Lily Ruban — Exploring the Sexuate Nature of Text Through Close Reading of Anna Kavan’s Novels

In my master thesis I will close-read two novels by the British experimentalist writer Anna Kavan (1901-1967) “A Scarcity of Love” and “Mercury”. I will apply Luce Irigaray’s precise linguistic methodology and analytic technique in order to interpret Kavan’s writing as  an inherently sexuated textual material. I will also speak about a necessary sex parity in the literary canon and the suitable inclusion in it of feminine writers such as Anna Kavan, whose writing manifests a marked imprint of feminine subjectivity. According to Irigaray, the so-called universal subject adopted by the social sciences is neither universal nor in the neuter, as they had affirmed, but is masculine and has achieved its domination through the suppression and denial of a feminine subjectivity.

Reading in a detailed way is a too neglected practice, detail itself having historically a secondary role in aesthetics. Anna Kavan’s novels are written against the established positive assessment regarding narratives: her most famous novel “Ice” is a replica of her earlier novel “Mercury”; her novels “Who Are You?” and “Scarcity of Love” repeat the same plot several times with slight variations; her novel “Sleep has his house” is not built about any plot and has been considered unreadable by critics.

Kavan writes about «  Who are you »  :“The people in the story live through the same situation twice over (…) I wanted to abandon realistic writing insofar as it describes exclusively events in the physical environment, and to make the reader aware of the existence of the different, though just as real, ‘reality’, which lies beyond the surface of ordinary daily life and the surface aspect of things (…) By avoiding any detailed characterization or plot, I wanted to free the reader from the actual written word”.

When a woman reads a woman-writer an uncommon degree of textual pleasure  can emerge. I choose to look for an explanation  of this phenomenon beyond the surface level of language – the syntax, a component of the text which can bear traces of sexuate difference. I regard Irigaray’s work on linguistics and sexuation of discourse as an appropriate tool for interpreting a literary oeuvre with awareness of reader’s and writer’s sexuate belonging.

While conducting studies on the linguistic breakdown in  the discourse of subjects suffering from senile dementia, Irigaray became aware of a sexed determination in their linguistic productions: there was a difference in linguistic troubles between  the masculine and the feminine  speakers. She then continued to work on the sexuation of language, this domain becoming a crucial philosophical focus in her work, and a project which she engaged with throughout her life. She edited two special issues of the Journal Langages, Le sexe linguistique and Genres culturels et interculturels, which included  international contributions about the sexed language and style of religious, scientific, pathological and daily types of discourses. In 1990, Sexes et genres a travers les Langues appeared, a collection of essays gathering, beyond her own texts, the results of linguistic studies of a research group that she directed.

Irigaray  has conducted many scientific investigations on the language of sexually differentiated subjects. Her basic experimental method consists in providing subjects with cues from which they have to build sentences . She then develops analyses, especially  syntactical analyses, of the produced speeches. Irigaray’s methodological framework distinguishes itself from other feminist linguistic studies. She understands the addressee of the speech as taking part in discourse itself, but as including enunciation and not merely utterance. According to Irigaray, not only the sexed belonging of the speaker matters, but also that of the interlocutor.

Based on her experiments with daily language production, Irigaray has come to identify sexed characteristics relative to the syntax (cf. Key Writings, p. 80). Some of the main distinctive features she succeeded in defining are respectively:

  • the privilege in masculine syntax

of subject-object relationships

of relationships with the same as them

of he one-many configuration

of hierarchical or family relationships

  • the privilege in feminine syntax

of subject-subject relationships

of relationships in difference

of relationships between two

of  horizontal relationships

According to Irigaray, language produced in a literary context also bears sexuate syntactical marks. Nevertheless, when Irigaray asked Marguerite Duras if she would agree to take part in a book series of feminine authors she was directing, Duras refused saying that she was a writer, and not a woman writer. She also added that she didn’t understand the purpose of such a book series. This kind of attitude encouraged Irigaray to make  comparative linguistic analyses of  fragments of works written by Duras, Yourcenar, Bataille and Blanchot. She found sexuate marks in these literary texts as in daily language or in pathological discourses. Duras was writing in the feminine, especially at  the syntactical level, but she was doing that unconsciously. Yourcenar’s texts also manifest feminine specificities on the syntactical level, although she consciously contested the existence of a feminine identity (cf. Key Writings, p. 104).

I join in Irigaray claiming the existence of sexed subjectivity by showcasing my own experiment regarding a sexed imprint in literary texts. My own experiment happened as  follows: participants were given a selection of very short quotes, mainly sentences.  Half of the literary corpus was authored by men and  half by women. The samples were  presumed to be thematically and lexically gender neutral. The participants were asked to pick several phrases they found interesting from a literary point of view. The masculine participants have  chosen quotes authored by men more often than by women,  and the feminine participants have chosen quotes authored by women more often than  by men. The outcome  has thus been significative: 67 % of  the responses bore a  significative similarity  between the sex of the participant  in the experiment  and the sex of the author of the text.

My initial concern was the obscure status of writers such as Anna Kavan. Anais Nin, Doris Lessing and Jean Rhys were advocates of her literary legacy. It is to them and to Peter Owen, her publisher, that I owe to have discovered Kavan’s writings. Coming in touch with her texts provoked in me a tremendous creative stimulation, something I had never experienced when READING books of the classical literary canon, principally written by men. This is why I consider a literary approach aware of and attentive to both reader’s and writer’s sexuate belonging to be a fundamental practice.