I AM LAZARUS by Anna Kavan (BOOK REVIEW)
“What a fiendishly efficient machine war is, she thought, remembering him as he was and the writing, a bit immature but sensitive and direct and with much integrity. Now he would never write the things he might have written when he had learned to write well enough. It destroyed very thoroughly this war machine, this incinerator of individuality and talent and life, forgint the sensitive and creative young into the steel fabric of death, turning them out by the million, the murder men, members of Murder Inc., the big firm, the global organisation. Suddenly, she felt acutely angry with him.”
Anna Kavan worked through her incarceration at a Swedish clinic following her nervous breakdown in her short story collection Asylum Piece (1940). Five years later, her short story collection I Am Lazarus (1945) again deals with mental health and its treatment by the medical establishment, but in the intervening years Kavan had worked with soldiers suffering from war neurosis at the Mill Hill Emergency Hospital in London. The stories in I Am Lazarus are seeped in the trauma of World War II, both that of the soldiers returned from the front and of the civilians who lived through the bombings. Kavan uses her oblique approach to the short story and aspects of the Weird to capture the dislocation experienced by the war’s survivors. I Am Lazarus is another incredible example of Kavan’s singular talents and her ability to convey feelings of unease, fear and despair.
The collection opens with the title story, which perfectly sets the tone. Kavan puts us in the perspective of Thomas Bow, a soldier who has undergone intense treatment with psychiatric drugs and prolonged narcosis to help him deal with his trauma from the war. The treatment may have artificially resurrected Bow from his trauma-induced state, but at the price of leaving him lonely and isolated, living out a life of routine and conformity that he can’t understand. Return from the dead is an ambiguous blessing at best. Kavan returns to this theme throughout the collection, offering intimate and empathetic portraits of soldiers suffering psychological trauma, both from experiencing the horrors of war and the restrictions placed on them by a society they now understand views them as expendable. The protagonist in ‘Who Has Desired The Sea’ has only partially returned home, suffering from continual flashbacks to a beachside battle which ultimately consumes his waking life. The protagonist of ‘The Blackout’ has put up a psychological block to prevent him from facing a horrifying truth, and in ‘The Face Of My People’ a soldier believes the stone that fell on him during combat is still physically embedded in his body. These stories show Kavan’s empathy for the traumatised soldiers, her narrative forcing the reader to share their perspective. The stories draw parallels between Kavan’s own incarceration and treatment with drugs and that of the soldiers, all brought vividly to life by Kavan’s blurring of dream and reality. ‘Palace Of Sleep’ makes the connection explicit, a female patient in an asylum undergoing prolonged narcosis treatment similar to that undergone by Bow in ‘I Am Lazarus’.
Other stories echo the paranoid Kafka-esque horrors of the weirder parts of Asylum Piece. ‘The Heavenly Adversary’ describes a woman who has been abandoned by her lover losing her grip on reality. ‘All Kinds Of Grief Shall Arrive’ focuses on a woman’s failed attempts to leave the country on a summons which is continually blocked by increasingly obscure and malevolent bureaucracy. ‘Now I Know Where My Place Is’ sees a woman unwittingly trapped in a hotel she cannot escape from. ‘The Picture’ starts off as an ordinary interaction between a woman and the man who is framing her picture for her at his shop, and quickly collapses into a ghastly nightmare. ‘The Brother’ tells the tale of two brothers, one sickly, one healthy, each reflections of each other, whose tragic fate is mysteriously linked. Yet even as these stories echo the concerns and the pervading sense of the uncanny that characterise much of Asylum Piece, here there is an added edge of malevolence. Living during wartime has destabilised reality. Objects and people can’t be trusted, not just in and of themselves, but even in terms of their own permanence. Interactions slide from being friendly to frustrating to antagonistic, the mechanisms of bureaucracy are revealed to be actively malignant. In ‘The Gannets’, the unnamed narrator remarks on seeing a flock of birds viciously attack and dismember a child,
“How did all this atrocious cruelty ever get into the world, that’s what I often wonder. No one created it, no one invoked it: and no saint, no genius, no dictator, no millionaire, no, not God’s son himself, is able to drive it out.”
It is this casual cruelty of the world that comes out so strongly in I Am Lazarus. The world is a dangerous, uncaring and malevolent place, to the extent that the reaction of Kavan’s protagonists to go insane winds up seeming a reasonable response.
Two stories stand out as the most powerful in the collection, stunning examples of Kavan at her devastating best. ‘Glorious Boys’ explores the perspective of a civilian, a woman who is able to observe all the insanity of war. In the end, all war is revealed to be a destructive form of lunacy, a contagious madness that consumes people’s lives and leaves nothing but ruin and destruction in its wake. The story mourns not just for the lives cut short by violence, but for those misdirected, the lives of happiness and fulfilment lost to the ever-hungry war machine. The final story in the collection, ‘Our City’, is an absolute masterpiece that sees Kavan inventing the New Weird fifty years early. The story vividly and disconcertingly imagines a city under attack as a living, breathing, metamorphosing entity, a being with agency and character that at the same time is the narrator’s Kafka-esque prison. The narrator sees the city “at one time a judge, at another a trap, at another an octopus.” The hyperreality of the modern city is contrasted with the lack of agency of its human inhabitants, subject to the violence of war and the physical and social restrictions of society. In a world in which being human is inconsequential, in which people alive today will be dead tomorrow, the inanimate streets and buildings become imbued with a solidity and agency which people lack; even the narrator’s books in her room become friends and guardians standing against the implacable enemy.
I Am Lazarus is a powerful, disconcerting masterpiece. Like Asylum Piece before it, it transmutes experienced human misery into the strange and the uncanny, to better communicate to its readers the strength and horror of these emotions. It demonstrates the speed at which Kavan’s writing was developing, and the lengths to which her influence extends into the heart of interesting and challenging genre fiction.