Instead of the darkness, she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all round. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.
Anna Kavan was the pen-name of Helen Woods (1901-68), a British writer and artist (her self-portrait can be seen here). By all accounts she was a deeply damaged individual: prone to mental illness and a lifelong heroin addict, she attempted suicide several times in the course of her life. (Also, according to Virginia Ironside, speaking at a London Review bookshop event that I attended last month, Kavan used to send her stories to her publisher pinned together with a hypodermic needle...). Details about her early life are mostly lacking - she burned all her diaries when she adopted her pen-name - but it seems that she had a severely unhappy childhood (father dead, mother distant rather beyond the point of neglect), followed by one or more abusive relationships. She wrote six apparently rather conventional, domestic novels - under the name she took from her first marriage, Helen Ferguson - before reinventing herself as Kavan (the name of a character from one of her books) and began producing stylistically experimental and psychologically challenging novels.
One of these was Ice (1967), a deeply strange and unsettling novel, which follows an unnamed male narrator on a desperate - and increasingly obsessive - quest through a fractured landscape to find a missing woman (referred to throughout as "the girl"). The girl, who was (apparently) going to marry the narrator, left him under unexplained circumstances. The narrator took this catastrophically badly; he has been suffering from violent dreams and delusions, revolving around the girl's abuse and death, ever since, and at the start of the book mentions that he is on medication to control them. These delusions repeatedly invade the text; past, present and the imaginary bleed into each other with barely any transition:
Little time was left, but at least we would share the same end. Ice had already engulfed the forest, the last ranks of trees were splintering. Her silver hair touched my mouth, she was leaning against me. Then I lost her; my hands could not find her again. A snapped-off tree trunk was dancing high in the sky, hurled up hundreds of feet by the impact of the ice. There was a flash, everything was shaken. My suitcase was lying open, half-packed, on the bed. The windows of my room were still wide open, the curtains streamed into the room.
With the country - also unnamed - under threat of a looming, euphemistically-termed "emergency", he goes to visit the girl and her sinister (it appears to him) new lover. She disappears in the course of his visit, and, frantic, he sets out to find her. The journey takes him to a variety of places in different countries. Again, all of these go unspecified. Ice is entirely stripped of any information that might anchor the reader - names, dates, clear boundaries between events, the passage of time in anything more than an abstract sense - making it timeless, universal, and disorienting.
All the places have one thing in common, however: their very anonymity, their sameness as damaged landscapes. Each is war-torn, under threat of war, or otherwise a world turned upside down; each, too, is growing steadily and unnaturally colder, being enveloped by crushing, implacable walls of ice.
It could have been any town, in any country. I recognized nothing. Snow covered all landmarks with the same white padding. Buildings were changed into anonymous white cliffs.
The narrator is constantly assailed by the sense of a race against time, for both the girl's life and for his or their escape from the ice. Along the way, he encounters the girl and her lover, repeatedly and in different guises. The lover tends to be cast as figures of petty but cruel authority; the girl is always a victim, and repeatedly dies.
Alone here, where nobody could hear her, where nobody was meant to hear, she was cut off from all contact, totally vulnerable, at the mercy of the man who came in without knocking, without a word, his cold, very bright blue eyes pouncing on hers in the glass. She crouched motionless, staring silently into the mirror, as if mesmerized. The hypnotic power of his eyes could destroy her will, already weakened by the mother who for years had persistently crushed it into submission. Forced since childhood into a victim's pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless.
The narrator is a participant in this, however. He finds her fragility - and, more precisely, its abuse - thoroughly compelling:
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 on the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eye and mouth. It was madly attractive to me in a certain way.
Discovering her corpse in yet another warzone, he reflects on her wounds, on the abuse she must have suffered, with a detail bordering on lascivious:
She had been dragged by the hair, hands which twisted had it into a sort of rope had dulled its silvery brightness. One her back blood was still fresh in places, wet and bright red; in other places it had caked black on the white flesh. I looked particularly at one arm, one which the circular marks of teeth stood out clearly. The bones of the forearm were broken, the sharp pointed ends of bone projected at the wrist through the torn tissue. 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. I leaned forward and touched her cold skin.
He is "alarmed" by the temptation to violence that she represents to him, even as he rationalises it as a consequence of her appearance and her character, moulded by early abuse. "Something in her demanded victimization and terror," he muses, "so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore."
Reality and fantasy become entwined and inseparable, in all sorts of fascinating ways. Kavan does occasionally have her narrator overstate the case - "In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind" is perhaps a little more direct than we really need. The repeated comments on the legacy of childhood abuse in the girl are, as can be seen, also on the unsubtle side. But for the most part Kavan lets the escalating horror of the scenarios do the work for her. The narrator increasingly identifies with both abused (girl) and abuser (her lover), finding it harder and harder to extricate himself from them. Of her, he says, "It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another." During an encounter with her lover, meanwhile, he is overcome by his similarity to the other man; it is as if he is looking at his own reflection, and again he becomes confused ("I continually found I was not myself, but him"). The girl, too - whose thoughts we occasionally share - suspects that the two men might not be two at all: "they were in league together, or perhaps they were the same person".
Ice is a portrait of abuse; it is a metaphor for the ravages of war, perhaps influenced by Kavan's own wartime experiences. Potentially, also, there is an autobiographical element in the girl's conviction that her victimhood and ultimate destruction (whether "by unknown forces or by human beings") is simply her fate, something Kavan apparently felt in relation to her own life, at times. Upon its publication, Brian Aldiss hailed it as the science fiction book of the year; Christopher Priest, at the LRB event, called it 'slipstream', and I'm inclined to agree.
The war reading is given added weight by this passage, towards the end:
I was oppressed by the sense of universal strangeness, by the chill of approaching catastrophe, the menace of ruins suspended above; and also by the enormity of what had been done, the weight of collective guilt. 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 the crash down in ruins.