The progressive limitation of the habitable world by advancing cliffs of ice constitutes the only real development in Anna Kavan’s final, uncomfortable, remarkable novel, Ice. In what passes for, or stands in for, a plot, and with what pass for, or stand in for, characters, an unnamed man pursues an unnamed woman in endless iterations. He finds her everywhere he looks but the closer he gets to her the harder she is to see. The ‘girl’ (as he refers to her) is never more than a projection, inaccessible to the fantasist, objectification without object, idealised victim for his fantasies of violent possession. “She always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised. There dreams were not confined to sleep only, and a deplorable side effect was the way I had come to enjoy them.” The ‘girl’ is mostly ‘kept’ by either her husband or a by man known as ‘the Warden’, themselves plausibly projections of the narrator, their cruelty towards her the outward expression of the narrator’s desires until such time as he can assume these cruelties for himself. Until such time, the narrator cannot manage to be anything but an observer. He is ineffectual, pursuing the ‘girl’ but incapable of closing the gap between them, eschewing opportunity at the last moment. The actions taken by others are projections of his desires, desires that obliterate the ‘girl’, although she is perhaps less obliterated by projection and objectification than she is a dimensionless creation of that projection and objectification. “It was clear that the Warden regarded her as his property. I considered that she belonged to me. Between the two of us she was reduced to nothing: her only function might have been to link us together. I felt an indescribably affinity with him, a sort of blood-contact, generating confusion, so I began to wonder if there were two of us.” The pursuit and abuse of the ‘girl’ is narrated in countless iterations and variations, some of which would be inaccessible to the narrator unless they are his fantasies or the husband and the Warden are his projections. Many of the narrative branches terminate, perhaps at the girl’s death, leaving the narrative to return and pick up at an earlier point, the slipped stitches undermining the reader’s trust of the text. Just as there are no characters as such who could fulfil the reader’s expectations of characters by manifesting either depth or change, there is no plot development, the narrative endlessly overwriting itself, reinforcing, obscuring and reinforcing itself in a palimpsest written ultimately on the body of the girl, the receiver of wounds. The entire work constitutes an exposition of a deplorable psychological pattern that pervades swathes of literature and society. The narrator avows his role, he feels cheated when others harm the girl: “I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.” The girl, so to call her, represents “a passive attitude, suggestive both resistance and resignation.” The narrator both exemplifies and abhors his role as oppressor, he envies the peaceful song-filled life of the gentle indris lemurs, about whom he is writing a study, but he knows that their life is beyond his reach: “I knew that my place was here, in our world, under sentence of death, and that I would have to stay here and see it through to the end. I was committed to violence and must keep to my pattern.” The girl’s tears “did not seem like real tears. She herself did not seem quite real. She was pale and almost transparent, the victim I used for my own enjoyment in dreams.” The girl is not real, she is constituted by violence, she loathes the world of the lemurs, anathematic to the complex of which she and her many-faced oppressor are the exemplar. The characters have no history or purpose other than to enact the disease they represent. The narration, in the first person, is a vehicle for an impersonal subjectivity. The repeated eruption of the unconscious into the narrative destroys causality and character and makes development impossible, leaving the narrative curiously disengaged, reminding me somewhat of Kafka’s The Castle. The characters are at once both subject and object, incapable of gaining traction when traction is most intended, animated by suppressed mechanisms that underlie much of literature and art. As the book progresses the walls of ice close around the narrator and the girl, drawing them closer together, “a sheet of sterile whiteness spreading over the face of the dying world, burying the violent and their victims together, obliterating the last trace of man and his works.” Very occasionally in the book, the reality of the ice is destabilised, such as when the narrator glimpses the town he is in, not in ruins and being crushed by ice but bathed in sunshine. The ice is not so much the ice of Ballardian cli-fi, though it is this too, but moves with the force of metaphor (encroaching ice is a motif often experienced by ‘Arctic explorers’ such as Kavan who have long-term heroin addictions (forty years in her case (Kavan identified with the fatally doomed, passive girl in this novel))). As the ice comes nearer, the girl becomes yet “thinner and paler, more transparent, ghostlike. It was interesting to watch.” When all else has been obliterated by the ice, the narrator and the girl are finally forced into actual contact in a beach house surrounded with wilted palm trees covered in rime. Kavan then provides three endings on top of each other: does the narrator pursue the girl into the ice, where they perish; does he attack her and leave her for dead; or does he reform (“I wondered why I had waited so long to be kind to her”) and flee with her towards the last unfrozen, equatorial zone? This last ‘happy’ option is so implausible as to finally erase the narrator, who retains only the reassuring weight of the gun in his pocket.
Beautiful cased edition of this classic novel.In a land devastated by war, a nameless narrator pursues an elusive white-haired woman in the clutches of a government official known only as `The Warden'. Neither will giver her up, but a freak ecological apocalypse is indifferent to their rival claims. As a terrifying wall of ice continues its incursion, freezing everything in its path, it seems that only the white-haired woman is resigned to the fate of the world.`A classic, a vision of unremitting intensity which combines some remarkable imaginative writing with what amounts to a love-song to the end of the world. Not a word is wasted, not an image is out of place.' - Times Literary Supplement `Few contemporary novelists could match the intensity of her vision.' - J.G. Ballard
'A classic, a vision of unremitting intensity which combines some remarkable imaginative writing with what amounts to a love-song to the end of the world. Not a word is wasted, not an image is out of place.' - Times Literary Supplement; 'Few contemporary novelists could match the intensity of her vision.' - J.G. Ballard; 'There is nothing else like it...This ice is not psychological ice or metaphysical ice; here the loneliness of childhood has been magicked into a physical reality as hallucinatory as the Ancient Mariner's.' - Doris Lessing; 'Ice is her best novel: a sustained and extended metaphor for the descent into, and traverse of, the ice-laden world of the addict ... a marvel of descriptive, chilling writing, rich in action and introspection.' - Christopher Priest;
ANNA KAVAN (1901-1968), born Helen Woods, was a British novelist who emerged from a Swiss asylum in 1938 with a pen-name adopted from one of her fictional characters. Her early work dealt with oppressive domestic, relationships, but her work as Anna Kavan was openly more experimental the more it became an expression of her mental health and a life-long addiction to heroin. Now a cult figure, her writing, which includes the novels Sleep has his House, Asylum Piece and Ice, has been compared to Kafka, Woolf and Ballard.