her well - but on the back cover Asylum Piece is referred to as a collection of short stories in one paragraph and as a novel in another. I assumed the first when I started reading, but the latter by the time I'd finished. Makes a difference, because short story collections are typically edited by publishers who may well select the stories and arrange them. But surely Asylum Piece is a unitary work, published as written. Anyone know for sure?."

I don't know for sure, but given that it was when she had recently been released from the asylum, and that she had published several novels before, she surely would have worked in concert with the publisher to determine the order.

Your experience agrees with mine in that it seems like short stories at first, but then quickly turns into a novel. I suspect part of the effect is that the novella-length of the story "Asylum Piece" definitely has the sense of being a novel, and so maybe we retrospectively see the whole book as more novel-like. Or something like that...

I'm curious now to read Let Me Alone which was her second novel written as Helen Ferguson, and is the source for the name Anna Kavan. I wonder if there is something about that character that she identified with enough to change her name.


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