Sunday, June 14, 2009

Anna Kavan and libraries

I love the way with libraries you go in there, drift around and often seem to arrive, as if with a sense of predestination, before a book. This book, once you pick it up - there’s something almost magnetic happening here - now opens at a particular page. It is all random - or else it is the magic which accrues to the long time searcher and reader. This happened to me yesterday. I was browsing in the Auckland Public Library heritage room. I saw a book called Anna Kavan’s New Zealand. I picked it up, the book fell open and immediately I spied the word Napier. For a long time this noun had magical associations for me. A resonanance deeper than any other. It was where my mother came from. It was hundreds of kilometres away from where I spent my childhood. I believed it was a place happiness, beauty and peace resided. Now I live in Napier. 

Only last month there was a shooting incident in which a man randomly shot a policeman in the back, killing him, then killing another human who went to his aid. This was what was called ‘The Seige of Napier’ by the media who crawled all over the city, misnaming streets, attributing destinations where none lay. (For example ‘blocking the road up to the hospital’ - when the hospital has been closed for more than a decade.) 

I was away during the shooting. The graveyard where I and some friends plant wildflowers was right beside the house where the ‘seige’ took place. Policemen with guns nestled among the graves. People were attracted to the graveyard because it overlooked the house of death. There’s something ghoulish here, but understandable. 

Where this is leading is that, of course, now I live in Napier the magic is more difficult to see. Sometimes I don’t see or feel it at all. I feel isolated in a distant provincial town. Yet at other times it’s as if I can just hear, on the furtherest perimeter of hearing, some music - some small fragment of a song, lilting and poignant, just before it changes gear and becomes rich and lush. 

(Sometimes I think the book I am researching on William Colenso, the early missionary and intellectual who lived in Napier, is really a thinly disguised attempt to locate and pin down this tune, this fragment of music - put in all the hidden notes which aren’t at present heard.)

So it was with a sense of almost relief - and excitment - that I found the pages in Anna Kavan’s New Zealand where Napier became a real place - not through a tourist’s glance - but the deeply enigmatic stare of troubled woman, a writer, a bottle blonde adventurer addicted to heroin. 

Anna Kavan was a reinvention of a person. After two abusive marriages in the 1930s, she turned blonde, changed her name and set off, away from England to try and evade the depression which dogged her. She was already a writer. The problem with Kavan is she seems like a character in somebody else’s fiction - Faulkner’s Wild Palms or Hemingway. She’s washed up in Bali. She had met a posh Englishman, a pacifist who had a large farm in Hawke’s Bay. It was sexual for a while, then she called him her ‘brother’. She came from New York, where she was photographed by Walker Evans and knew the slightly desperate yet brilliant expatriate world, to New Zealand. It was at a highly charged time - 1942. The world was in flames. She hung out with the literary set of North Shore, in Auckland. Sargeson said she travelled the world ‘with her knees behind her ears’. (Why wouldn’t she, if she wanted?) Her problem, as I’ve said was that she seemed to be part of someone else’a narrative - the bottle blonde, a little too hard, a little too old with a little too much history behind her. Her way of keeping hold of her own reality - of creating a persona - was to write. She wrote herself into reality. So this find - a document long gathering dust in an archive in Tulsa, USA - is like hearing a voice down a phoneline from long ago - both eery yet incredibly prescient. She’s real alright. And her vision of Napier and Hawke’s Bay is a brilliant evocation of place and people. I’m still reading this book. Today it is wet and cold. I’ve just been to the dentist for demoralising work. I am looking forward to sinking back into the eiderdown of words. 

I love libraries. And most of all, I love the element of chance which goes with walking through the doors. You never know who you’ll meet.

Greetings, Anna Kavan. Welcome.


  1. This is a lovely piece of writing, especially the thoughts and reflections on Napier.
    Thanks - made my day to see someone like you on the wire for all to see/hear/read!

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