Asylum Piece

This edition printed in:

Sleeping orange cat and a toy turtle lie beside Anna Kavan's Asylum Piece.

More Trips to the Vet

It’s been a very difficult week. Wesker has been doing fantastically since her ultrasound, and I was just starting to come to grips with the final round of diagnostic tests before just supportive care and maintenance. I thought it was all over.

A orange tabby cat sleeps in a sunbeam.

Then Bandersnatch started acting strangely. She had a very bad puke and then stopped eating and we took her to the vet immediately. A round of antinauseants didn’t work, so that meant another visit with an x-ray. She’s constipated. And after an enema she did better only to still fail to pass any stool. So today she’s getting a series of enemas. I’m so worried about her. It’s going to be a long day of waiting for a phone call from the vet and not knowing when she’ll be home or how she’ll feel when she does get home.

I’m always scared that something will go wrong. That she’ll be sicker than we thought and we’ll lose her. At this point, that is not a rational fear, but it’s hard to keep my brain from going there anyway. She’ll our little orange, furry baby, and I want my baby to be well and to be back in my arms.

An orange tabby sleeps on a book. The back cover shows text and a vintage monochrome photograph of the author.

An Odyssey

I first heard of Anna Kavan through Claire Louise-Bennett’s Checkout 19, and immediately it went on my list of writers to search for. However, Kavan’s work was actually the hardest to find. I had to special order it, and then it was a wait of several months before it arrived at my local independent bookstore. I know for some a long wait can lead to greater enjoyment — but, in this case, I felt like it made a short book even shorter psychologically and made me want more of Kavan’s nearly impossible-to-find work.

An orange tabby lies nose down in front of a book. The back of the book shows a smiling picture of the author.

I hate seeing good writers get swallowed by history, so I’m eager to share Asylum Piece in these reviews. Asylum Piece is a relatively small book (212 pages in my edition) of short stories, most of which are interconnected and autobiographical. Kavan artfully discusses her battle with mental illness and her time in a Swiss clinic. Sometimes she speaks of her experience by using another character, but more often the use of an unnamed narrator allows her voice to shine through with a resonance that leaps off of the page.

An orange tabby is sleeping soundly in the sunshine on top of a giant toy turtle.

Descent into Madness

I have read many works that have a focus on mental illness, but I find that I’m particularly drawn to Kavan’s words because they focus on aspects of mental illness that are unfamiliar to many. She not only describes depression in a way that goes beyond the hallmark of profound sadness — she also discusses the feelings of being overwhelmed and the incapability of focussing on even simple tasks. She discusses the desire to see life in small objects like birds and flowers when one feels so utterly lifeless themselves.

Asylum Piece by Anna Kavan features a sepia-coloured picture of a stern, male psychologist on the front cover.

So much of Kavan’s description of illness is steeped in mystery and confusion. There are unnamed threats and paranoid suspicions that gradually take over every aspect of the narrator’s life. Life in the asylum is also mysterious and confusing, with patients not knowing when they’re going to leave or see relatives again. Some even don’t know why they’re there in the first place. It leads to an unsettling feeling that is projected masterfully to the reader who also wonders who these patients are and what their fates will be.

Anna Kavan's Asylum Piece lies in the sun on top of a toy turtle and a very sleepy orange cat.

A Note on Style

Kavan’s style is what truly makes this book the masterpiece it is. Her building of the miasma of mental illness is truly a work of art. Her writing has been compared to Kafka’s and I would say that her sense of the surreal and unknown threat is very much like the themes often present in Kafka’s work. But I do what to emphasize that Kavan’s style is much more rooted in a sense of realism and doesn’t stray as far into the dreamlike or nightmare state that Kafka is known to weave. The general timbre of Kavan’s prose is more driving, and emphasizes that this isn’t a nightmare. This is a very real descent into a place that many struggle to get back from and some don’t get back from at all.

An orange cat is sleeping all spread out in the sunshine. A book lies on top of her.

Tired, Upset, Sad

Here I am, still waiting on that phone call and my little orange cat that is having a very bad day at her least favourite place in the world. It’s so hard to concentrate on anything else other than the worry when she’s not here, cosy at home and within eyesight. I miss her so much and I’m very worried about her.

All I can do is try to get some work done and listlessly watch movies on TCM. It’s the beginning of 31 Days of Oscars and this year I’m excited that they’ve organized films by theme. Even distraction is difficult today, but I’m going to try my best not to ruminate and hope for the best.

A very tired orange cat tries to sleep on a book.

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