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Ice, Anna Kavan

March 11, 2015

iceIce, Anna Kavan (1967)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Despairingly she looked all around. She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as bid as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world” (p 37)

Anna Kavan’s masterful post-apocalyptical novel Ice (1967) parallels the death throws of a relationship with the disintegration of the world. As the unnamed narrator (N) and the girl (G) traverse an indistinct, interchangeable, world transformed by glacial encroachment, only the same movements are possible: flight, pursuit, flight, pursuit… Repetition reinforces the profoundly unnerving feel of both physical and mental imprisonment: as movements are predicted, trauma is repeated.

Kavan described her own writings as “‘nocturnal, where dreams and reality merge” (Booth, p 69). In the prologue to her earlier novel Sleep Has His House (1947) she explains the reason for this self-description: “Because of my fear that the daytime world would become real, I had to establish reality in another place” (quoted Booth, p 78). Kavan’s fiction is highly autobiographical and informed by her experiences in asylums, heroin addiction (she died the year after Ice was published), and psychiatric treatment (and friendship with psychiatrists) by various proponents of existential psychology.

It is hard not to see similarities with her contemporary JG Ballard (especially the fraught apocalyptical landscapes of The Crystal World and The Drowned World), who was a fan of her work (Booth, p 70). Francis Booth, in Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980, points out that both Ballard’s early post-apocalyptic novels and Ice operate in ruined worlds both psychological and physical (p 70).

Kavan was a literary author who operated outside of SF conventions. The novels published after she took the name Anna Kavan – from one of her earlier pseudo-autobiographical characters – were highly experimental in nature. It should be pointed out that Kavan did not intend to write science fiction despite the fact that Brian Aldiss voted it the best SF novel of 1967 (Booth, p 97). According to Booth, most likely she had not read any of her SF contemporaries – also, many of the tropes that appear in Ice had appeared in her writing for decades (Booth, p 97).

Highly recommended for fans of literary SF in the vein of early JG Ballard and the more radical experiments of Brian Aldiss.

N (the unnamed narrator) is sent back to his homeland “to investigate the rumors of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world” (p 17). Of course, the government would not disclose the facts but he had been privately informed about a steep “rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device” (p 38). Whatever the exact nature of the disaster, Kavan is uninterested in laying out lengthy scientific discussions of man-made ecological transformation, a “vast ice-mass” is created that creeps unchecked across the landscape (p 38). This metaphorical agent of destruction mirrors the psychological state of the characters.

N claims that “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me”. Places which he once remembered are now “becoming “increasingly unconvincing and indistinct” (p 17). This “general disorder” is a pervasive quality (p 17). He soon gives up his aims to investigate the impending emergency and instead seeks an unnamed “girl” (G) whom at one point he had intended to marry.

For N, G is an object to possess: “I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real” (p 19). N’s psychological state is often disturbing. His hallucinations/dreams, which N claims are caused by drugs prescribed to combat his insomnia and headaches (p 2), visualize her crushed by ice, suffering, screaming: “I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in a white face, heard her thin, agonized scream” (p 18). And, N feels no pity for her but rather feels an “an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer” (p 18).

The countless occasions N hallucinates visions her destruction, her erosion, her fragmentation, her brittle limbs cracking like ice, are repetitive, the symptoms of N’s deep trauma, of atavistic desires to possess and control. She too is scarred by her experiences.

“Her face wore its victim’s look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it was the faintest possible hint of bruising on the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eyes and mouth. It was madly attractive to me in a certain kind of way […] At the moment, in what I took for an optical delusion, the black interior of the house prolonged itself into a black arm and hand, which shot out and grasped her so violently that her shocked white faces cracked to pieces and she tumbled into the dark” (p 28).

N is caught between two opposite forces. The first, possessing G who flees from all meaningful connections, almost resigned to the destruction of the world. The second, his study of “an almost extinct race of singing lemurs known as Indris, living in the forest trees of a remote tropical island”. He is transported away from the destruction of the world by their melodious voices: “I began speaking to them, forgetting myself in the fascination of the subject” (p 21). N is drawn to them. G is repulsed by them: “To me, the extraordinary jungle music was lovely, mysterious magical. To her it was a sort of torture” (p 25). He wishes to return to the land of the singing lemurs and laments his inability to separate himself from his visions of possession: “She prevented me, holding me back with thin arms” (p 101).

After G flees from her husband, N runs after her possessed by horrific images of her death and destruction: “She escaped from the forest at length only to see the fjord waiting for her. An evil effluence rose from the water, something primitive, savage, demanding victims, hungry for a human sacrifice” (p 71).

Flight, pursuit, flight, capture, escape, pursuit, flight. As if caught up in some post-apocalyptic performance of Ravel’s ‘La valse’ (1919-20), a macabre dance of death, N and G – possessed by primordial forces – move across an imprecise allegorical landscape at the end of the world where powers shift and mutate and realign and decay.

As the destructive dance continues, fragmentation occurs: N cannot separate himself from the captors who hold G “I fought to retain my own identity, but all my efforts failed to keep up apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him. At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes” (p 131). But they are both trapped in this pattern. The visions of Indris and the melodious lemurs are but memories crushed too by the end.

Filled with unsettling yet gorgeous images, Ice is a triumph of 60s experimental literature with post-apocalyptic undertones. N’s visions of G’s destruction unnerve and cut deep. The dreamlike repetition, the interchangeability of the landscapes, N’s hallucinations and obsessions, are like some second skin you cannot shed. A melodious rumination on destruction…

“Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling laval poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path” (p 131).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2015 12:45 pm

    Rats, now I’ve gone and bought a copy. I can’t afford to live this way, reading book blogs and spending all my money…

    • April 6, 2015 1:56 pm

      ….hopefully you like it! (but yeah, needs a reprinting—GOLLANCZ Masterworks please!—to bring the price down)

  2. March 14, 2015 9:58 am

    This sounds great, thanks for the review!
    Looks like the local uni library has a copy, but it’s currently out on loan…

    • March 24, 2015 12:41 pm

      It appears to have a pretty substantial readership in non-SF circles. I’m unsure why SF audiences haven’t been seduced by it… Well I do, it’s as if Kafka and Ballard had a love child (it’s a distinct and original vision of course but there are similar elements and feel). And that means it’s a hard read.

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