Reading Asylum Piece and Other Stories (1940) is a visceral experience. Picture yourself staring into a full body-and-mind mirror that Anna Kavan intentionally cracked so that you could feel and see yourself thoroughly shattered, and if you're empathetically bent at all, you may acquire an inkling of what it was like being one of Anna Kavan's unnamed isolated characters suffering from mental illness, looking into that mirror. Or catch a glimpse, in the least, of what it was like being a young and alienated and misunderstood and suicidal Anna Kavan. Contorted realities reflected back out of that impossible mirror come sneaking up on you, quietly shrieking. Background scenarios are terse and incomplete; we do not know how so and so ended up here in this asylum or there in that asylum; we only know that they are here or there, trapped inside, and perceive themselves incarcerated and persecuted unjustly by a real or imaginary litany of unknown "Enemies": jailers, nurses, husbands, advisors, and, in one stranger case, "Patrons". Don't assume, however, that these asylum occupants without proper identities are all unreliable narrators, or that they're all deluded, deranged, purely paranoid -- in a word -- insane. Some are; some aren't. Some are estranged from reality only some of the time; others, most of the time. Sometimes those labelled "mad" are in fact the most sane, as Kavan astutely noted elsewhere, in her next story collection I Am Lazarus (1945), I believe. Kavan crowned ambiguity king page after exquisite page with opaque clarity in Asylum Piece and Other Stories.
What conclusion was I to draw from this? It seemed incredible that anyone could fail to observe those twin spots of color, more striking than jewels on the gray January background. No, I could only presume that the birds were visible to me alone. That is the conclusion to which I have held ever since: for my ethereal visitors have not deserted me.
We've all seen things, haven't we, from time to time; or at least thought we've seen things (and seen them whether we've ever been inside an asylum of one kind or another or not, if we're honest) that others have failed to see, right? Are we mad for seeing such things? Seeing things levitate? Seeing ghosts? Should we have been locked up indefinitely for what we've seen like so many of Kavan's unnamed narrators? Notice, also, the subtle implication in that last sentence italicized in the paragraph above: that even while the birds (i.e., the symbols now of the narrator's only means of expressing her hope for freedom or escape -- and that, too, even if they are just chirping hallucinations -- have not deserted her; whom then, we may wonder, perhaps already has "deserted her"? History is replete with misunderstood, or vilified, human beings, being abandoned to asylums.
"The Birds" and another of the few fully formed stories, such as "The Birthmark" -- my favorite in this collection, in fact, and one, with its crux of incarceration and climax pivoting off the curious birthmark, the image of a "rose", makes me wonder if maybe Jean Genet derived any inspiration from it a few years later when he sat down to write his second novel, The Miracle of the Rose? -- and the many more multifaceted vignettes, make up the individual shards of Anna Kavan's complex shattering in Asylum Pieces.
Some shards are sharper than others, like "At Night" or the devastating "Just Another Failure", but they're all keen enough to cut you to the bone, so be careful turning Asylum Pieces' pages, lest your eyes begin bleeding: An iron band has been clamped round my head, and just at this moment the jailer strikes the cold metal a ringing blow which sends needles of pain into my eye sockets. . .; or your imagination begins reeling, and you find yourself trapped in her peculiar prisms, within the haunting "eternal fog" of some dark subterranean chamber filled with rats and roaches and little hope of escape, comrade of shut-in and shut-out characters voicing their confused consensus of victimized outrage from various obscure "asylums" they've had the misfortune to inhabit, these yes diagnosable "deranged" but somehow, even if for only a moment, still sane, still dignified, Underground Women of Anna Kavan's; all of whom, I'm positive, would've made Dostoyevski proud.