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.