Anna Kavan’s Ice certainly counts among the most singular – and intense – works of literature I’ve read. I struggled with it at first, alternately repelled by this intensity and by its abrupt plunges into “dream” states, and drawn back again and again to its hard-edged, glittering prose and phantasmagorical, bracing atmosphere almost as a need (few books this slim have taken me so long to read, but few that have taken so long to read have so repeatedly called with such insistence from the nightstand). Good taste should probably forbid me from describing the novel’s intensity as like that of the acute burning sensation one feels when touching dry ice, but as I’ve just done that, I’ll stand by it. This is a tremendous work of concentrated imagination and ambiance, with a contemporaneity and freshness scarcely betrayed by the fact of Ice’s having been written more than 40 years ago. But the magnitude of its force comes not simply from its dazzling winter lyricism and mood, but also from the seriousness that underlies it, which conveys a rawness that – even had I not learned some outline details of Kavan’s psychological crises and heroin addiction – would have nonetheless suggested a writer in full control yet on a razor’s edge.
The preface to my 1970 Doubleday edition is by science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who knew Kavan and was the first to suggest to her that her work was a kind of science fiction, an observation towards which she initially expressed some surprise but came to accept (this lack of self-conscious science fictionality only adds to the book’s power). The plot of Ice, such as there is one, could be characterized simply: a man attempts to rescue a fragile and persecuted woman also pursued by another man, a kind of despotic figure, with the pursuit and rivalry among these nameless characters across northern landscapes and seaports set against the rapidly encroaching catastrophe of a new worldwide ice age and its attendant panic, deprivations and violence. But this synopsis only provides the barest branches around which Ice is formed. Its complexity of mood and impression also figures gender and sexual power dynamics, a psychology of victimhood and oppression, a vision of an apocalypse that humans have brought upon themselves (in addition to its explicit suggestion of nuclear winter, Ice may well be the among the first novels beyond conventional science fiction to resonate with the threat of climate change as we understand it in its contemporary context), and an overwhelmingly dream-like, sustained representation of struggle against an array of oppressive forces within a surrounding aura of menace. Kavan’s novel unfolds through contrasts of gaiety and destruction, of violence and immobility, of imprisonment and freedom, of power and helplessness, all overshadowed by looming, pulsing waves of imminent catastrophe. Linearity of narrative is broken and buffeted repeatedly; the metaphor of invading ice extends to the narrative style itself, which splinters, fractures, crashes, subsides and glows with a cold blue hue. Yet the actual ice in Ice obeys no recognizable physical laws; at the same time hypnotically attractive and frighteningly threatening, it waits along the horizon at times, rushes in like a tsunami at others, and rears up as though exploded out of nowhere at others – as does the narrative. Temporal continuity is repeatedly interrupted, thwarted. Unreal elements burst through the narrative as though heaved there by deep geological forces, as though the walls of consciousness have suddenly collapsed and invited an overwhelming rush of frozen sea.
A reviewer on Amazon.com has asked, “How can one not discuss Anna Kavan first when discussing her work?” I assume that this question refers to the writer’s psychiatric struggles and above all to her heroin addiction, since, armed with knowledge of the latter, one can’t help but also see Ice as a work about addiction. But given its date of publication (1967) and its narrative mélange of the real and irreal, one scarcely need know of Kavan’s drug use to perceive the novel’s drug influences. Until reading Ice, I’d never really thought much about the distinction, in terms of psychological phenomena, between hallucinations and dreams, though Ice’s irrealistic passages partake far more of an opiated dream-state, albeit an irruptive one, than of disjointed hallucinations. The narrator’s accounts possess the kind of convincing internal logic that dreams can have, with points of view that would be impossible in the physical world and equally impossible shifts of perspective that at times seamlessly transfer from observer to observed. There’s also an odd sort of performative rehearsal marking some of the scenes in Ice, in which an event will be described with one outcome and then re-described with another, as though the dreamer were trying on different versions of her dream.
Ice possesses a dazzling poetic and thematic magnification and resonance. Aesthetically, it’s like a massive wall of ice itself, with an indistinct and illusory surface of prismatic sparkles and glints, but also startlingly profound translucent glimpses into unfathomable blue depths. This enrapturing, stupefying blast-frozen imagery interweaves with Ice’s lowering mood of portent and peril:
With a threatening scowl, he went out, banging the door behind him. A silence followed, while she stood like a lost child, tears wet on her cheeks. Next she started wandering aimlessly round the room, stopped by the window, pulled the curtain aside, then cried out in amazement.
Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all round. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the tress, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.
Kavan’s employment of imagery of forbidding winter – almost undoubtedly a metaphor chosen with the icy lowest depth of Dante’s Inferno in mind - is as multifaceted as it is relentless, and overlays the narrative like a controlled abstraction. Several times I found myself thinking of the novel’s aesthetic ordering as similar to that of a late Jackson Pollock painting, an elaborate, concentrated gesture in which one easily discerns a certain order, pattern and palette (I also could not shake a recurring thought of Pollock’s mysterious mid-career painting “The Deep,” with its wintry colors and illusory play of surface and depth; for some future edition of Ice it might make a fitting cover image).
|Jackson Pollock, "The Deep" - 1953|
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Thematically Ice is equally multifaceted. Its apocalyptic imagery suggests the threat of nuclear winter and environmental neglect, crystallizing into a weighty mass the atomic age fear of self-destruction of the planet. In its tale of men questing after a woman who doesn’t want to be found, Ice plunges into the psychology of patriarchal presumptiveness and rescue fantasies. In the woman’s seeming helplessness and passivity, it explores as well the notions of victimization and psychological paralysis. In its continual evocation of inevasible ice and snow, it loosely suggests, on a meta-level, an onerous struggle against addiction, but one that the addict has elected to recount via fascination with its absorbing psychological effects, rather than parlaying personal distress into a confessional warning.
And Ice is also an existentially courageous, starkly unsentimental story of coming to terms with death, the courage and generosity of Kavan’s story all the more remarkable for its having dared to stretch beyond a narrative of personal distress to suggest resistance against great systemic forces at work, and to situate the young woman’s suffering in a global context in which these forces – patriarchal, political, neglectful and presumptive in anything but a benign way - impinge from multiple directions. Were this a simple experiment in presenting addiction, Kavan might easily have made Ice an accession of her own struggle. But whatever personal aspects may underlie this deliberate, unique and impressive novel make little difference in the context of its mesmerizing dream-like lyricism, its disconsolate and poignant moods and complex, expansive themes. To read too much of the personal into Ice would seem little more than a disestimation to a writer who produced a novel as meticulously written and as aesthetically and thematically sui generis as this one, and that expands so eloquently far beyond the personal to address humanity’s common fate.