Reviewed by Karen Langley
Ice has come a long way since its first publication by its champion, Peter Owen, in 1968. My initial encounter with it was in a striking Picador edition from 1973, which I picked up in the early 1980s and still have on my shelves, although the pages are now browning and fragile. Kavan and her work have tended to slip in and out of focus since then, but the recent issuing of her seminal novel as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK, a Penguin Classic in the US and a Cased Classic from Peter Owen, all at the same time, has thrown the spotlight back onto them.
Kavan had an unconventional life; born in France as Helen Woods, she initially published under her married name, Helen Ferguson, and her early fictions were more conventionally written. In 1939 she adopted the name Anna Kavan, both for writing and as her legal name, and this was the given name of one of her earlier characters. Twice-married, she lived in places as wide-ranging as Burma, Bali, New Zealand, America and London, the last-named being where she spent her latter days, painting, writing and dealing with a heroin addiction which had plagued her for much of her life. Kavan died a year after Ice was published, not as is often believed from a drug addiction but from heart failure.
As with her life, Kavan’s novels range far and wide, and Ice, generally regarded as her triumph, is a book that defies classification. Telling a dark story of obsession and pursuit, a pale, glass-like girl with albino hair is the object of desire and dominance by the narrator and also the girl’s sinister husband, alternately known as an artist or simply by the rather intimidating title The Warden.
This obsession is played out against the backdrop of a world which is undergoing some kind of global catastrophe. As wars are fought and civilisations collapse, a new glacial age appears to be coming and the ice is gradually creeping over the planet threatening all life. In a series of vivid and picaresque chapters, the unnamed narrator pursues the unnamed girl. Haunted by her image, his narrative lapses in and out of hallucinatory sequences, with the reader unsure what is real or imagined. As the narrator, the girl and The Warden come together, are separated and attempt to survive the madness surrounding them, nothing seems certain apart from the fact that, however, much the remaining humans try to ignore the inevitable, the world is coming to an end.
My ideas were confused. In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.
Ice is a deeply disturbing and disconcerting novel, and reading it during one of the coldest Decembers I can recall was a particularly atmospheric experience. Kavan brilliantly conjures up the cold, fractured landscape of her story and this reflects the coldness of her characters and the dislocation of their lives. The disjuncture between the imaginings of the somewhat unreliable narrator and what seems to be reality is jarring, with the narrative slipping in and out of fantasy and reality with nary a pause. The global disaster which has taken place is unspecified, but there is a feeling that the world has undergone some great, irreversible calamity and that apocalyptical changes are taking place.
The girl is the ultimate victim: damaged in childhood, preyed on by every man she comes across (including the narrator), her portrayal is unsettling. Even the choice of word to describe her is significant, as she’s infantilised at every turn and this gives the book a disquieting tone; possibly an aspect I wouldn’t have picked up all those years ago, despite my feminist leanings. We only see the glass girl from the perspective of the narrator, with her frail body, light hair and almost transparent personality giving her almost the aspect of ice herself. She is allowed little chance to state what *she* might want from life, having been completely dominated by her mother in her childhood (a strand apparently drawn from Kavan’s own life).
Systematic bullying when she was most vulnerable had distorted the structure of her personality, made a victim of her, to be destroyed, either by things or by human beings, people or fjords and forests; it made no difference, in any case she could not escape. The irreparable damage inflicted had long ago rendered her fate inevitable.
Lack of communication destroys most of the chances the narrator and the girl have to make any sense of their lives, and the former seems as damaged as the girl, attempting to blame his problems on her at one point.
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.
It’s possible to apply a number of complex interpretations to the book, a particularly striking one contrasting the need to control and destroy the girl with the need to control (and by result) destroy the world; this offers the possibility of a kind of feminist reading of the book, with the threat to the girl and the threat to the world both being the result of man’s destructive impulses bringing about the end of life. However, the Peter Owen Cased Classics comes with an interesting introduction by Christopher Priest in which he places the book clearly in the genre of ‘slipstream’ literature. This is a term I’d not come across before, and loosely can be stated as a “kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction” or even “the fiction of strangeness”. Certainly, it’s impossible to force “Ice” into a particular genre definition but if nothing else it’s a book powerfully and presciently aware of what man is doing to the world and the loss this will bring about.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the different versions that Ice has been through; for an obscure book by a neglected author, it actually runs to a surprising number of editions. Although the core text is the same, it’s currently available in the three new volumes I mentioned above. Perhaps wisely the UK Penguin Modern Classic lets the book stand on its own, allowing readers to simply make up their own mind. However, this version doesn’t really hint at the fact that the book could be read as an allegory of Kavan’s addiction, with the hallucinatory narrative drawing on her state of mind under a drug, and this could be a case where some knowledge of the author’s life would really inform a reading of a text.
Interestingly, for the US market the book is a black covered Penguin Classic and comes with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem and an afterword by Kate Zambreno. I don’t own this version, but I had a quick look at an extract from Lethem’s piece online and this focuses on the stylistic elements of the book, the strange slippage from fantasy to reality – I’d be keen to read his whole take on the novel.
As for the Peter Owen Cased Classic, this is a handsome hardback edition with stunning original artwork on the front cover by Naomi Frears, and a white dustwrapper with a cut-out section showing part of the design. Priest’s introduction is fascinating, touching on parts of Kavan’s life and her friendship with Rhys Davies (who collected and introduced a posthumous volume of Kavan’s stories, Julia and the Bazooka). It’s intriguing to see such differing responses to the book just over these few editions.
So which version of Ice should you *actually* read? Well, if you only want the text (which is after all the core of a book), then the very pretty Penguin Modern Classic should suit you fine. If you want supporting material, it’s probably worth trying to track down a copy of the US black Penguin Classic which *is* available from online stores. But if you want something really special, you should definitely be getting the beautiful Peter Owen Cased Classic. And I feel I have to put in a word for tracking down that old Picador edition I first read back in the 1980s, which comes with a moving introduction by Brian Aldiss. This provides some personal recollections and biographical facts that illuminate the book and Kavan’s life and helps build up a picture of the writer and her work. All of these editions are lovely in their own way, and of course will give you Kavan’s marvellous tale, but this is a case where you need to decide what you want from a book. Me? I reckon I’ll have to have the lot!
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.
The way we read a book which is as complex and provocative as Ice is inevitably going to change over the years; our points of view, our attitudes towards women and the constant fight they have for control of their bodies and their lives, will continue to inform readings of such a masterpiece. What *is* certain is that in a world wracked with fear, conflict and global warming, Kavan’s cold and bleak vision has never been more relevant.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and expects the end of the world at any time soon…
Anna Kavan, Ice:
- Penguin Modern Classics, 2017. 978-0241307397, 182pp, paperback. BUY
- Penguin Classics (USA) – 50th anniversary edition, 2017. 978-0143131991, 208pp, paperback. BUY
- Peter Owen Cased Classic, 2017. 978-0720620054, 192pp, hardback. BUY
- Picador Books, 1973. 0330234420, 128pp, paperback.
Buy, where available, from the Book Depository by clicking on ‘BUY’ above.