Winter Is Coming: Ice by Anna Kavan
I had come back to investigate rumours of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world. But as soon as I got here she became an obsession, I could think only of her, felt I must she her immediately, nothing else mattered. Of course I knew it was utterly irrational. And so was my present uneasiness: no harm was likely to come to me in my own country; and yet I was becoming more and more anxious as I drove. (p. 6)
From the outset it is obvious that Ice is a novel about
obsession but it rapidly becomes clear that it is overwhelmingly about illness. Our nameless narrator has returned to this country from business overseas and is involved with this brewing civil emergency but it is not clear what this is or what his role in it is. Government? Military? He is somehow an insider yet he seems to fear the police. It is a defining feature of the novel that the narrator is both victim and agent of authority.
It is unseasonably cold and the man at the petrol station warns him of ice as he sets off up the country lanes to visit the girl. Ethereal, blonde to the point of translucency, she is never named either. They knew each other when they were younger but she married another man:
This was past history. But the consequences of the traumatic experience were still evident in the insomnia and headaches from which I suffered. The drugs prescribed for me produced horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised. These dreams were not confined to sleep only, and a deplorable side effect was the way I had come to enjoy them. (p. 8-9)
So he is traumatised, hallucinating and addicted. The waking dream occurs again and again; it is always the same: she becomes trapped, entombed, in ice. “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.” (p. 7) Early on, the imagery recurs again and again – “Great ice-cliffs were closing in on all sides.” (p. 13); “The masses of dense foliage all round became prison walls, impassable circular green ice-walls, surging towards her.” (p. 19) – culminate in an extraordinarily intense evocation:
“Despairingly she looked all round. 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 big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an over-hanging ring of frigid, fiery, colossal waves about to collapse upon her. Frozen by the deathly cold emanating from the ice, dazzled by the blaze of crystalline ice-light, she felt herself becoming part of the polar vision, her structure becoming one with the ice and snow. As her fate, she accepted the world of ice, shining, shimmering, dead; she resigned herself to the triumph of glaciers and the death of her world.” (p. 21)
It is impossible not to reach into Kavan’s own life when faced with this. The short biography in my edition notes that “she was, at best, evasive about the facts of her life” but the facts we do know are telling. Born Helen Wood at the turn of the last century, Kavan was a pseudonym she adopted from one of her own characters following a nervous breakdown. She became addicted to heroin in her twenties following a painful illness and struggled with the drug for the next forty years. The failure of psychiatry and pharmacology is written clearly in this novel. There are also points were the narrator seems to know the girl from the inside, the first person narration appearing to give way to the third person and the author and the girl merge. Given this, we can wonder about the fact that Kavan repeatedly tells us that the girl was a victim during childhood, was brutalised and haunted by the experience of her youth.
The first chapter gives us the intrusion of the dream-like into what we initially perceive to be our world with the encroaching ice acting as a metaphor. But it becomes rapidly more real, plunging us into a Ballardian disaster novel in which entropy inexorably claims the Earth. From the second chapter, it also becomes clear that the world itself is uncertain; it shifts – or should that be slips since this is quintessential slipstream – entirely into the realm of dreams. As one mysterious character puts it later, “the hallucination of space-time, and the joining of past and future so that either could be the present, and all ages.” (p. 123) Within this context, the landscape is reconfigured, repeatedly; shrinking the world and crushing the actors. The loose triumvirate of narrator, girl and husband remains, although changed, but there are hints that it is not a triumvirate at all.
The narrator knows things about the pair of them that he cannot know, describes events as if he is there when he is not. Is he actually the husband? Is the “I” of the narrative a disassociated state that allows him to stand outside of himself and criticise his own behaviour? As the book progresses the character of “the husband” becomes instead “the warden”, her jailer and both the narrator’s antagonist and a figure he finds strangely attractive. Again, there is a inexplicable bond between them:
“In an indescribable way our looks tangled together. I seemed to be looking at my own reflexion. Suddenly I was entangled in utmost confusion, not sure which of us was which. We were like halves of one being, joined in some mysterious symbiosis. I fought to retain my identity, but all my efforts failed to keep us apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him.” (p. 98)
This split personality is explicitly suggested by a police officer when the narrator is arrested in one of the small towns he visits as he moves towards the girl and away from the ice: “I wish to state that the witness is a psychopath, probably schizoid.” (p.77) At one point he finds (or dreams he finds) the girl after having been brutally beaten: “I felt I had been defrauded: I alone should have done the breaking with tender love; I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.” (p. 54) His obsession is a sickness.
My copy of the novel is the 2006 Peter Owen edition with an introduction from Christopher Priest. I think you can see a lot of Ice in Priest’s most recent novel, The Islanders – the unreliable narrator, the twisted travelogue, the undercurrent of obsession – and John Self makes a similar point with respect to The Affirmation. In his introduction, Priest says: “To work as allegory there has to be an exactness that the reader can grasp. In Ice the symbols are elusive, mysterious, captivating. It ends as it begins, with nothing that is practical or concluded.” If it is not an allegory, perhaps Ice is simply a wound; a raw insight into Kavan’s illness.