My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jonathan Lethem begins his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of this 1967 novel, “Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There is only one.” Luckily, as he goes on he outgrows this meaningless blurb-babble, this blurble, and suggests Kavan’s antecedents and cognates: Poe and Kafka, Ballard’s Crash and Ishiguro’s Unconsoled, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Godard’s Alphaville, and more. This critical gesture is more important than it would otherwise be because Ice has been advertised as science fiction, whereas its tradition is actually oneiric modernism. Like medieval literature, modernist fiction has a strong tradition of dream-inspired narrative; modern writers from Poe to Ishiguro are not seeking religious wisdom in their dreams, however, but the personae and landscapes of the unconscious, the revelation of the repressed.
Such fiction tends to be more interesting when the unconscious it explores is a collective or social one rather than merely the author’s. Despite that, Kavan is a fascinating figure: born Helen Woods to an upper-class English family, she published realist novels under her married name Helen Ferguson in the 1930s; following a nervous breakdown, she took the name of one of her protagonists, Anna Kavan, and began publishing fiction in a much stranger vein (in this edition’s afterword, Kate Zambreno mentions that the “K” in Kavan “has been read for Kafka”); during World War II, she traveled around the world; she spent time in and out of institutions and moreover became addicted to heroin. Combine such a 20th-century life with such offbeat fiction, and you will get the work explained in terms of the biography. Accordingly, Ice seems to have been freighted beyond reason with biographical interpretations—particularly focused on Kavan’s heroin addition, presumably the source of the novel’s titular apocalyptic imagery, an all-encroaching white oblivion.
But reading from Kavan’s life is even less satisfying than reading Ice as straight science fiction. The novel’s catastrophic ice age is presented as a public and political matter, a kind of nuclear winter unleashed by irresponsible scientists and superpowers. When Kavan writes about ostensibly private issues of obsession and control, they are portrayed through the theme of men’s sadistic sexual domination of women and women’s masochistic complicity with it (in this emphasis on willed victimhood, Kavan is not an orthodox feminist). Kavan is working through issues of much broader relevance than her particular story.
When critics tear right through the texture of the text to find the writer’s “real life” as if rummaging through closets and drawers, I am reminded that Nabokov associated psychoanalysis with totalitarianism—the abolition of privacy to control what the public can think and say. Even more so in the case of a writer like Kavan. She takes her own experience and devises a fable from them whose real-world referents are so unclear (the novel names no country, character, or time period) that its relevance is virtually unlimited in scope. Why should we be so sure this is only Helen Woods’s story? What if it is yours or mine? Scholarship has its place, but it should not become a defense against literature.
The story of Ice: a male narrator returns to his home country in quest of an “old friend” or former lover, a fragile young woman whose psyche was permanently damaged by “a sadistic mother.” The narrator claims that the woman sees herself as a perennial victim and will submit to any cruel fate, but he himself is afflicted with sadism. Ironically, given his own sadistic desires, one of the narrator’s goals is to free the woman from “the warden,” her other husband or lover, who is far more overtly domineering and cruel—and not only toward her but toward others, as he is depicted variously as a kind of sheriff, general, mafioso, or warlord at various points in the tale. But the narrator frequently experiences visions of the young woman in various tortured and submissive postures, of which this is the first:
An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the the walls moving slowly toward her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the center. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.
The surrealism, the stark black-and-white imagery, the blandly descriptive and formal tone, the fetishistic and incantatory repetitions (four whites, four ices in one paragraph), the sadism, the instability of ethical perspective (is the author condemning the narrator or identifying with him?), the unapologetic examination of cruelty—all are characteristic of the novel’s mode and style.
Ice has the feel of a dream or compulsive sequence of dreams, stopping and restarting as the characters re-negotiate their relationship to each other. At times, the warden allows the narrator to see the young woman; at times, she accepts him and at others rebuffs him; at times he pursues her obsessively and at other times strives to put her out of his mind. Because the narrator is constantly in motion, traveling by ship from one country to another, the narrative is never stable. Each chapter when completed, in my experience, evanesces from the mind, and the narrator himself remarks on reaching a safe port at the beginning of a late chapter,
Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been dreamed or imagined. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.
The novel’s vagueness, then, should not be regarded as a fault or flaw but as a deliberately sought technique of disorientation. The narrator remarks frequently that “[r]eality has always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” and also that “the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind,” so how much of this is to be taken as real and how much a hallucination is persistently in question. As Lethem remarks, Kavan introduces visions and dream-sequences into a narrative whose grounding tone is already hallucinatory and oneiric, layering unreality upon unreality.
The unreality, however, has real meaning. Kavan is investigating the instinct for destruction—both self-destruction and the destruction of others—which is the only thing that can explain humanity’s potentially world-ending violence. Nature and civilization are collapsing around our trio of narrator, woman, and warden: walls of ice close in on the world from north and south poles, cities are destroyed, refugees massacred, nuclear weapons deployed, and in the few temperate zones hysteria reigns. Their menage—and folie—à trois is the microcosm of a more general catastrophe, one that could only have been written in the middle of the 20th century, the world’s first epoch in which a man-made, secular apocalypse become possible. Hence the novel’s seeming villain, the warden, is presented as a charismatic and attractive figure with his piercing blue eyes (“his arrogant, ice-blue gaze,” clearly meant to evoke the ice), even as the young woman is doom-eager and submits to her degradation—
Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore. It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.
The narrator similarly remarks again and again on his kinship to or identity with the cruel warden: “we were like brothers, like identical twin brothers.” The point is not to “blame the victim” but to understand the capacities of the human psyche that make us all victims and victimizers, sometimes of ourselves. We are all entangled in the potential catastrophe, just as this book’s presiding consciousness is dispersed among the three characters who keep flowing into one another and losing their discrete identities. All of them, perhaps, are echoes of the “sadistic mother” named at the beginning of the story and of the author composing it.
In common with other dystopias, Ice has a moralistic streak. The narrator is some kind of naturalist who desultorily intends to research the Indris, a species of singing lemur who figure as the symbolic opposite of the ice, nature seen as a redemptive or utopian force. When the narrator finds the Indris in the equatorial jungle after attempting to put his obsession with the young woman behind him, he is given a vision of bliss and peace:
It seemed more as if I received a message of hope from another world; a world without violence or cruelty, in which despair was unknown. I had often dreamed of this place, where life was a thousand times more exciting and splendid than on earth.
He quickly decides that this paradise is not for him, not for humanity at large in their present state: “But I knew that my place was here, in our world under sentence of death…I was committed to violence and must keep to my pattern.” In the narrator’s opinion, humanity deserves its destruction at the hands of sadistic mother nature:
Instead of my world, there would soon be only ice, snow, stillness, death; no more violence, no war, no victims; nothing but frozen silence, absence of life. […] A frightful crime had been committed, against nature, against the universe, against life. By rejecting life, man had destroyed the immemorial order, destroyed the world; now everything was about to crash down in ruins.
Earlier, the narrator observes of the ice spreading over the world that “the sight…did not seem intended for human eyes,” suggesting with the modernist writer’s characteristic religious diffidence the vague potential of another, higher intelligence that can make sense of the mess we have made. In the meantime, we have the mysteries of fiction, our public dreaming, to ponder, and Kavan dreams it up brilliantly.