Asylum Piece and Other Short Stories by Anna Kavan (Part 1)

I would like to write more with respect to how mental health is portrayed in literature, to read about how mental health is portrayed. There are many books out there that look at it to a certain degree. I do not know how these are going to be presented by myself and I suspect a bit of myself will come out.

Let me introduce you to if you have not heard of it already to something special. Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) by Anna Kavan.

Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) is a collection of short stories that interconnect to a certain degree and describes the thoughts and feelings of someone who is suffering from mental health problems along with their time in a mental health clinic an old school asylum. Somewhere in Switzerland in these stories.

Within these collection of stories we read what the narrator thinks, how they thought at the time. It is plainly and beautifully written. The narrator never wholly describes what her mental illnesses are but if you’ve ever experienced them yourself you may well recognise how the narrator is thinking. There is of course the fact that we are only getting the narrator’s side of the story. We do not know what is happening outside of what the narrator tells us.

To anyone who has had problems with respect to your mental health, you will recognise the suffering, the worrying, the overthinking and the low moods. You will be able to recognise not being able to think straight, to see straight, the angers and the frustrations.

Without going in too much detail and repeating the stories again I would like to describe to you what each story shows us. See these as brief summaries about them if you will. I will do a separate post on Asylum Piece and the two short stories that come after it.

The Birthmark

The narrator talks about a girl she meets in boarding school who seemed different and somewhat different to the other pupils. Years later the narrator thinks she see the old acquaintance after taking wrong way at a tourist spot and seeing her in what she thinks to be an asylum, recognising her by her unique birthmark she was made aware of in school. After seeing this she is escorted away by guards.

Going Up in the World

Here the narrator tells us about meeting some patrons to ask for help saying she wants to share in their sunshine and warmth, she tells us of how cold and lonely she is in the fog as she goes up to see them living high up in what she sees as the light. Her patrons are reluctant making reference to her past deeds with them but the narrator is desperate, she descends back to the fog, the patrons ungrateful of her modest gift to them. We do not have much detail other than what is given. We are also presented with the darkness and cold when compared to the light and warmth.

The Enemy

The narrator talks about an unknown enemy that wants to do them wrong. This describing what many of us with mental health problems feel. That there is someone out there who hates us, who wants to do us wrong, they win when we feel bad, when we lose our tempers for that is what they want from us. We can feel them inside our thoughts, almost like they are breathing on the back of our necks.

A Changed Situation

This is an interesting short story in that the narrator discusses the house they currently live in before leaving it. A well written mediation on how our environments can affect us. How a space can dominate us (we are learning this now with respect to the current lockdowns, especially in the UK)

The Birds

The Birds makes reference to that unknown enemy described. It also has a slight nod to Franz Kafka’s The Trial with respect to that they feel victim to some senseless injustice, to a frightening uncertainty. In this story the narrator is fascinated by the birds outside ignoring the environment around her. Within The Birds the narrator analyses their own mental health to some degree.

Airing a Grievance

The narrator is not sure about her official adviser for her condition and the fact that she has to travel. The narrator’s overthinking comes into play and we witness the narrator having to put up with a certain degree of bureaucracy as well as her self doubts.

Just Another Failure

Here we are made aware of the narrator’s relationship with a certain D as well as her overthinking

and mental thoughts come into play. The narrator has a difficulty with living.

The Summons

In the Summons the narrator meets up with an old friend. Their intentions are not made clear to us at first. We know that they are a close friend and that they are to meet for a date of sorts. The narrator notices R’s ugliness and is made to feel uncomfortable by a waiter. It is later revealed that this is where the narrator is to be taken away by what we would suggest is ‘the men in white coats’ and there is the possibility that R was involved with this. Again, there is the feel of Kafka in this story.

At Night

The narrator we would assume is in an asylum. The narrator is thinking over her current situation, as far as she is concerned she has done nothing wrong, as she is not too happy about her situation. She is upset at her loss of freedom acknowledging the fact that she has to put up with it.

An Unpleasant Reminder

To say the reminder is unpleasant is an understatement. A cruel trick is played on our narrator. She is made aware of the mortality of her life and who have control over her whilst she is at the asylum.

Machines In The Head

Anyone out there who have suffered with their mental health would be aware of how it affects them when they are trying to sleep. The narrator’s anxieties take over her in a way that she has trouble controlling it. She is battle with her mind, she is in battle with the machine in her head.

These stories show us a woman who is intelligent and yet at the same time held back by what plagues her mind. She is a good woman and her intentions are honest and true, her hearts in the right place. As stated previously stated we only know her as she is described herself to us. We know that she thinks people are out to get her and to some extent she may well be seem justified which only adds to her paranoia. How the narrator thinks seems wholly justified to her. For example she is repulsed by an ugly waiter despite the fact that he does not appear to have any malicious intent.

These stories are so beautifully yet simply written. The thoughts of the narrator appeared strong in my mind’s eye. The only thing that irked me was that I was able to recognise the frustrations and mental frustrations. I have sensed the enemy coming after me, I have had the sleepless nights and lost all hope. I haven’t (touch wood) had to be committed to a mental health hospital but many people have with varying experiences. Anna Kavan of course was writing in a time when knowledge an attitudes of mental health are different to what they are now (having been written in 1940). Hopefully more will be understood in the future and even out attitudes today may well be seen as dated.

The Triumph by Clarice Lispector

This is from Clarice’s First Stories.

The first in the complete volume of Clarice’s short stories is The Triumph. We start with the type of prose we would come to expect from Clarice:

The clock strikes nine. A loud, sonorous peal, followed by gentle chiming, an echo. Then silence.

In Triumph we wake to Luisa. As we get to read about the detail of what is going at that time with the clock just striking nine we get to read about Luisa’s afternoon before. She is aware of the silence when there would otherwise be noise. The afternoon before, her partner leaves, saying he despises her. We spend the next morning with poor Luisa going over what had happened before and now that the morning is different she sees things in a different light. At first Luisa cannot acknowledge that he is gone only finding a note he has written about mediocrity and some form of frustration. Luisa then realises however, that she is the better person and eventually that her partner will come back.

This first of the short stories leave us wanting to know more about Luisa and her situation. We know that she lived in an isolated area, that her partner Jorge left with his servant and that he used to travel abroad. Could it be that Jorge can no longer go abroad and is now a bit fed up of his current situation? Could it be that he is just a bit of a jerk and was just being mean? Why would Luisa want him back? These are some of the questions that I though after reading this story.

Luisa’s triumph is that she has not let Jorge leaving get to her. She realises it is a perfect day. If anything it is Jorge is the one who has lost. Without knowing the wider facts, she is not at fault and she keep her head held up high. That is always something you should make an ex spouse be aware of. That you are not at loss and Luisa has realised this.

Complete Novels by Clarice Lispector (translated by Katrina Dixon)

I have looked at Clarice’s previous works most notably her novels and now I will be looking at her short stories. With Clarice’s novels, Clarice wants your undivided attention when you read them, she wants to suck you into the worlds she creates. In her short stories, we go straight to the point of the stories for want of a better word with her use of language and imagery. As mentioned by Benjamin Moser in his autobiography of Clarice people such as the poet Elizabeth Bishop preferred her short stories saying;

‘Her 2 or 3 novels I don’t think are so good but her short stories are almost like the stories I’ve always thought should be written about Brazil – Tcheckovian, slightly sinister and fantastic’

If you want to introduce people to the works of Clarice Lispector I would usually recommend Near to the Wild Heart but I would also introduce you ti her short stories as they can slowly break you in to Clarice’s style and what she is all about.

Penguin Edition of the Complete Stories

I will be using the Penguin edition of Complete Stories (2015) when looking at her short stories, the edition contains 85 of them. We will be looking at the stories written from her early years and the stories written throughout her life. Throughout these stories we will see Clarice playing with ideas and we will see stories that had an influence on her novels also. The majority of the stories look at the role of women in Brazil. These characters are just people you would meet in your own lives, housewives children, office workers for example.

As I like at the stories I will write in more detail at these stories individually and I would also like to look at if there is anything else we can learn or understand from each of them.

I will also be starting with the first short story in the Complete Stories edition with The Triumph.

Lord Timothy Dexter and  A Pickle For The Knowing Ones Or Plain Truths in Homespun Dress.

Ok firstly, I do apologise for this but I wanted to show you what reading Lord Timothy Dexter’s work was like which is why everything is written in the way it is. You’re the lucky one I somehow managed to read the whole thing, I don’t think I’m losing it just yet….

Lord Timothy Dexter wos a rich ecantric man from the younited States in Newburyport masachoosis

The legasy of Lord Timothy Dexter can be fond in his col lection of wrytings in A Pickle For The Knowing Ones Or Plain Truths In Homespun Dress This peecooliar collaction off wrytings are peecooliar for a number of resons Its riddled with spalling and grammer mustakes and there is no respact for punctuation The copey I have is only 36 pages however as you woud expect it is hard to reed

I honastly thourt at first that Lord Timothy Dexter was a made up character by the pooblisher but if you go to Newburyport in the Yoonited stated where he was from you can acksually find the cemetery where he was bereed along with his wife and his son (I’ll add where I found that in the comments) Incidentally what the date of death said by the editor and what is said on Dexter’s head stone do not match needing off bi a few dayss

Dexter

We reed of a man who maid a lot of monee from what wood first seem like ridiculus trades but turned out to be profitable and maed him rich We read about his thots in general we leen abot who is family were and his thoughts on the self and his local area of Newbury Lord Timothy Dexter didnt live in the modern age if he did he would have just written a blog insted he obtayned the services of a printer publisher of which he does reference in his wryting We are maid aware that he had no fourmal educaycion

Fortoonately for the reeder for enything that is not clear such as the bad spalling has foot notes by the aditor teling you what it is ment to say as well as a brief introoduction betwen each saction abot wat Dexter is going on abot

I was also amoosed bi the fact that in his 1st edition of this wryting he didnt includ any punctuation so in the reprint he aded an appendix and added all the stops there and that the reeder may peper and solt the work as they plese

The hole tex is sumthin of note that if enyfing is amoosing and bizarre

——–

In honor of the man I thot I wud do the same with the stops and punctooation so you can peper and salt the text as you see fit see below

,,,,,,,,,,,,……..,………….::::::::::::::::::;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;””””””::::::::::::::::::::::::::!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????

My top ten list of 2020

Here has been the favourite books I’ve read this year. Some of the books I have read would be on here but I have not included because I have read them previously years before. I am only looking at the books I read then made a post on. Infinite Jest for example I read cover to cover years ago only skimming through it after that so I will not be including it here but I will give it an honourable mention.

So here are the books that I have loved not necessarily in the exact order of number one being the best but here they are:

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

Here was a story about a family of werewolves who travel round the southern part of the United States doing what they can to survive and no be as exposed as werewolves. At the same time we also here about their folk history.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

A story on a young Joana and her look at life as well as how people view her. Here we look at how we perceive what is right and wrong especially when it comes to relationships

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Ruiz’s facinating work of non fiction, a guide to life and how to keep your mind at ease.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The famous Kafka tale of a man who has been charged for something he does not know what he has been charged for. Despite what the protagonist goes through there is a constant feel that he does not really have control over anything.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

A tale of a discovered planet where we can’t assume anything and the memories of anyone who appears on this planet are manifested, in particular previous loved ones.

Wondago by Melina Cuela

In this story a young girl goes to visit her great auntie and in doing so helps resolves a mystery by drawing what she can remember, the mixture of images and writing add to the atmosphere to the story.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A comedy of a man trying out different types of jobs in New Orleans meeting a range of peculiar characters on the way. We also look at a number of social issues as well as seeing what use a man can with a particular education can have in the real world.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The story of a young Merricat who comes across a crisis of sorts when she realises her family are under an external threat. We also learn of the consequences of the family’s dark past.

Nadja by Andre Breton

A surreal story in the literal sense of a man’s fascination of a young woman. The more he learns of her the more we realises all is not what it seems with her.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

The story of fear, a man trying to survive fighting monsters which also looks at if this man’s action make him a monster also.

These were the books that stuck with me this year as ones I will likely never forget and want to read again. These are only brief summaries as I have written about them previously. I will continue to look at more book throughout next year all being good. I also want to look at more short stories as well.

A general sum up of 2020

Ok this one isn’t really about books this is just me reflecting. I was going to write about authors and writers and some of their odd quirks and odd facts about them they had but looking it up this has has actually been looked at by many before me and done well though I might look at I eventually myself. I will mention though that Charles Dickens was found to have had an affair after separating from his wife and it was William Makepeace Thackery who told everyone it was a young actress. It’s over a century since that happened and I’m still fascinated by that turn of events. So until I can get that ready I’ll just sum up the year as I’ve seen it instead.

At first I wanted to avoid writing about this as much as possible when doing my blog. I wanted to give myself and you as the reader a distraction from the world around you, to give you something good to read. I haven’t even just discussed books but other forms of media also. 2020 however ,has been different to any other year we have had in recent times at least (post war in Britain). When we have heard of previous incidents in the past they have never affected us directly like they do now. When I say directly I mean right in the moment, immediate. When Brexit was decided it did not affect us directly in the moment. Things may have felt different and uncomfortable for some (especially if you weren’t British or white) but we were still allowed to live our lives as normal (whatever that is) for the most part, terrorist attacks happened around the world and although some were tragically affected, the rest of us were still able to work, meet with our loved ones, come together. Climate change is a pressing issue but the panic has not been as high as some may argue should it be because again the affects of it has not been immediate (though some would say it is and we should find a way of nipping the changes we do see in the bud before they get worse).

I won’t be the first to say that this has been a tough year. The Covid pandemic has not only affected those who have been infected by it, but also many that haven’t. Global responses to the pandemic, has affected our previous everyday lives in the moment. People’s reactions have also been different and somewhat divisive. Expectations and how we live our lives have been knocked off-kilter. The pandemic for want of a better way of describing it has also raised the volume on other issues as many of us globally have been advised to remain indoors and has made us use the Internet for almost all our communications with the world. It has also made us aware of the loneliness out there and of course mental health issues and divisions in society. The Covid pandemic has affected us in the moment and although a vaccine has (as of typing) been made available, this could potentially be the end of one chapter and the beginning of new one instead of the end of the Covid saga..

My life has definitely changed more so towards the end of this year. I’ve had my problems just as many have and I have shall we say… suffered from my own dark moments starting at least a good year before the pandemic became global. This is in a weird kind of way made me prepared for things to come if albeit to a point. This is why I made this blog in the first place. To give me a focus. I prefer writing blogs to posting on social media. I do of course use some of them, some I like, some I have either deactivated or avoided . Blogs give you more time to think before you post. I worry people are forgetting how to think.

2021 will be another tough year and the 20s will be a tough decade, if not then definitely different. Hopefully we will come to a time where people will be brought together to not only disagree but to agree to disagree, to show people respect even after having different opinions and not to chastise people for having them views in the first place, this definitely isn’t happening now.

Germans at Meat by Katherine Mansfield

[From In A German Pension – 1911]

I said in my last post on A Breath of Life by Lispector that I will go on to look at her short stories. I thought I would do the same with other writers also and it will be quicker for me to post something on here, I am currently going through some longer books and they are going to take me a while to get through so here goes.

Germans at Meat is about a British narrator having dinner with a number of German guests.

Katherine Mansfield does not write about the German dinner guests in a positive light. The German guests in question are from a time when Germany’s place in the world was ever rising after unifying as one nation. A very different Germany to what we know now.

The German guests pass comment on the British diet and the English breakfast. At the same time we get to witness their table manners such as ‘He turned up his eyes and his moustache, wiping the soup drippings from his coat and waistcoat’ and the British narrator interrupts one of the guests before he goes on about the effects of the amount of sauerkraut he has eaten. We also read about the German guest’s bemusement by the narrator choosing to be a vegetarian and even more surprised about not knowing what her husband’s favourite meat is.

Among other topics discussed is how Munich is described as being what Germany is (I assume none-Bavarians would disagree with this) and asking the British guest if they are scared of a German invasion saying ‘You have no army at all – a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning’ (of course history has showed us what really would happen… twice but that’s neither hear nor there).

We also hear about the thoughts on the family. It appears German women like to produce big families. It ends with the British dinner guest leaving.

Although a British person is used in contrast to the German dinner guests, it is really about people with different cultures and ideologies meeting face to face and not quite understanding each other as opposed to Britain and Germany themselves. You could argue in today’s world there are more similarities than differences.

The British narrator observes their table manners and holds back from saying anything that may be deemed to offensive as the German guests reveal their thoughts and attitudes. The British narrator does not appear to have any form of the Edwardian British stereotype. She can speak German to her guests, she is a vegetarian, she does not behave like the classic housewife who knows what her husband like to eat all the time. Despite all this the German guests almost treat her like (as far as they are concerned) that she is the embodiment of what the English are.

What I learnt from this short story is that despite where we are from, we are actually all individuals and we have to choose to act as such. I could be wrong on that but that is what I got out of it.

[From Katherine Mansfield, The Complete Collection, Kindle Edition]

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector (translated by Johnny Lorenz)

This novel was published posthumously having been found with the writings she left behind and is is very different from the novels.

A Breath of Life is about a narrator and his relationship with a character he has created. There are actually three characters in the Breath of Life. The narrator himself, his creation Angela Pralini and Clarice Lisepctor herself who although has no lines herself permeates the whole feel of the novel.

Our narrator writes about his thoughts on life, on writing, on the concept of god. The narrator is trying to discover more about himself. In doing so he creates Angela, he gives her a history, a life as if she was real Brazilian woman, instils her with her own personality. She also contemplates her own thoughts and who God is. In this case her god is the narrator. As we go through the novel who is meant to be speaking can merge as if it is clearly the narrator talking as Angela. The narrator becomes captivated by his creation. He falls for her and he also questions her mortality within the life he has given her. Both characters look at how they view the world. The Narrator wants absolute control over Angela’s fate but in doing so is writing about himself more so than he his writing about Angela among all of it is Clarice who is pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

As far as I’m aware there is some Eastern European influence to this book (according to a friend a I leant it to) and there is that philosophical sense of trying to understand a way of thinking that is recognisable in almost all of Clarice’s work. As you would expect from Clarice this is a book that is not long yet at the same time you feel like you are taking in a lot. Written towards the end of Clarice’s life it also shows us if only through a prism, Clarice’s thinking at this time. Although not exactly like it, this book made me think of Agua Viva more than any of the others and I like this book as it is regardless of who the author is. It looks at our own thoughts and how we represent them and appears the most ‘meta’ of Clarice’s works.

I have looked at all of Clarice’s longer works (as far as I am aware that have been translated into English) and after this one I will be looking at Clarice’s short stories (I have a copy of the whole collection) looking at each on individually.

[Penguin Edition Published 2014]

The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq (translated by Richard Howard)

If you want a world described in such a way that you can feel it and see it with such clarity in your own mind’s eye then look no further than the Opposing Shore by Julien Grecq.

The Opposing Shore is a remarkable book in the way in describes the world around you in such a way that you can almost see and feel it as it is written in such a poetic way.

The story itself is about Aldo an aristocrat who gets a commission to work for the Admiralty where he has been posted to the coastal town of Syrtes to observe the borders of the sea for any sight or report of a rival nation who though technically at war with, they have not seen any form of violence with this nation for hundreds of years due to an old ceasefire that is till being upheld.

Among Aldo’s time on duty we see what he sees and thinks in the first person and he has a good way in describing not only the world around him, mainly where the Admiralty have sent him but what has been said to him with his interactions with others and most impressively, Aldo is good at describing what has not been said with respect to certain gestures and glances.

The style of the book and the way Aldo speaks has the feel of a 19th Century pastiche. The kingdom of Orsenna of which Aldo is a member of has the feel of a southern European Mediterranean nation maybe of the renaissance era. The rival nation of Farghestan which is relatively unknown to us but has the suffix of -stan suggesting it is an eastern nation very different to Orsenna.

Social class is a topic in this book. Aldo among some other characters are of the aristocracy and when we get to here about their views on their worlds and how they view their own traditions. We also get to witness their relationship with characters from other classes (mainly Fabrizio).

The main theme however, tends to be about Aldo’s boredom with his post and how far he would go to defeat such boredom possibly at the cost of breaking the ceasefire that lasted so long between the two nations. We also get the trope of a lady (Vanessa in this case) leading Aldo astray to do something he possibly should not.

I can see The Opposing Shore being a book that is possibly not for everyone especially with respect to the old style prose however, it did flow quite well and the more you read about Aldo’s world and his story, the more you want to stay in it. Aldo has such away of describing tension and atmosphere that makes it feel real and not contrived in anyway or make me want to roll my eyes. The more you read of it the more you become aware of what affect Aldo’s actions will affect his world.

This mostly what I have thought after just finished reading it and eventually I would like to go back to it again to reflect on it. I am aware that there is getting to be a longer list of books I have already read to look back at again, I can’t promise anything but it something I would like to do.

[First published in French in 1951, this edition Harvill (Harper Collins) 1993]