The Unreality Marches On: Ice by Anna Kavan

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There is always a sort of subconscious suspicion that comes with books that are “rescued from obscurity”: how good is something, really, if it gets forgotten about? So I am always hesitant regarding “rediscovered masterpieces.” Fortunately this is not so in the case of Anna Kavan. Ice, her most successful novel, has been reissued by Penguin Classics for its fiftieth anniversary. Kavan is a brilliant high-modernist writer whose work has largely fallen by the wayside, and it is truly a blessing that we have a new version. The Penguin Classics edition now boasts a foreword by Jonathan Lethem and an afterword by Kate Zambreno; both are formidable names that use their own styles and selves as writers to bring fresh context to Kavan in the twenty-first century.

Kavan is a writer whose oeuvre, perhaps more than others, is complexly bound up with her identity. Her rich but troubling biography reveals unhappy marriages, institutionalization, a name change, suicide attempts, and heroin addiction. In fact, her name was adopted after a particularly formative breakdown; previously writing under her married name of Helen Ferguson, she lifted the name “Anna Kavan” from a character in one of her earlier novels. But while her work can certainly be informed by her personal life, it is by no means reducible to it. Nothing so simple as allegory can be found in her pages. Everything is both independent of and irremovably tied to the experiences of Kavan herself. And nowhere, I think, does she accomplish this better than in Ice.

Ice was Kavan’s first major literary success and it is difficult to classify: it is post-apocalyptic science fiction with the caveat of “kind of.” The subgenre that it shares most characteristics with is slipstream, in that it obsessively constructs an atmosphere of not-quite-realism. We are immediately made aware of a potentially delusional narrator: “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.” The book is essentially plotless, but can be simplified to one man’s search for a mysterious, fragile, and glass-like girl. There are no names, of places or of characters, and there are few definitive signifiers whatsoever. The novel proceeds through a series of coincidences that enable the narrator to keep finding his way back to and then be separated from the girl. Kavan’s meticulous prose follows a bizarre dream logic in which unplanned events and minor details lead inexplicably forward through the narrative. Throughout and surrounding the narrator’s endless pursuit of the girl, there is global unrest and an encroaching eco-catastrophe: it seems that nuclear winter has been made literal in an approaching and inescapable second ice age.

Essentially the book revolves around a love triangle, emphatically minus the love: the narrator pursues the girl against her husband, known only as “the warden”; the warden possesses the girl with an uncomfortable severity. Encircling them are the inexplicable, inhospitable glaciers. Attempts at actually characterizing the “glass girl” always fall upon emphasizing her presumed victimhood:

Her face wore its victim’s look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it as the faintest possible hint of bruising on the extremely delicate, fine white skin in the region of eyes and mouth. It was madly attractive to me in a certain way.

What is curious is that the girl’s victimhood is almost always rendered physically in some way, visible in her appearance and thus attractive to the narrator, in spite of the fact that it is “of course psychological.” And the nameless narrator, for his part, has few physical characteristics revealed: rather, we watch as he unravels and feels a strange affinity with the warden, forming a doppelgänger-like antagonism with him.

The narrator frequently has possessive, psychosexual fantasies of the girl in various scenarios: there is recurring imagery of her shackled and in chains, or of her dead body lying limp amidst a frozen landscape. These scenes are not clearly transitioned into or out of; the tense does not change and we are immediately shuffled onto another image of her. In one omniscient hallucination, he sees the girl escaping through a snowy forest, then captive in her bed, then lifelessly askance on cobblestones. He says:

I came upon her by chance, not far away, lying face down on the stones. A little blood had trickled out of her mouth. Her neck had an unnatural twist; a living girl could not have turned her head at that angle: the neck was broken.

The description grows only more graphic.

These disturbing images of the girl’s body frequently erupt through the glassy textual surface of the prose in traumatic, seemingly gratuitous ways; what little narrative continuity there is is consistently fractured by the narrator’s troubling fantasies and delusions. Dismembered or brutalized images of the body appear suddenly with no justification in a book that already lacks much clear or cogent reasoning. The ominous coincidence of events throughout the book—such as when the narrator’s chance possession of a rose in his buttonhole yields his inclusion in a secret society—is repeated in the serendipitous violence, like when the narrator hallucinates her being sacrificed to the dragon he hears of in a local legend. Somehow these ghastly body images just happen, further drumming out the rhythm of the narrator’s fatalistic attitude—towards violence, towards the impending ice-crisis, towards the girl’s own “victimhood.” Any psychological motive seems insufficient in the face of the unforeseen violence and abruptness of these graphic and obscene disclosures. The unreality marches on.

It is difficult for the reader to recuperate from these images; they are in excess of language, and Kavan’s exacting prose make them that much harder to stomach. And the more explicit sexual crimes perpetrated against the girl are generally inferred rather than explicitly written:

I was puzzled, until it dawned on me that the room had been soundproofed, so that whatever took place there would be inaudible beyond its four walls. Then it at once became obvious why this particular room had been allotted to her.

We are shown the aftermath, however, in what has come to be a familiar posture of the girl’s:

Her head hung over the edge of the bed in a slightly unnatural position, the neck slightly twisted in a way that suggested violence, the bright hair twisted into a sort of rope by his hands.

There is the impression that something in the narrative does not intend to be pacified. Even the growing ice and changing climate is described in violent terms: “The air stung like acid. It was the breath of ice, of the polar regions, almost unbreathable. It scarified the skin, seared the lungs.” But can nature be violent? Or, as Jacques Derrida writes on earthquakes, is it only violent in so far as it damages human interests? Certainly this is a book full of violence, but Kavan’s masterful and exacting prose never lets us forget that violence has to do with the human—specifically with the man—starting with the violence of language itself, in its use by man for representations and appropriations. The novel is suffused with a fatalistic attitude towards violence while it critiques it and acknowledges that many forms of violence are beyond the capabilities of language to capture. But the incessant desire to recuperate what lies beyond its reach is precisely what fuels language, and also propels this novel forward.

Delaney Adams is a reader, writer, and bookseller living in New York. More from this author →