We are in a mental health crisis in the UK. Loneliness can easily root itself in our minds and grow into something ugly. Anna Kavan’s memoir, Sleep Has His House, reminds us of the importance of looking after our minds, as the main character slips into a terrifying descent to a mind unrecognisable as their own.
First published in 1948, Sleep Has His House by Anna Kavan is an experimental memoir unlike any other, becoming ever relevant to today’s society. It is a surrealist piece of work that explores the delicate relationship between the conscious and the subconscious mind, a relationship which is represented in the apt metaphor of day and night.
Kavan splits the novel into daytime and nighttime sections. The daytime sections are short, written in first-person, and represent her conscious mind. The nighttime sections are longer, written in third-person, and represent her unconscious mind. Here, her fears and suppressed thoughts manifest as reoccurring symbols. However, the world of the protagonist B in the nighttime sections slowly engulfs the world of the first-person narrator in the daytime sections.
Kavan brilliantly represents the subconscious mind as a space where suppressed fears and desires equally manifest.
Night-time language: the language of our childhood and of our dreams
The bulk of the story is written in what Kavan terms ‘night-time language’. Kavan states in the foreword of the novel that this is a language that ‘we have all spoken in childhood and in our dreams’. The nighttime landscape is ever-changing, volatile and enchanting. It is Kavan’s captivatingly ambitious rendition of the dreamworld through text.
Throughout the story, we follow a girl called B navigating countless places where threatening tigers lurk, and where the mysterious A, her mother, lingers.
The daytime that precedes the nighttime grounds us in the reality that we are familiar with, and acts as elusive and somewhat misleading guides to what occurs in the nighttime. We soon realise the permeability of the two sections when we observe those mentioned in the daytime appear in the nighttime.
We find out early on that the narrator has been traumatised by the suicide of her emotionally unavailable mother. She suppresses her feelings of fear and grief, consciously refusing to talk or even think about her mother’s death. However, A (her Mother) is a recurring figure in the nighttime sections. A is an elusive, distant figure that strays just out of B’s reach.
It is interesting to see the representation and exploration of a safe space constructed within a young girl’s mind. The novel highlights the importance of our dreams and our subconscious mind, and the impact they can have on our lives. It provides an insightful look into how the mind navigates itself around trauma and protects us from it. Kavan has created an intricate physical mapping of dreams, and by extension a physical mapping of the irrational. She has painted a skillful portrait of the mind of someone suffering from poor mental health and how they cope with it.
Another extraordinary element of the novel is the experimental film-like quality it possesses. The rapid and constant changing of scenes and the depth of each is represented seamlessly with techniques familiar in film, such as tracking shots and close-up shots. This literary technique that Kavan uses compliments the dream-like quality of the novel really well and is a wonder to read.
The importance of good mental health
Kavan’s representation of the interdependent relationship between the conscious and the subconscious mind is very important because it brings awareness to the importance of good mental health.
It is an accurate representation of how most of us probably feel: there is always tension between what we choose to feel versus how we really feel. It shows how suppressing and denying negative emotions and thoughts is not healthy for ourselves in the long run. Although the mind has the ability to protect itself from traumatic events, we need to learn how to reach out to others and seek help in order to truly begin to heal from our psychological wounds.
With the destruction of the virus weighing heavy on the population’s shoulders, and the promised onslaught of cold months ahead, we must try our best to keep our heads above water. We are never truly alone, and help is always just a text message or a phone call away.
The NHS provides a list of mental health helplines for those who need it.
Drugs or talent?
A prevailing interpretation of most (male) critics overhanging Kavan’s work is that her history as a drug addict defines her work, to the extent that her work is credited to her drug addiction rather than her skills and experience in life as a whole . According to Lawrence Driscoll, Kavan’s ‘heroin habit is rewritten as a habitat, a place in which she can live’.
It is easy to explain away the surrealist elements of the book with a shallow application of her history with drug abuse, but Kavan deserves praise and recognition for her insightful impression of the human mind and, of course, for her graceful, delicate prose.
Sleep Has His House is beautifully complex, saturated with symbols that one can spend weeks analysing. It is a brilliant literary interpretation of how the human mind works, and through this book Kavan has attempted to capture a vast snapshot of the limitless cavern of our minds.
Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage