Anna Kavan: Ice

Anna Kavan is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for years, assured that hers was exactly the sort of low-tog-rating fiction I claim to seek. At the same time her most famous novel, Ice, seemed like the sort of book which didn’t need to be read at all: one of those where the blurb and chat around it seemed to say all that needed to be said. It’s easy to summarise but hard to write about: at least that’s my excuse.

Ice (1967) was Kavan’s last published work before the end of her life. That life is the one thing there’s no getting away from: like the work, the basic facts are both easily known and unknowable. Google Anna Kavan and you can’t escape the central spines of her narrative. She was born Helen Woods, and her early work (under her married name of Ferguson) was eccentric but unexceptional. After she suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown, she changed her name to Anna Kavan, a character in one of her novels, and changed her literary style to match.

Ice fits into what is perhaps a sub-genre in its own right: the possibly allegorical story of a protagonist (often unnamed) who embarks on a mysterious quest, and is frustrated by forces seemingly beyond his control. Expect repetition. Don’t expect a conclusion. Name your own examples, but Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, and Kafka (The Castle? The Trial?) spring immediately to mind. It also fits into the subgenre of science fiction which evades the usual pigeonholing; it shares with On the Beach a desperate inevitability (though is entirely devoid of Shute’s consoling patina of civilisation), and with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: the world is ending, with ice, and there’s no getting out of it.

Ice is easy to get through but eludes the reader; my usual book-thoughts slip and squirm around it. It has an unnamed narrator in a dystopic world who is trying to get in touch with a girl (“she was pale … almost transparent”), and rescue her from another man. Our narrator travels to different parts of the country, and always finds the man and the girl there waiting for him, but evading his grasp. They are everpresent but always unreachable. The transitions from one place to another are dreamlike – “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me” – and Kavan gives the literalist reader a handy get-out when her narrator speaks of his prescription drugs producing “horrible dreams” which “were not confined to sleep only”.

But a literalist reading of this strange text is impossible, or anyway pointless. In story terms, there is not much more to it than mentioned above: other than a sense of slow progress toward the world’s icy apocalypse, the positions of many of the chapters could be changed with no loss of effect. The narrative integrity is fractured: at times the narrator seems to identify with the opposing other man (“I could imagine how it would feel to take hold of her wrists and to snap the fragile bones with my hands”), and raises explicitly the question of whether they are really two people. But, to confuse things further, he also narrates some sections in the third person from the viewpoint of the girl. His attitude to the girl seems as much threatening and sexual as protective. “It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim.” In his introduction, Christopher Priest argues against reading the book as an allegory, because of its “lack of exactness the reader can grasp”. Yet how else to read it? Priest in fact goes on to accept that the book might be reflective of Kavan’s mindset through her heroin addiction in later life: or, I would add, of her broken state of mind generally. This is surely not a controversial proposition, when the book contains such nudges as, “In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.” Where some apocalyptic novels are analogues for the geopolitical fears of the times, Ice seems to retreat to innerspace for its conflicts.

It was Priest’s introduction which made me think of the connections with (my only experience of) his own work, the more controlled but equally disruptive novel The Affirmation, where, as here, reality is both clearly presented and ultimately unknowable. The coming catastrophe, although it involves encroaching ice, is not clearly defined, and at times the threat seems to be in the narrator’s head, like ‘the Emergency’ in Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword. “It appeared that the situation at home was obscure and alarming, no precise information was coming through, the full extent of the disaster was not yet known.” The inability of this reader to divorce the book from the author reaches an appropriate culmination near the end. The girl, the ever-retreating grail of his quest, expects “to be ill-treated, to be made a victim, ultimately to be destroyed, either by unknown forces or by human beings.” It’s an apt enough epitaph for Kavan’s easily summarised, difficult to understand life and work.


  1. I’ve tended to group Kavan with Ann Quin – wrongly obviously, as despite the unknowable qulaity you describe John this doesn’t seem to present the reading challenge of Quin (which Max has discussed in his review of the latter).

    I described Robert Walser’s novel The Tanners as “written by somebody at odds with the world” and that descrpition seems to fit here – your Kafka comparison seems to line up with that as well. That makes me think about the similarities between Kavan, Kafka and Walser – difficult (or awkward) lives; retreat into the self; dislocation caused by drugs or illness.

    From that I make the leap to the contrast with another writer you mention – Ishiguro – and I wonder what that says about him. Is he in fact the superior *artist*, for not having had that similar experience or raw material, yet producing a work you feel bears those comparisons? I can’t say as I haven’t read him (apart from Artist of the Floating World) but it’s a ticklish thought.

    1. “Written by somebody at odds with the world” is a great description, leroy, and the comparison with Walser hadn’t occurred to me. (I’ve written about his novel The Assistant here, and keep beginning his Selected Stories [NYRB] before getting sidetracked.)

      Like you, I make the mental association with Quin, whom I haven’t read, perhaps through name similarity alone.

      I should add that although Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is similarly disruptive, it achieves its effects in a much more orderly and logical way – albeit the logic of a dream. Even when presenting mental collapse or something similar, Ishiguro is very neat and tidy…

      1. Yes, “neat and tidy” is how I’d think about his stuff alright, and possibly why I’m more inclined to the others in all their strangeness.

      2. Well I don’t mean to belittle Ishiguro by saying that: The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans are tremendously strange books, which I’d strongly recommend.

  2. The Unconsoled: there’s an interesting book!

    Great review and this does look intriguing.

    ‘…the possibly allegorical story of a protagonist (often unnamed) who embarks on a mysterious quest, and is frustrated by forces seemingly beyond his control. Expect repetition. Don’t expect a conclusion.’

    Is this anywhere close to Bernhard country, then?

  3. Bernhard doesn’t seem to me to be a close relation, Lee, though I’ve read only one of his (and one of Kavan’s). Bernhard seems far more controlled on a sentence and language level, where Kavan’s prose appears almost careless, and her repetition is in motifs and characters, whereas Bernhard (in Old Masters anyway) builds spiralling sentences of repetition that are hypnotic, hilarious and unsettling.

  4. ‘…hypnotic, hilarious and unsettling’ is a good way of putting it. There’s just something about the rhythm of his prose, the mesmeric snag of those reinforced assertions and repeated obsessions, that’s bizarrely addictive.

  5. Interesting. I have this one at home. I should have read it during the recent cold snap. Now with Spring here it seems somehow less timely…

    When I bought it I skimmed the first chapter for feel. It reminded me rather of Ballard, but with a much more dreamlike quality. Was that a product of my skimming too fast or is there a Ballardian element here?

  6. Well perhaps, Max, but only insofar as the book is sometimes boring and so is Ballard. When I said above that some of the chapters could have been rearranged with little loss of effect, that reflects my mild exasperation at the same thing happening over and over again. It’s a short book, but doesn’t particularly feel it – again, I suppose, similar to my experience with Ballard’s High-Rise.

  7. I was thinking about Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Decent into Hell mixed with <Memoirs of a Survivor as I read this and then noticed her endorsement on the cover. Perhaps Briefing is a bit more of “clear” vision of obscurity and Memoirs a less urgent apocalypse. I wonder what version is more believable, more enjoyable. I’ll have to come across a copy of Ice sooner or later…

  8. I first came across “Ice” in the mid-80s in Brian W. Aldiss’s magisterial survey of science fiction, “Trillion Year Spree” in which Aldiss enthused effusively about the book. I managed to find a copy of Picador edition and started it with trepidation fearing that it might indeed be opaque and viscous in the manner of Ballard or Robbe-Grillet. To my delight, I discovered that book was gripping, and the prose light and smooth. The novel reminded me somewhat of Christopher Priest’s “The Affirmation”. There was an event I attended on Kavan at the London Review Bookshop a couple of years ago with Aldiss, Priest and Doris Lessing on the panel (plus someone non-science fictional from “The Independent”). I do wonder what Kavan’s other books are like and whether “Ice” was something of a one-off; several are in print from Peter Owen (

    1. I went to the same event, and enjoyed it more than I expected. I wrote about both it and the novel shortly afterwards here. Haven’t read any of her other books yet, although I did pick up a couple on the strength of Ice.

      Interesting review, John, thanks – pleased to see someone else who both liked and was a bit befuddled by it…

  9. Thanks Paul. I am delighted that I was not the only one reminded of The Affirmation (though I preferred the latter, with its more orderly confusion, if that makes sense).

    I have A Scarcity of Love also from Peter Owen, and will no doubt get around to it soon. Or late.

    1. “The Affirmation” is certainly a more memorable and probably better book. I can remember almost nothing of “Ice” other than the fact that it is a very good book, whereas “The Affirmation” lingers much more clearly, even though I must have read the books at about the same kind of time in the early 1990s.

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