Posts Tagged ‘Anna Kavan’


January 2, 2018

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.”