Review: “Ice” by Anna Kavan

Why haven’t you heard of Anna Kavan? Born in Cannes in 1901 as Helen Woods, she published a number of books under the names Helen Ferguson, taken from her then-divorced first husband, and Anna Kavan, adopted from a character in her own 1930 novel, Let Me Alone. In 1968, she died of heart failure. Sometimes referred to as “Kafka’s sister”, Kavan charted a remarkable journey throughout her well-travelled and richly experienced life — which included three failed attempts at suicide, two failed attempts at marriage, and a series of novels, short stories, and paintings that grapple with identity and violence.

Today, the revival of interest in Anna Kavan is ongoing. The first Anna Kavan Symposium was held at the Institute of English Studies in London in 2014 and, in 2017, a Kavan-dedicated special issue of the journal Women: A Cultural Review followed. We now have Penguin Classics’ new edition of Ice. This revival is well-timed; Kavan’s unflinching vision still has great power. More and more, the world as we know it is ending; to some degree, it looks like this is our fault. In Kavan’s last novel, Ice, the apocalypse isn’t ecological — it is psychosocial, a premonition of the emotional actions that lead to a world’s end.

Kavan knew much from the painful and passionate events that punctuated her life. She knew solace too, of a kind; in the 1930s, Kavan took up a lifelong addiction to heroin accompanied by a syringe she called Bazooka. A lurking danger of weird fiction is the frequency with which its writers’ psychological distress can be championed in and of itself. What this tendency fails to attend to is the critical charge that attends the revelation of that distress as a product of repression or alienation. Kavan’s heroin addiction and psychological turmoil resembles the schizophrenia of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus insofar as the need to discern symptoms from subjects (or causes from corrosions) is not always undertaken with care. As Carole Sweeney suggests in her article “Keeping the Ruins Private”, heroin was not a crucial element of Kavan’s writing even if it may have been “essential” to her life. Insisting that Ice be read only through the lens of heroin addiction not only denigrates its author. It also misses the evidence provided by the novel itself. Nevertheless, and however it is read, this dark allure helps to draw Kavan’s texts into the terrain of the weird.

Along a different line of thinking, much can be made from Kavan’s decision to take up the name of one of her characters. She made this decision upon leaving a sanatorium in which she had been coping with the dissolution of her second marriage and a failed suicide attempt. Her name was legally changed in 1939. This act of auto-deictic fixation overwrites her societal identity with that of literary fiction. Yet to read her work following this act as complete auto-fictionalization is to miss the point she made in her destruction of all her journals and personal diaries before her death.

Kavan’s texts are a compound act of self-creation. They are replete with the tropes and entrapments of the written word but entirely composed as an ever-changing monument to the self-in-danger. As Kate Zambreno puts it, Kavan wrote as if looking in a mirror. She rearranged the usual divisions between subject and object, writer and character. This allowed her to see more clearly, to write more clinically. Or, as Jonathan Lethem puts it in his new introduction to this edition, “one feels at the mercy of an absolutely precise and merciless prose machine, one simply uninterested in producing the illusion of cause and effect” (ix). This machine is as capable of destruction as it is of creation. Both are subsumed under the general power of fiction which is not to make things happen but instead to make things seem and appear.

This writing strategy calls for a tactical reading of the novel’s agile code-switching where things are and are not as they are presented. The effect is much stronger than in literary realism’s tired gambit of the untrustworthy narrator. For Kavan, the structures on which common visions of the world are based are understood as already deceptive. What emerges is a whirlwind of symbols, a torrent of affective structures that parade, narrate, detonate. In a directly related effort, and much like surrealists as different as André Breton and Leonora Carrington, Kavan devotes herself to a vision of the female body as a contested site subject to patriarchal control, as Nathalie Ferris argues in her 2017 article “The Double Play of Mirrors”. The gambit of code-switching is perhaps nowhere as frequently evidenced as in the play of meaning attributed to women’s bodies from all directions. Ice examines the violence that women are subjected to from its most direct source: the male gaze.

There is more. In Kavan’s novels, much as in her life, people and characters travel without end. As Zambreno argues, major characters in her novels ceaselessly travel only to “stop in small, indiscriminate towns where rows of faceless houses are as closed-off as their inhabitants; finding strange faces and obstacles everywhere, the landscape one of silent hostility.” This is true for Kavan’s last novel, Ice. First published by Peter Owen in 1967, Ice has now been issued in a new edition by Penguin Classics.


The novel begins with a man driving along a dark road. It ends with the same man still driving, but now accompanied. Along the way, the man’s travels (no characters are named) take him from ship to plane across battlefields and over mountains, through networks of shadowy resistance fighters and into the ceremonial banquets of military overlords. In this world, society is ending, fragmenting as mysterious walls of ice encroach on human habitations and prise apart political and personal relationships. There are stranger things too: mutants, dragons, sacrifices. Amid all the action, it is difficult to tell what is real and what is otherwise.

Most apparent is the traveler’s obsessive need to control a woman with extraordinarily pale hair and a damaged past. At one point, the traveler had been “infatuated” with her, he admits. He was — is — drawn to her fragility and psychological damage. These are the residue of a sadistic mother but also, one suspects, the way she has been treated by her husband, briefly shown in the first chapter as an arrogant and controlling partner. She is described as glass-like. Think: brittle bones, shockingly white hair, and intense eyes. Think: someone you can see right through. Most strikingly, she rarely speaks. Celine Magot in a 2016 article for Miranda argues that she is a “voiceless body, the summation of external pressuring voices.” The woman tends to confuse the man, as if she were phantasmagoric, or perhaps a host of women or just an illusion born of fever, desire, and sadism. He confesses that “at times she hardly seemed real.” This ethereal transparency lends her image to a host of other women in the novel and whips the traveler on in his obsession to find her and, maybe, to protect her. Or perhaps to be the force of destruction in her life.

The man’s obsession drives his fantastical travels across war-torn countries and beats as the psychotic heart of his relationships with others. This is most true for his relations with other men who seem the caretakers of the woman as she herself flees, travels, and hides. She recognizes this strange conspiracy and, at one point, accuses the men of being “in league together.” The truth is nowhere near that simple. At another moment, he examines another man and sees almost a mirror of himself:

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-contract, generating confusion, so that I began to wonder if there were two of us…

Over the course of the novel, the traveler’s major antagonist is another man known simply as the Warden with whom he feels kin and who early in the novel is shown in a sexually abusive relationship with the girl that verges on coercive incarceration. It is this spiraling proliferation of relationships between abusive and arrogant men contracted across the perceived possession of a tortured woman that the novel’s tracks move on, ceaselessly and patiently propelling itself into new variations that never propose an escape from this damaged cycle of relationships.

The man proves unable to tell hallucination and dream from his surroundings. At one point, the narrative admits that “the hallucination of one moment did not fit the reality of the next.” Some readers may find this frustrating; others, may find that, despite the horrors on display, the greater danger may be the unspoken gaps between recorded events. The protagonist realizes a strange syncopation between his fragmenting world and himself: “In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.” His search for the girl is cast into relief by these moments of apparent clarity, and he even calls this mad obsession a “senseless, frustrating pursuit.” He is put on trial — perhaps real, perhaps an elaborate and theatrical court of the mind — where he is called “a psychopath” and deemed “totally unreliable.” But at no point does this resolve substantially interrupt the novel’s tracking of the man’s obsession; his relentless pursuit is never truly threatened. This failure indicates something perverse in these moments of clarity. They may be acts of self-deception, mock resistance thrown up in ironic despair. Nothing successfully stops the man’s quest for long.

Ice is sometimes called science fiction or slipstream, given its premise of the collapse of society and the oncoming encroachment of ice. Yet the novel’s propulsive relationships take centre stage. In a weird light this apocalyptic vision becomes existential, epiphenomenal, and almost beautiful. Kavan’s writing is a howling Arctic wind. Her prose possesses a surgical precision that exposes both care and catastrophe, as in this passage that mixes urgency and obsession with a high imaginative capacity:

I should have to start searching for her all over again. The repetition was like a curse. I thought of placid blue seas, tranquil islands, far away from war. I thought of the Indris, those happy creatures, symbols of life in peace, on a higher plane. I could clear out, go to them. No, that was impossible. I was tied to her. I thought of the ice moving across the world, casting its shadow of creeping death. Ice cliffs boomed in my dreams, indescribable explosions thundered and boomed, icebergs crashed, hurled huge boulders into the sky like rockets. Dazzling ice stars bombarded the world with rays, which splintered and penetrated the earth, filling earth’s core with their deadly coldness, reinforcing the cold of the advancing sea. And always, on the surface, the indestructible ice-mass was moving forward, implacably destroying all life. I felt a fearful sense of pressure and urgency, there was no time to lose, I was wasting time; it was a race between me and the ice. Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight. I saw the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.

Across its glittering, cool intelligence, this book remains a viscerally disturbing. It casually, almost repulsively knocks aside the usual notions that many modern readers hold regarding sympathetic characters, linear narrative plots, and liberal norms. Instead, it dedicates itself to confronting psychological violence and the heritage of trauma. Reading it, I often thought about how the video game Bloodborne carries a similarly disdainful, hideously compelling charge. In playing that game — if you are successful — you forcefully enact terrible and increasingly grotesque acts of violence that transform your own perception of the world. In this, the game shows its most genuinely brilliant and troubling feature: the consumer vicariously, viciously participates in the assault upon their sensual conception of the world. Likewise in Ice, where the protagonist’s unrelenting quest for the girl of his imagination calls upon the reader to inhabit that protagonist’s world and choices.

The comparison with Bloodborne is worth concluding. Where Bloodborne refers to a cosmic horror tradition descending from the Lovecraftian weird, Kavan’s Ice refers instead to a Freudian tradition of psychological childhood and early adulthood damage. In this latter case, a child’s upbringing sows the seeds from which the adult identity develops and flourishes. Thus, where Lovecraft imagines a perception of the universe exploding upon one’s realization of cosmic others, Kavan’s weird imagination destroys the coherence of the world the more one comes to understand the epistemological force of gendered violence and traumatically disturbed upbringings and intimate relationships. In addition to this difference, the two also differ in form. In a video game such as Bloodborne, the player vicariously commands the acts of their avatar; it therefore offers players an act of becoming. In a novel such as Ice, the reader constructively co-creates the world of the text’s progressive narration; it therefore offers readers an act of imagining.

Ice throws its creative reader to the brutal black dogs of masculine violence, again and again. It can be called weird or slipstream, apocalyptic or perhaps dystopian. All can be true. But for us, for now, it is also an act of illuminating brilliant, of devastating horror. Kavan is ruthless. That is her gift, for in it there is a deep emotional clarity that rejects easy depictions of violence and of victims and victimizers. Ice confronts its reader with the insidious violence that masculinity channels through the men whose travels perforate the world as they obsess over women in dangerous conditions. Kavan’s cool gaze reveals that the costs of violence are exacted on men and women: not equally, but associated, and in some ways alike. Reading Ice is to be thrown into the unblinking miasma of loneliness and confusion that abuse requires for its domination.

Thinking about contemporary gender politics and the way that Ice reads today in its new issue, I find myself returning to observations made by bell hooks in her book The Will to Change (2004). Here, hooks describes men very much like Kavan’s unnamed narrator and her violent icicle, the Warden. The narrator’s ambiguous fascination with the woman’s thin wrists — delicate, beautiful, and easily broken — recalled for me the following passage: “The fact that men often mix being caring and being violent has made it hard for everyone in our culture to face the extent to which male violence stands in the way of males’ giving and receiving love.” Men in Ice fixate on their shared need to control the girl and bypass any and every moment of potential real engagement or possibility of mutual care, which the novel indicates is improbable, if not impossible. There are clear connections to be drawn with today’s gender politics, without question.

As hooks goes on, in a frequently quoted passage, “the first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” Ice pushes this theme further and makes a prediction of its diagnosis, thus showing the way best not taken, the world best not lived, the cost exacted by cruel, demeaning obsession. This is a point made also by Leigh Wilson: Anna Kavan’s fiction does not deny the existence of cruelty, obsession, and abuse; instead, it asks “whether they are inevitable, what the nature of their existence is, and what the possibilities for change are.” It is never crass but instead possesses a dangerous weight, the way a beautiful glacier looms above. Ice follows to conclusion its protagonist’s obsession and gender-based violence as a desire — not for sexual fulfilment — but for control, possession, domination.

Anna Kavan’s imagination finds a home in the weird. The traveler finds himself mirrored in other men. More urgently but never explicitly, his behaviour is compared to the crushing, alienating ice that destroys society and ruptures relationships at a global level. Foregrounded by Penguin’s choice of cover artwork, the woman appears and disappears from scrutiny. There is no hiding it: Ice is a difficult and demanding book. And yet it may be a necessary one, insofar as it leaves behind it a sense of quickened life and a powerful case to diverge from the dark course charted by its characters.