Ice

Few books suit winter like Anna Kavan’s Ice. Not only does it portray a world consumed by a permanent winter of ice and snow; it contains a coldness at its heart as if a splinter of the shattered mirror through which Kavan wrote her fiction had been inserted Snow Queen style into its centre. Indeed, it reads like an inverted version of that fairy tale, as our narrator searches for the woman he loves in the icy wasteland, believing she has come under the spell of her cruel captor.

On the surface, like ice, the story is plain and clear. The narrator falls in love with a woman who leaves him and marries a painter. He recalls visiting her in her newly married state – “it was the first time I had seen her happy” – but is later convinced her husband has treated her badly. When he hears she has left, he decides he must find her, particularly as the climate has now begun to deteriorate. This search is presented as a need, a compulsion:

“Somehow or other I had to find her… There was no rational explanation, I could not account for it. It was a sort of craving which had to be satisfied.”

He follows her to a devastated town where he finds her living with the ‘warden’, a powerful, quasi-military figure who rules the town like a fiefdom, living in the High House, “a fortresslike mass built at its highest point.” With echoes of Arthurian legend, he must now rescue her from this tower. (This is not the only knightly allusion – at one point she will be sacrificed by the villagers to a dragon).

What seems clear, however, is, on closer inspection, laced with cracks. We have, for example, only the narrator’s word that she needs, or wants, rescuing in the first place. Though the novel’s template is that of a chivalrous quest, the narrative is a combination of thriller and psychiatrist’s transcript. Like driving through a snowstorm, the novel’s oppressive subjectivity hypnotises the reader with the narrator’s impulses and impressions.

The narrator perceives the woman to be fragile and delicate, frequently referring to her body as child-like (“the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s”), and comparing her to glass:

“I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.”

It suits him to see her as a victim, helpless in the warden’s hands:

“Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will.”

Soon we begin to suspect the narrator is describing scenes he has not witnessed, for example when he describes the woman modelling for her husband naked, her wrists and ankles tied; or later when he says, “She was nervous in the forest, which always seemed full of menace.” We are, after all, warned in the opening pages:

“Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the narrator from the warden. Again, Kavan has prepared us for this from the beginning. He describes the point in his life when she left him as ‘traumatic’ leading to “horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised”; dreams which he confesses to enjoying. Later he will speak of “an indescribable affinity” with the warden; she is convinced they are “in league together.” As Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to the US edition, the narrator

“…slowly converges with the personality of and motives of the sadistic, controlling ‘warden’.”

The blurring of character boundaries reflects the frozen landscape where, in Ballardian abstraction, the details disorientate rather than distinguish:

“It could have been any town, in any country. I recognized nothing. Snow covered all landmarks with the same white padding. Buildings were changed into anonymous white cliffs.”

Most disorienting of all is the novel’s repetition as the narrator finds the woman only to lose her again, find her again and lose her. These repetitions exist outwith the confines of plot: at one point he finds her corpse, and there are other scenes that may be only fevered dreams; scenes we can more certain are ‘real’ can read like echoes or different edits of the same events. The narrative is both a labyrinth and a cell; we find ourselves as much the narrator’s prisoner as the woman is the warden’s, a Stockholm syndrome of a story where, step after step, we lose all sense of journey.

It has been suggested that the woman is the heroin to which Kavan was addicted, the ice the coldness of reality. For the reader she is the point and the final full stop, the last words with which it all makes sense, before the ink freezes and the pen writes white. Resolution, however, is elusive. In the end we must accept

“…there was no escape from the ever-diminishing remnant of time that encapsulated us. I made the most of the minutes.”

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26 Responses to “Ice”

  1. Somali Bookaholic Says:

    beautiful and great review and since we are in winter how about two scandinavian novels.
    Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg
    Hunger by Knut Hamsun

    • 1streading Says:

      Two of my favourites – the three together would make a great beginning to a winter reading list.

      • Somali Bookaholic Says:

        i live in northern Somalia and in Winter tenperature reaches 10 degree which ie very cold to us.what i am trying yo say some booksbrcome more beautiful when they are read in specific season or placand Doctor Glas is one of the best writing i ever read.
        thanks for writing such beautiful review and i will add anna kavan Ice to my winter list

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I read this during December too, Grant, and the cold seemed apt. It’s a powerful book and yet as you say elusive and hard to pin down. Kavan was definitely a one-off.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice review. I loved this (there’s a review at mine) – it’s slippery as anything isn’t it? Which given the title is rather appropriate. The cover I have though isn’t nearly as gorgeous as that new Penguin one (left of your two photos).

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – I’ve just had a read of your review. It does indeed work on a kind of dream logic, and, like you, I thought of Ballard and Christopher Priest – I’d love to read the latter’s introduction!

  4. roughghosts Says:

    I bought this book years ago when I was reading a lot of science fiction and could never get my head around reading it. Now with all the attention the new re-release is garnering, in combination with weather like the Siberian deep freeze we just emerged from here, I should finally read it. Thank you for another excellent review, Grant!

  5. winstonsdad Says:

    I got a first edition of this recently by chance it sounds great

  6. banff1972 Says:

    This is so interesting, Grant. Penguin was kind enough to send me a copy and I am still thinking about teaching it this semester in my 20th C Experimental British Novel class–but I need to make my decision in the next few days, so I better get cracking. Do you think it could work for a class like that?

    • Max Cairnduff Says:

      I’m not Grant (and nor do I play him on TV), but I’d have thought it a pretty good choice for class discussion actually.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree with Max – I think it would work well for this, especially after having a second look at it for my review. I’d love to see your final list!

      • banff1972 Says:

        Very good to know. Might be too late for this semester, but I teach the course every couple of years, so next time at the latest. The “thesis” of the class is that experimentalism in British 20th C lit can be understood on the model of Freud’s uncanny: basically, that the weirdest things are those that seem the most familiar.
        I always start with Women in Love and then The Waves. I always include Molly (Irish, I know) and Crash. Then I switch stuff up: Rhys, Green, Bowen, Lessing, Comyns are all people I’ve done in the past.

      • 1streading Says:

        It sounds like a great course. Having just read Ann Quin, you might want to take a look at her as well!

      • banff1972 Says:

        I just saw your post on Quin. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I think I have always been confusing Kavan and Quin, or melding them in my mind!

      • 1streading Says:

        As have I in the past – which explains why I have two copies of Berg! Happy to send you one (if I can lay hands on it!)

      • banff1972 Says:

        By all means! I know the problem of finding things–so don’t worry about it if it doesn’t come readily to hand,

  7. BookerTalk Says:

    Permanent winter is my version of Hell. I think aid have to read this book wrapped in several layers of blankets and near a fire…

  8. Tredynas Days Says:

    Like Max I wrote a piece on this a while back at my place – she’s an enigmatic and intriguing writer. The short stories in Julia and the Bazooka remain a favourite, and so is Asylum Piece. The Parson was good but slightly less appealing, and I couldn’t finish Who Are You. I don’t think she’s much studied these days in university Eng Lit depts, which is a shame. I have a soft spot for the low-key Peter Owen covers – they champion such writers commendably. They have a lovely new presentation edition out, along with a few others.

  9. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s great to see such a thoughtful review of this strange, beautiful and elusive book. I read it a few years ago (pre-blog) and was absolutely captivated by it. I particularly like the following point from your piece: “The narrative is both a labyrinth and a cell; we find ourselves as much the narrator’s prisoner as the woman is the warden’s, a Stockholm syndrome of a story where, step after step, we lose all sense of journey.” That’s an excellent observation, spot on.

    I’ve also read Guilty which I liked although not as much as Ice. Once again, there was something very unsettling and compelling about it. A fascinating writer for sure.

    Those Penguin covers are gorgeous, especially the one on the left…

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m definitely planning to read more of her work – I’ll bear Guilty in mind. The only other one I have at the moment is A Scarcity of Love (which was a fairly random acquisition!)

  10. On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau Says:

    […] I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I […]

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