What’s the Story: Reading Anna Kavan’s Ice

by L. Timmel Duchamp

Wed 6 Jun 2001 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Reviews | Leave a Comment

LCRW 14 Online Extra

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a novel of relentless, evanescent beauty that depicts a world in which two explicitly linked forms of violence dominate and inexorably and insanely destroy it. First published in 1967, on the eve of the second wave of feminism, Ice has never been regarded as a significant work of proto-feminist literature, although scholars occasionally include it on lists of sf by women written before the major works of feminist sf burst onto the scene in the 1970s. The novel’s surrealist form demands a different sort of reading than that of science fiction driven by narrative causality, but the text’s obsessive insistence on linking the global political violence of the Cold War with the threateningly lethal sexual objectification of Woman and depicting them as two poles of the same suicidal collective will to destroy life makes Ice an interesting feminist literary experiment.

The novel offers a story of compulsive, anal-sadistic pursuit set in a world in which ice is slowly but inexorably taking over the planet. According to the narrator, “the defenseless earth could only lie waiting for its destruction, either by avalanches of ice, or by chain-explosions which would go on and on, eventually transforming it into a nebula, its very substance disintegrated” (123). The narrator attributes this looming annihilation of the world to “the collective death-wish, the fatal impulse of self-destruction”(123). Of “the girl,” the novel’s chief human victim and the object of pursuit, the narrator remarks that “the disintegration could be observed. She grew thinner and paler, more transparent, ghostlike. It was interesting to watch”(113).

The novel’s characters are not personalities but archetypal figures in a pattern that is repeated synchronically throughout the narrative, points mapping a relation the narrator presents as inescapable, in which each figure is constituted by its relation with the other two. The male narrator claims that “the girl” is “at the centre, not knowing she was encircled, while we advanced towards her from different sides, I from one point, he from another, and then the ice. . .”(137) But it is the pattern that is central and key; “the girl” is simply a role: “Her part was to suffer; that was known and accepted”(148). The narrator’s role is to alternate his compulsive pursuit and possession of “the girl” with the exercise of political violence (whether that of delivering effective propaganda or fighting as a mercenary in the pay of the West) while daydreaming about another world, in which gentle lemurs — “symbols of life as it could be on earth, if man’s destructiveness, violence, and cruelty were eliminated” (57) — sing beautiful songs and the world is “infinitely alive,” a world the narrator says he must reject because he is “committed to violence and must keep to [his] pattern”(124). The third figure in the pattern, “the warden,” is the narrator’s worst, most psychologically grandiose self. The warden exercises power with the same ruthlessness characteristic of the narrator, but has greater power and control over the world (and “the girl”) than does the narrator. Although the narrator at times regards the warden as his rival, he more often identifies with him:

It was clear that he regarded her as his property. I considered that she belonged to me. Between the two of us she was reduced to nothing; her only function might have been to link us together. His face wore the look of extreme arrogance which always repelled me. Yet I suddenly felt an indescribable affinity with him, a sort of blood-contact, generating confusion, so that I began to wonder if therewere two of us.(76-77)

“The girl,” significantly, regards the narrator and the warden as virtually indistinguishable. The narrator describes one of the episodes in which he tries to get “the girl” to go away with him (away from the warden) and notes that “the girl” asks why she should. “She sounded astonished. ‘There’s no difference — ‘”(65)

“The girl” is repeatedly designated by a few key details. “Her face wore its victim’s look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it as the faintest possible hint of bruising in the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eyes and mouth”(16). She is thin and pale and has silver hair. Kavan felt that she, too, had “suffered injuries in childhood,” had been bullied and “weakened by the mother who for years had persistently crushed [her will] into submission”(36). And at the time she wrote this novel, she was herself thin and pale and had silver hair. This figure of “the girl” recurs often in Kavan’s fiction, though usually as a character with depth rather than a flat point on a map. As early as 1946 Kavan suggested in a review she wrote for Horizon that “love has been degraded from the form-and-beauty fixation and reduced to the possessive stage”(Callard, 87). In Ice, however, the narrative places emphasis not on the fact of the girl’s brutalization and suffering, but on the pattern itself, the pattern that apparently constitutes “the girl.” Significantly, the narrator tells us that “the girl” loathes and fears the songs of the lemurs that are symbols of a world without cruelty and violence; the narrative thus recognizes that “the girl” is constituted by cruelty and violence — and thus must also, like the narrator, reject a world in which they have no place.

This shift in emphasis strikes me as a breakthrough for Kavan, suggesting that she had ceased to search the particular individual psychologies of her characters for the answer to what she had come to see as a pathological pattern of sexual and social politics. She writes, in a letter to publisher Peter Owen

[T]he pursuit is the book. The girl’s importance as a victim should be enough to justify the pursuing. I mean that peculiar attraction between victim and victimizer, drawing two opposite poles together until finally they are almost identified with one another. (Callard, 138)

Authors often bestow their own names on their protagonists. But Anna Kavan’s is the only case I know of an author assuming the name of one of her protagonists. When she was in her late thirties and had already published six novels, Helen Ferguson (nee Woods), following a nervous breakdown and a period of confinement in a clinic, legally changed her name to Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her third novel, Let Me Alone (1930), and another novel, Stranger Still(1935). What would impel a writer to fling off both of the names bestowed on her at birth and adopt the name she had put to the characterization of an intelligent, promising proto-feminist bullied and brutalized and finally transformed into an easily-dominated victim? The author’s deep alienation from her family might well have lowered her resistance to changing her name, but why choose that of such a damaged character? Brian Aldiss characterizes this name-change as “full of masochism and pride”(139). He and other critics suggest that “Kavan” was attractive to her because of its proximity to the name “Kafka.” I tend to read the gesture as one of defiant self-creation.

Certainly many of the details of the life story of the fictional Anna Kavan resemble those of Helen Ferguson’s early life, some of which, as mentioned above, recur repeatedly in characters resembling the Anna Kavan character. I find it significant that although a willed change in her identity did not diminish her obsession with this figure of damaged victimization, it did coincide with the creation of a radically altered physical appearance as well as the emergence of a markedly different literary style.

Gendered assumptions about writers promote the presumption that when a woman makes use of autobiographical material in her fiction she is in fact “simply” — confessionally — describing herself. In fact, as both her biographer D.A. Callard and Aldiss attest, the writer who called herself Anna Kavan exercised a great deal of agency in her life, despite her subjection to suicidal bouts of depression, the chronic pain of a spinal disease, and a forty-year addiction to heroin. (Contrary to the oft-repeated romantic assertion that she killed herself with an intentional heroin overdose, she actually died of heart disease.) In the course of her life she wrote sixteen novels, innumerable short stories from which five collections have so far been drawn, was a talented painter (of “bizarre studies of tormented women”), worked for a military research unit during World War II, and in 1950 established and operated an architecture and design firm (“Kavan Properties”). She even had the determination and courage to pay a vanity press to publish A Scarcity of Love when she could not get a commercial publisher to buy it. Many fine writers, regardless of gender, have been driven by a particular obsession in their work; what matters, in such cases, is the creativity with which they explore and elaborate on their obsession. The typical stories told about such work tend to be gendered: when the writers are men, they are assumed to be masterful and courageous, while when they are women, they are assumed to be confessional and not in full artistic control of their material. The case of Anna Kavan (like many others) gives the lie to this gendered story.

Kavan’s Ice must, I believe, be read as the work of an author not only in full control of her imaginative exploration of traumatic life experience, but also deliberately deploying experimental techniques. And yet the insistent gendering of the story critics tell about literary innovation in combination with Kavan’s history of depression and heroin addiction has repeatedly rendered Kavan’s departures from conventional prose styles an accident of her supposedly abnormal mental status. As Aldiss notes with regret, to date Anna Kavan is “a cult figure” and not yet recognized as an author to be read seriously (143). Her novel, Sleep Has His House (1947), for instance, is a gorgeous piece of surrealist writing. But it is frequently described as a “memoir,” and reviews praising it typically avoid acknowledging its stylistic innovation by referring to her prose descriptions as “dreams so carefully notated as paintings by Dali or de Chirico,” or as “a fascinating clinical casebook of her individual obsessions and the effects of drugs on her imagination.” But Sleep Has His House is fiction, not memoir, and Kavan’s brief untitled preface to it declares that the novel “describes in the night-time language certain stages in the development of one human being” (np). Is this not a clear statement of aesthetic and intellectual purpose? And yet even the blurbs on the back of the book insist that it is a “childhood memoir,” “a testament of remarkable if feverish beauty” — surrealistic in its imagery but by implication not an actual work of surrealism. Rhys Davies, who introduces one of Kavan’s posthumous collections, suggests that her writing (like her drug addiction) allowed her “a retreat from the realistic, the tamed, the domestic world”(xi) — a curious assertion, considering both how fiercely her fiction grapples with the trauma of her early life and that in the same essay he states “She wrote in a mirror. It imprisoned her” (viii), which implies (as does the continual assumption by critics that her fiction is really “memoir”) that her fiction merely reproduced her life rather than consciously and with superb aesthetic control used her life as the material for making art.

Critic and experimental writer Christine Brooke-Rose cites “the common experience, repeated many times”

that while any experiment with the language or the conventions of the novel is at first automatically overlooked, this applies much more consistently and durably to a woman experimenter than to a man. A man experimenter, once he does attract attention, is innovative, bold, original, and so on, in articles that show a knowledge of development from precedents; a woman experimenter is just, well, an experimenter, the term often slightly perjorative, without further exploration. Indeed, any noticed or imagined development from precedents is mentioned only for dismissal as imitation.(4)[1]

On changing her name and remaking herself after her breakdown, Anna Kavan ceased in 1939 to write in the conventional psychological narrative style that had characterized the fiction she had been writing since 1921. As any experienced novelist knows, it is no small matter to radically alter the style in which one has been writing for eighteen years, particularly when one’s work has been well received. Following the publication of House of Sleep, Kavan’s short fiction ceased to be found in The New Yorker, and US publishers declined to publish her novels; obviously the change in style did not benefit her career as a modestly successful mid-list novelist. According to Callard, her work fell into such oblivion that many people assumed she had died. Kavan’s experiments with style proceeded through conscious choice and likely reflected her sense that she had exhausted the possibilities of conventional narrative techniques in her constant mining of the vein of material that most interested her.

Ice, her final novel, distills the recurring elements of her (perhaps) autobiographical material and objectifies them with a cold clarity that marks a departure from her previous work. Kavan herself called it “a sort of present day fable” (Callard,137). It is often categorized as science fiction, though Christopher Priest, labeling it “slipstream,” reads it as a “sustained and extended metaphor for the descent into, and traverse of, the ice-laden world of the addict.”[2] Aldiss admits that although he considers it a Symbolist work, he proclaimed it the best sf novel of 1967 in order to draw attention to it. Ice makes use of science-fiction conventions. (For me, it particularly evokes the catastrophic “ice-nine” of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which appeared the year before Kavan began work on the novel). But reading Ice as straightforward apocalyptic science fiction requires regarding most of the text as hallucination and forcing the creation of a diachronous narrative where one does not actually exist. In Who Are You — the novel that immediately preceded Ice — Kavan’s figures of “the girl,” “Mr. Dog-Head” (her husband), and “Suéde Boots” makes the narrative experiment of putting the characters through certain situations twice. Ice goes much farther; its incessant repetition and persistent departure from narrative causality together produce an inexorable vision of the Cold War world, creating “a subjective magic containing,” as Jacqueline Johnson says of surrealism, “at once the object and the subject. . . . As the subject has become more internal, subjectivity has become more impersonal” (242). In fact, subjectivity in Ice is chillingly impersonal and objectified precisely as an effect of eruptions of the unconscious into the narrative. While Janet Byrne is, I think, correct to read Ice as “an effort to convey something larger than personal doom” (11), reading the novel as science fiction misleads her into characterizing its many eruptions of the unconscious into the text as the narrator’s “hallucinations.” In short, I believe the novel can only be fully appreciated when read as a work of surrealism.

“Surrealism,” Penelope Rosemont observes, “begins with the recognition that the real (the realreal, one might say, opposed to the fragmented, one-dimensional pseudo-real upheld by narrow realisms and rationalisms) includes many diverse elements that are ordinarily repressed or suppressed. . . . [S]urrealism is an immeasurably expanded awareness” (xxxiii). Ice, that is to say, uses science fiction conventions to take a surrealist bead on the Cold War reality of the 1960s. What it does not do, however, is tell a diachronous narrative replete with internal historical continuity, although many readers may be tempted to read it as though it does. Lyn Hejinian describes the synchronous narrative continuum as

on a plane extending over the full expanse of the moment . . . characterized by an existential density in which present relationships and differentiations, to the extent that we can take them in, are the essential activity. The diachronous is characterized by causality, or one could say narrativity . . . whereas the synchronous is characterized by parallelism. One notices analogues and coincidences, resemblances and differences, the simultaneous existence of variations, contradictions, and the apparently random. (116-117)

On the second page of the novel, the narrator observes that “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me”(6). As he drives through the countryside toward the home of “the girl” and her husband, he notes that his “vivid recollection” of a previous visit was “losing its reality, becoming increasingly unconvincing and indistinct,” particularly by comparison with the ruins of the countryside, “as if the entire district had been laid waste during my absence” (6). The narrator then relates the first of many dissociated images that erupt constantly into the text:

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 walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. (7)

The narrator mentions his intense pleasure at seeing her suffer and then goes on to describe his past history with her and her husband, which for a few paragraphs gives the illusion of being a return to an orderly, historicized reality. But the details of this supposedly grounding “history,” as the narrator elaborates it, are in turn marked by an eruption of sadistic images and events of uncertain reality. A scene that takes place in summer, well before the onset of the looming catastrophe, morphs into “the girl’s” being harrowed, again, by ice. By the time the narrator describes his arrival at “the girl’s” house, the text should have made the reader wary of assuming that the novel’s narrative will be neatly comprehensible as a linear story with clear references to past and present, albeit interrupted by hallucinatory outbursts.

Kavan’s publisher, Peter Owen, rejected earlier versions of the book (in opposition to his own readers’ recommendations), complaining that “the book would be better if its internal logic was more clear and its action more pronounced” (Callard, 137). Kavan replied two weeks later that she saw the story “as one of those recurring dreams (hence the repetitive voyages etc.) which at times become nightmare. This dreamlike atmosphere is the essence of the whole concept” (137). She writes “I’m not sure what you mean by its internal logic. As I’ve said, this is not realistic writing” (138). Owen here seems to have been conflating “internal logic” with diachronous, narrative causality, which is what the novel was actually missing. The synchronous, as Hejinian notes, is characterized by parallelism, which can include “analogues and coincidences, resemblances and differences, the simultaneous existence of variations, contradictions, and the apparently random” — and is exactly what we find in Ice. Repetition of action, vision, image, and scene occurs throughout the novel without regard to plausibility. The narrative takes no interest in creating an internal history within which the characters’ experiences and responses can be understood. Moreover, the voice of the narrator across the entire space of the text carries no stable identity other than its use of “I,” its continual assertion of compulsion (or not) to hunt and possess “the girl,” its expressions of either identification or disgust with others’ violence, and its tendency to oscillate between fantasizing success and heroism on the one hand and failure and despair on the other. Of the narrator’s actual history, we know absolutely nothing.

Indeed, the narrative’s indifference to its own internal history bore so heavily on my reading that I was startled when, less than twenty pages from the end, the narrator “vaguely recalls” an event related earlier in the narrative. A number of other such references appear thereafter, right up to the end, which I found even more jarring in its departure from what I would call the novel’s “internal logic.” Kavan offers us an implausible attempt at a “happy ending” (notwithstanding the narrator’s admission that he and everyone else will soon be dead). Shortly after having brutalized “the girl” yet one more time, the narrator “discovers tenderness” (157). “The girl” is suspicious, but the narrator describes feeding her chocolate and praising her and marvels at how much pleasure treating her kindly unexpectedly affords him.

Kavan struggled over a period of four years to make the book acceptable to Owen. Since Owen’s rejection of it centered on its lack of well-rounded characters and narrative causality, it seems likely that Kavan did what she could to pacify his desire for a more conventional “story.” I’d be very interested to see Kavan’s earlier versions of the novel. My guess is that the narrator’s “discovery” of tenderness and the abrupt attempt to imply narrative continuity, which in my judgment alone prevents the novel from being a masterpiece, were revisions Kavan made simply to get the book published (or were perhaps made by Owen himself, after Kavan’s death). Happily, the last sentence of the book shows Kavan having the last word:

The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring. (158)


[1] I see an interesting parallel between the cases of Brooke-Rose and Kavan. For decades now Brooke-Rose has written novels that are “lipograms” — usually involving grammatical constraints, an experimental practice associated with Oulipo. Brooke-Rose published her first such novels, Out and Such in the early 1960s and another, Between, in 1968, just a few months before Georges Perec published his La Disparition. Brooke-Rose has received little critical recognition, while Perec and the rest of Oulipo are, of course, celebrated and famous for the boldness of their experiments. Speaking of Ice, Callard writes “The most distinguishable literary influence on the book is Robbe-Grillet and his theories of the nouveau roman. . . . However, Anna Kavan’s writing had tended towards this before the nouveau roman had appeared on the scene. Her enthusiasm for this school, the only group of writers to whom she ever expressed a partiality, was almost certainly because they moved in areas she had already explored” (141).

[2] To read this novel chiefly as an extended metaphor about heroin addiction surely impoverishes it. But Victoria Nelson is also inclined to interpret it in this way. “One may draw the obvious parallels between the street name for heroin, the novel’s title, and the destruction of the world represented within it. The world and the woman are the same entity; the body of the planet is her body; man’s sadistic misuse of both has resulted in their deaths” (162). Critics’ idée fixe with Kavan’s well-managed heroin addiction (which few of her acquaintances ever suspected) have apparently blinded them to the constant references to Cold War politics — which she depicts as indirectly causing the spread of the ice. Ice as a product of Cold War conflict, which the narrative depicts as also promoting extreme self-censorship, such that the threat of total destruction is socially unspeakable, strikes me as an apt metaphor for a novel about global annihilation written shortly after the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis.

Works Cited:

Brian Aldiss, “Kafka’s Sister” in The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF & Fantasy, Liverpool University Press, 1995, pp.137-144

Janet Byrne, “Moving Toward Entropy: Anna Kavan’s Science Fiction Mentality” Extrapolation 23,1 (1982):5-11

Christine Brooke-Rose, Invisible Author: Last Essays, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, Ohio, 2003

D.A. Callard, The Case of Anna Kavan: A Biography, Peter Owen, London, 1992

Rhys Davies, “Introduction” in Anna Kavan, Julia and the Bazooka and Other Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1975, ppvii-xii

Lyn Hejinian, “Two Stein Talks,” in The Language of Inquiry, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, pp.83-130

Jacqueline Johnson, “Taking a Sight 1951” in Penelope Rosemont, ed. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998, pp.238-242

Anna Kavan, Ice, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, 1985

Anna Kavan, Sleep Has His House, Michael Kesend Publishing, Ltd., New York, 1981

Victoria Nelson, “Symmes Hole, or the South Polar Romance,” Raritan 17:2 (Fall, 1997): 136-66

Christopher Priest, “Christopher Priest’s Favorite Slipstream Books” Guardian Unlimited (downloaded August 19, 2003)

Penelope Rosemont, “Introduction: All My Names Know Your Leap: Surrealist Women and Their Challenge” in Penelope Rosemont, ed. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998, pp.xxix-lvii

L. Timmel Duchamp lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her collection, Love’s Body, Dancing in Time, (Aqueduct Press) is on your reading list.


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