Ice and Guilty by Anna Kavan

Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum

Ice cover

Guilty cover

About a year ago, I attended the guest of honor talk at ICon, the Israeli science fiction and fantasy convention. The speaker was Neil Gaiman, and his topic was dreams. With typical low-key irreverence, Mr. Gaiman sidestepped his assigned subject. Nothing, he claimed, is quite so boring as actual dreams, in which the mind's processing centers, cut off from the senses and from higher reasoning, continue to churn and light up, producing certainties and causal leaps ("and suddenly it wasn't my high school gym teacher; it was my mother" is my best recollection of Mr. Gaiman's way of describing this effect) that have no relation to logic, narrative, or even metaphor and symbolism.

Anna Kavan's Ice unfolds with a similar dream-like logic. Or perhaps a more accurate term would be nightmarish. It is a short novel (the Peter Owen reissue is less than 160 pages long), and quite repetitive. Its primary purpose seems to be to achieve the effect that Mr. Gaiman, in his talk, dismissed as all but impossible—to place the reader in the narrator's dream-like state, to convey not only illogical turns of event and senseless certainties, but the claustrophobic eeriness they produce. It achieves this goal in its very first sentence—"I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol"—and never lets up.

Ice is told in a first person that is so tight as to be alienating. The narrator, who remains nameless throughout the novel, describes the present moment with almost no context—we learn very little about his past throughout the novel, and what we learn doesn't cohere into an image of the kind of person he is. His emotional reactions are mercurial and erratic, with almost no explanation of how they come about. A similar alienating effect distances us from the novel's other characters—the woman (who is invariably referred to by the narrator as "the girl") with whom the narrator is obsessed and her husband, who is sometimes known as the Warden—whom we view only through the narrator's eyes, and who very seldom get to speak for themselves. The novel is made up of a series of set-pieces, each with much the same structure: the narrator travels to meet the woman and her husband, is greeted with coldness from the latter and with revulsion bordering on hysteria by the former, and walks away in disgust, only to encounter them again elsewhere. The backdrop to these partings and reunions is a planetary catastrophe. Great sheets of ice are enveloping the planet, which is swiftly becoming unlivable. The looming apocalypse sparks war and civil unrest, in which the narrator and the Warden are often caught up, and to which the woman often falls victim, though she is always resurrected in time for the next iteration of her story. At times there are dreams within a dream—visions that the narrator has of the woman and her husband, in which she is always mistreated, and sometimes killed.

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 big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an overhanging 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 structure of 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 only in these interludes that the narrator's presence recedes from the novel, though they seem, always, to conform to his perception of the woman as childlike and doomed, and of her husband as a cruel, abusive man. When Kavan returns us to what passes, in Ice, for reality, the narrator is so prominent as to drown out not only the other characters, but the distinguishing features and details of his world. "The situation was alarming, the atmosphere tense, the emergency imminent" (p. 22), he tells us early in the novel, but without elaborating. Later, the narrator rents a room in a foreign country, to which he travels in pursuit of the woman. His landlady is "evidently reluctant to admit a foreigner to the house where she live[s] alone; I could feel her suspicious dislike" (p. 34). There is no description of the landlady with which Kavan can support the narrator's observations. In this scene, as in most others, Ice is driven by the sense of knowing, without sensory evidence or rational thought, that permeates dreams.

Ice's plot doesn't so much progress as spiral inwards, tightening in on the moment in which the encroaching ice leaves only the narrator and the woman alone in the world. Even this point of convergence, however, isn't the novel's purpose—indeed, the story ends ambivalently, holding out the possibility of yet more iterations of the narrator's story to come. Ice is an exercise in sustaining an emotional tone—an oppressive, terrifying, senseless one. It succeeds at this task admirably, making for a reading experience that is not so much pleasant as irresistible, and an emotional impact that proves very difficult to shake off.

Published in 1967, Ice is the best-known novel by a little-known author. Anna Kavan was the pseudonym of Helen Woods (1901—1968), whose career spanned several decades and encompassed more than a dozen books. Her novels—the later ones, published under the Kavan pseudonym, in particular—are informed by her struggle with mental illness and an addiction to heroin, and she is often compared to Kafka. She is often referred to as a feminist writer, though in reference to Ice this seems to me a dubious assertion. While there is no denying that the novel is suffused with misogyny, with the narrator's obsession with his beloved frequently giving way to violent urges and the desire to dominate and infantilize her, calling it a feminist work seems as justified as describing a novel that comes out against genocide as humanistic. The narrator's excesses are too broad and hateful to constitute a meaningful statement against real-world misogyny.

On top of reissuing Ice and several of her other novels, Kavan's publishers have also posthumously brought to light a "rediscovered" work, Guilty. There is a natural tendency to distrust such novels, with readers and reviewers making the reasonable argument that, had the novel been finished and worthy of publication, it would have seen the light of day within the author's lifetime. To a certain extent, Guilty seems to justify this bias. It gives off the impression of not having cooked quite long enough, and there is a dissonance between its first two thirds and final third that suggests that a final rewrite might have been planned and never carried out. Nevertheless, it is by no means an unworthy read.

Guilty is a more straightforward novel than Ice. Although it is also narrated in the first person, its narrator—a man named Mark, who at the beginning of the novel is a young boy, and who is accompanied into manhood by the narrative—is allowed to observe his surroundings and to draw his conclusions about the world from available evidence. The world he lives in is also more finely sketched than the dystopia described in Ice, although not to the extent of being recognizably our world, and yet its diversions from recognizable reality are not sufficiently explored to constitute what we tend to think of as worldbuilding. At the beginning of Guilty, Mark's father returns home, a decorated veteran of two wars, and promptly destroys his uniform and medals and speaks out for pacifism. The vehemence with which society excoriates and rejects him for these opinions—Mark is withdrawn from the local school for fear of persecution and his parents' marriage collapses in almost no time—draws on the real-life experiences of pacifists (according to the introduction, by Jennifer Sturm, Kavan was the lover of a conscientious objector during WWII) while shading ever so slightly into unreality when Mark's father decides to leave his family in order to find "a country where there was peace, where people lived together in friendliness and goodwill, and the air wasn't poisoned, as it was here, by hatred and the bitterness of old wars or the fear of new ones" (p. 34).

In its first two-thirds, Guilty is occupied by a gentle perversion of the tropes of the coming of age novel. Mark experiences his first taste of disillusionment when his father's return from war, instead of expanding his family and providing him with the male role model he's been craving, shatters it, and robs him of his mother's affection by reducing her to a neurotic, petulant mess. Like a common young adult protagonist, Mark believes in his ability to influence the wider world, and yet when the time comes for his father to leave home for what will turn out to be the last time, Mark hesitates.

Nothing in the quiet cottage suggested that anyone but myself had observed the taxi's approach. I was the only person, so far, who had seen it, which, in terms of magic, gave me absolute power over it. I could make it turn back, disappear—thus preventing my father's departure—simply by giving the sign. ... I knew I ought to give the sign that would alter my father's fate. But I didn't want him to stay at home; on the contrary, I was rejoicing because he was about to leave me alone with my mother once more. (p. 41)

Though irrational, the guilt for failing to prevent his father's departure follows Mark into young adulthood. It is soon added to by his other failures to behave in a heroic manner. He abandons his mother to her misery, preferring the company of books—or of the family friend, the mysterious and powerful Mr. Spector—and later forgets her completely when he goes off to school. When Mark's father returns unexpectedly and announces the discovery of a peaceful country, to which he proposes to transport his wife and son, Mark balks and forces his parents to delay their journey, thus leading indirectly to their deaths when another war breaks out and they are killed in a bombing. What we observe in the first two thirds of Guilty is the maturation process of a wholly unremarkable person, someone who is petty and self-centered, but not exceptionally so, who is capable of kindness and friendship, but only to a limited degree, and who believes, in spite of all available evidence, that they hold the fate of the world in their hands, because to relinquish that belief and accept their helplessness would be more than they could bear.

After his graduation, Mark moves to the city, where Mr. Spector finds him a job and relatively luxurious living accommodations. It's at this point that Guilty steps just that bit further into surrealism, in a sudden tonal shift that jars, and grates at the reader's sensibilities. Finding a place to live in the city, we are told, is exceptionally difficult, and Mark is ostracized for his fortunate connections by jealous coworkers. Later, when he falls in love with and becomes engaged to a woman named Carla, it falls to him to secure them a home (Mr. Spector has forbidden Mark from sharing his illegally obtained apartment with anyone else), and his life is consumed by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that governs housing assignments. Here, according to Sturm's introduction, Kavan is once again drawing from her real-life experiences of trying to find a place to live in wartime London, but her descriptions of Mark's corresponding travails are deliberately tinged with unreality:

As I grew accustomed to the scene, the details gradually emerged, and I saw a number of officials seated at large desks, like static islands, around which flowed sluggish streams of applicants, barely seeming to move. ... What first struck me was the uncomplaining patience of all these people, for whom no convenience whatsoever had been provided, not even a wooden bench such as is to be found in the most Spartan waiting-rooms. ... After I'd been in the room a few minutes, I found the light was starting to make my eyes ache. The naked tubes, fixed to the ceiling, diffused a stark white glare which lit up some faces with a ghastly pallor, distorting others by deep black shadows. This dazzle, no doubt, was the reason why all the officials wore eye-shades, extending in front of their faces like the peak of a jockey's cap, casting a black pointed shade, which gave them all a curious similarity to one another, almost as if they were masked. (p. 141)

Into this nightmarish realm an initially high-spirited Mark enters, determined to secure a home for himself and Carla, and thus their future. Over the coming weeks and months, he is worn down by this system, becoming paranoid and obsessed, stealing away to the housing office at any free moment in order to assuage his constant and irrational fear that, just at that minute, an opening has become available. In short order, Mark becomes discouraged and cynical, and when a mysterious official opens the office on Christmas day and offers him a placement, a by-now deranged Mark is so convinced that he is being toyed with that he refuses to even consider it. (Kavan never reveals whether the offer was genuine or whether Mark was indeed being further manipulated by the housing office; her depiction of the bureaucracy is by this point so surreal that both interpretations are believable). In the end, the only way for Mark to overcome his obsession is to lose everything—Carla, his fancy apartment, his job, and his friendship with Mr. Spector—and start anew somewhere else.

The sudden tonal shift has the effect of making Guilty seem like two books, artificially sewn together, and of muddying its intended effect. Is the novel's final third a betrayal of the naturalistic coming-of-age novel it starts out as, or were the descriptions of Mark's childhood and boyhood nothing more than extended scene-setting for the Kafkaesque satire that was Kavan's true goal? It's hard to escape the conclusion that Kavan planned—or should have planned—a final edit, which would smooth over the jarring shift in the novel's tone, and bring its two parts closer to becoming a coherent whole.

Coming away from Guilty and Ice, one has the impression of an author whose fiction should be read not for its fine details—for well-drawn characters, believable settings, or clever dialogue—but for its emotional effect. In this respect, Kavan is nothing less than a revelation. In spite of its flaws, Guilty is, at its best points, as irresistibly claustrophobic as Ice (perhaps more so, because of the veneer of normalcy which initially lulls the reader into a false sense of security). Kavan is a deeply disturbing author, in the best possible sense of the word, whose novels demonstrate the rare capacity to elicit emotion while bypassing reason and logic. As dreams do.


Abigail Nussbaum (anusbaum@netvision.net.il) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction and the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.