MAY’S MINIATURES – S.01 E.02: Anna Kavan – ‘A Bright Green Field’ (1958)

Anna Kavan is a writer I came across when searching for some weird short fiction. Born Helen Woods to wealthy British parents in Cannes, France in 1901 her work forms a temporal bridge between the Blitz in the Second World War and the psychedelic 1960s. Her work is often compared to the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and was praised by J. G. Ballard – who will later feature in this May’s Miniatures parish, or rather, lecture hall… Or is it boozer…?

‘The Old Address’ (1970) is a portrait of individual paranoia and addiction. The incarceration the narrator experiences is more than just that of the medical institution they are about to leave… This story, ‘A Bright Green Field’, from twelve years earlier, conveys one character’s inner world and perceptions of nature upon a train trip to an unnamed archetypal small town…

Broadcast on YouTube, Tuesday 16 June 2020:

NOT perfectly level, no. Not much is.

Size and colour are relative… And, as this story conveys, they are subject to an utterly subjective human perspective.

Kavan jabs subtly, ideologically: in how the passerby elides the workers toiling on the green with pulleys and the like. Conditions have apparently improved for these who are “not criminals but labourers”! The narrator questions their “health and efficiency” and this elicits an admission from the passerby that they are in danger. He uses the word “expendable” and also discursively places that as at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He makes light of their arduous labour and suffering by claiming they are just engaged in “mimicry” of an earlier generation of workers, and in fact have it far better now with “the introduction of the present system”.

Beyond simply this warped sense of historicism, it is notable that the passerby, in ‘brisk’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ tone, gives such a lengthy justification of the labour practices – workers who die there are “buried in situ”! His attempt at reassurance implies both local ‘pride’ but also a defensiveness which tells us that he is putting a gloss on what is ethically indefensible. Perhaps this polite man’s spiel emanates from propaganda that has been spread by the authorities in this settlement.

We never really get any sense of WHY the narrator is there, and that adds mystery and ambiguity. As far as I am aware there are no markings at all of their gender or appearance, which is perhaps more modern in some sense than in identity-centric 2020.

“The invisible armies of night” will battle the field’s colour. It seems to be a portrait of the narrator’s hyper-sensitivity to nature with its “ardent green” of the field. “Its horrid life”. There are adverbs like “fiercely” and countless aggressive verbs like “packed”, “resist”, “vibrating”, “pulsating”, “threatened”, “saw”, “check”, “burst”, “rear up”, “sweeping”, “spreading”, “destroying”, “covering”, “fought”, “cut down”, “was”, “threaten”, “crushed”, “grow”, “seen”, “fed”. Self-doubt is shown in the narrator’s modal auxiliary verb “might” towards the end.

The narrator’s own obscured torment seems to be reflected in their paranoid, obsessive and melancholy view of this landscape they habitually return to. There is a Borges or Ballard-like mock-grand perspective in the reference to “ancient archives kept hidden from us”. Some obscure “variation” that differed from the norm. As with J.G. Ballard’s great climate change dystopian novel The Drowned World (1962), there is a sense of the primal and what might easily underlie the bare sheen of ‘civilisation’. “Variation” suggests the language of Darwinian evolution.

Kavan’s story is an ambiguous, compelling enigma, utterly controlled in its language to convey the lack of individual control and the irrational ways in which we invariably see the world. The crucial middle section suggests the poisons of class hierarchy are intertwined with the absurd, quixotic attempts to control and tame nature.

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