Anna Kavan, ‘Ice’

 

In his introduction to Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, first published in 1967, a year before her death, Christopher Priest describes it as a work of ‘literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type’. This genre arose in the US in the late 80s; Priest defines it as fiction that ‘induces a sense of ‘otherness’ in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror, perhaps, or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective…it imparts a sense that reality might not be quite as certain as we think.’

He names JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Borges and others as exponents of this kind of writing. Slipstream portrays ‘images of the ordinary world through shifting mirrors and distorting lenses, without attempting to explain.’

 

Anna Kavan, IceIce’s strangeness is apparent from the very first paragraph. An unnamed car driver learns that the unidentified country through which he is travelling is experiencing severely unseasonal cold weather. He reveals little about himself except that he has spent much of his life abroad ‘soldiering, or exploring remote areas.’ Later he appears to be involved in covert operations for the military, or in espionage.

 

The world is dying: it’s ‘doomed’. Ice is taking over, perhaps because of some obscure scientific mishap, or else through the use of doomsday weapons:

An insane impatience for death was driving mankind to a second suicide, even before the full effect of the first had been felt.

Our first person narrator, the man in the car, is obsessively searching for a girl with moon-white hair and alabaster skin. ‘I needed to see her; it was vital’, he reveals, but never says why.

She is fragile and thin, and appears cowed, crushed. We’re told she had been treated cruelly as a child by her mother; she is a ‘victim’, with ‘no will’ of her own. When she disappears the narrator abandons all his own affairs to search for her: ‘Nothing else mattered.’ His urgency is increased by ‘the approaching emergency’.

But the almost plotless narrative constantly implodes. What appears to be a narrative line suddenly disappears. In mid-scene we are taken somewhere else, possibly in flashback – or possibly leaping forwards in time: the transition is never explained. With the surreal logic of a dream these shifts render what’s just happened irrelevant or inexplicable.

The man feels compelled to find the girl, but she is inaccessible or hidden away. For much of the novel she is in the power of a brutal warlord known as the warden. He treats her like a prisoner. He abuses her psychologically and sexually. The narrator eventually manages to spirit her away, but he too treats her badly. She fears and detests them both.

At times the identities of the searching man and the cruel warden appear to merge; at times he doesn’t seem to know which one he is. She finds it impossible to distinguish between them and their dastardly treatment of her: ‘there’s no difference’ between them, she says. The narrator’s grasp of reality is tenuous:

 My ideas were confused. In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.

 

Soon after this moment he becomes aware of ‘an odd sort of fragmentation of my ideas.’ Then again, ‘this was the reality, and those other things the dream.’ Later:

 Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

 

 

I found the novel weirdly compelling. It has a crazed logic of its own: the novel’s world is, as the narrator says, ‘a field of strangeness where no known laws operated.’ The searching man’s obsessive quest has the manic grandeur of Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale.

I’ve written about two other Anna Kavan books: Julia and the Bazooka is a collection of short stories which frequently deal with her addiction to heroin. The Parson has some of the strangeness of Ice.

Priest insists that this novel is not just an extended metaphorical account of Kavan’s heroin addiction, that the ice is not the drug, the girl (victim and holy grail) is not the drug. But I couldn’t help finding this a satisfactory way of interpreting the narrator’s hallucinatory compulsion to find the elusive girl; his obsession causes him more suffering than pleasure, and he abandons her when he does achieve his goal:

When I considered that imperative need if felt for her, as for a missing part of myself, it appeared less like love than an inexplicable aberration, the sign of some character-flaw I ought to eradicate, instead of letting it dominate me.

She’s described like those models a few years ago who earned the unpleasant label ‘heroin chic’: skinny, haunted, bruised.

On the other hand I agree that such a reading fails to account for all of the novel’s bizarre layers and surreal motifs (such as the narrator’s fascination with singing lemurs: the Indris). It can also be seen as an effective protofeminist allegory: just as the world’s men bring about global disaster with their suicidal weapons and Cold War ‘collective death-wish’, so they reify women; the girl-victim is a cipher for the warden and the narrator: she’s their prey, and their aim is to dominate and control her, to possess her, stifle her individuality and identity. They are sadistic bullies, as threatening as the ice-fields that are advancing across the earth’s surface.

There is an excellent review of Ice at Max’s blog Pechorin’s Journal; he gives a much fuller account of the apocalyptic plot than I have here, and an interesting view of ‘slipstream’. He also includes a link to John Self’s review at Asylum blog.

My thanks to Peter Owen publishers, who sent me a copy of this novel as a prize in their online competition: follow them on Facebook.

Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz

Published in Germany as Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, this novel has been described as the German Ulysses – the style and content of which have clearly influenced it considerably. I found it a difficult but rewarding read. Each of the nine sections, called Books in this translation, begins with a terse summary of its contents; here’s part of the one for Book Two:

…this is no ordinary man, this Franz Biberkopf. I did not summon him to entertain us, but so that we might share his hard, true and enlightening existence.

Doblin, Alexanderplatz The plot and style have been admirably assessed in several places: I’d recommend Max’s typically perceptive account at Pechorin’s Journal here. He summarises the (rather basic) plot and themes: the downward trajectory of the life of Franz Biberkopf, ‘an erstwhile cement-and –transport-worker in Berlin’. At the novel’s opening he is released from Tegel Prison after serving a four-year sentence for the manslaughter of his girlfriend. He resolves to go straight – but the narrative relates his stuttering attempts, and ultimate failure, to do so.

After several menial jobs he falls in with gangsters, loses a limb in an act of treachery by his fellow burglars, and suffers more and more blows in his life.

As Max points out, the plot is exciting enough in its way, but it’s the high modernist portrayal of Berlin in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic that’s its most compelling feature. That, and the style, something between middle period Joyce and the Dos Passos of USA: montage, collage, snippets of classical literature, popular songs, ads on billboards, anything that surrounds Franz in his peripatetic quests across and beyond the city.

It’s not a cheerful or easy read. Like Emma of Book Around the Corner I found it heavy going. Just as I started to weary of the fragmented style, however, the pace changed and my interest revived. So let’s take a look at the style. As Max has already commented on the fragmentation technique, I’d like to just add a couple of features that stood out for me.

First there’s the use of non sequitur:

 Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie.

 

This is Franz’s stream of thought as he stands on a corner in front of a movie theatre. The scene of typical urban renewal sparks off thoughts of a possible job, but the movie intrudes and interrupts the flow. This is largely how we all experience our interior monologue, I’d have thought, and it works quite well, but tends to irritate me after several pages of it.

Tenses jump around for no apparent reason from past to present and back. Pages 41-42 contain a sequence of symbols for Trade and Commerce to Finance and Tax Office; these are reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s insertion of bizarre symbols in Tristram Shandy, and serve no particular purpose here, as far as I can see.

Those sections where I was most able to overcome my aversion to these narrative tics were the ones which dealt with the festering political situation in the city (Max mentions the anti-Semitism), but there’s also a stark portrayal of the extremes of nascent fascism/nationalism beginning to assert itself over socialism and communism. Here’s a taster, in a long scene in a Berlin theatre-cum-drinking den:

 The veteran whispered, his hand before his mouth, he belched: “Are you a German, honest and true? If you run with the Reds, you’re a traitor. He who is a traitor isn’t my friend.” He embraced Franz: “The Poles, the French, the fatherland for which we bled, that’s the nation’s gratitude.”

 

Soon after this Franz peddles ‘Nationalist pro-Nordic papers’:

He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order. For law and order must reign in Paradise; which everyone should recognize. And the Steel Helmet, he’s seen those boys, and their leaders, too, that’s a great thing. [There follow sickening extracts of fascist rhetoric from the paper] In the Elsasser Strasse the other fellows laugh themselves sick when he makes his appearance in the café at noon, his Fascist armband discreetly tucked in his pocket; they pull it out.

Here it’s possible to see the other problem with the text, apart from its modernist liking for cinematic verbal metonymy: the clunky translation. It has to be said, given the fact that the novel is apparently filled with Berlin dialect and thieves’ argot, that translation must be a nightmare. This UK-published edition was translated by the American-born Eugen Jolas (died 1952), who uses a register that swings oddly from prohibition-era New Jersey to Edwardian English (‘What the deuce are those big boots?’ asks one character, implausibly).

I’ve found it hard to pin down what I ultimately made of this novel: it’s a considerable achievement, and certainly a notable addition to the canon of experimental modernist European fiction. But I can’t say hand on heart that I particularly enjoyed it. I’d be quick to concede that it’s probably more to do with my defects as a reader than those in the text.

Edition used: Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, first published by Martin Secker in 1931. Thanks to Cornwall Libraries for the loan of their copy.

Hypocorism revisited: aptronyms, euonyms and caconyms

February was a busy month for me at work; my intended post on Alfred Döblin is still on its way.

Last week I visited friends in London and thoroughly enjoyed the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I took particular pleasure in seeing his painting of Henry James that I used in a recent post on his story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’.

Back in Nov. 2013 I posted on ‘hypocorism’ – people’s names as diminutive or pet forms like Billy for William. I went on to consider mononyms, anthroponyms, endonyms, exonyms, and so on.

Just now I encountered a tweet from the OED with a similar term that I’d not previously known: APTRONYM: A name regarded as (humorously) appropriate to a person’s profession or personal characteristics. It can also be spelled (or spelt!) APTONYM.

Among the citations in the OED online are these:

1986   Los Angeles Times 16 Feb. vi. 1/1   According to the American Name Society, they’re called aptonyms, that is, surnames which..have turned out to be incredibly apt. A brief search for local aptonyms produced Tommy Trotter, the new director of racing at Hollywood Park.
2002   Winnipeg Free Press 19 Jan. a14/2   He began collecting aptronyms 30 years ago, when he saw an ad in his local paper for a flower shop operated by Flora Gardner.
There’s a long list of aptronym surnames at Wikipedia, such as a German professor of psychiatry who specialises in anxiety, and is called Jules Angst; there’s a gardener called Bob Flowerdew who regularly appears on BBC Radio 4 shows about the subject; Lord Judge is the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Arsène Wenger is the manager of Arsenal football club, the London Premier League side.
I knew a kid at school with the unusual family name Soldier. His parents, with more wit than sympathy, named him Roman. As in Polanski – which is itself a kind of aptronym; here’s the etymology of the surname at the website Ancestry
Polish (Polanski): ethnic name for a Pole, or more specifically for a descendant of the Polanie, one of the original Polish tribes.Polish, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), Ukrainian, and Belorussian: topographic name for someone who lived in a clearing, from polana ‘glade’, ‘clearing’ (a derivative of pole ‘field’), or a habitational name for someone from placed called Polana, Polanka, Polany, or any of various other places named with polana.
The OED compares aptronym with EUONYM – also new to me: it derives from the Greek element ‘eu-‘ meaning ‘good’ or ‘well’. OED online defines it as  ‘An appropriate or well-chosen name; (formerly in technical use) a name that conforms to the requirements of a particular system of nomenclature.The term was popularized by its appearance as the winning word in the 1997 U.S. National Spelling Bee competition.’
Its first citation is from 1889, which states that it’s the opposite of CACONYM (‘An example of bad nomenclature or terminology, esp. in biology and botany.’), in which the prefix derives from the Greek for, not surprisingly, ‘bad, evil’. Hence ‘cacophony’ (opposite of ‘euphony’). I rather like OED’s most recent citation:
1956   Nat. Cactus & Succulent Jrnl. 2 3/1   A name may qualify as a caconym in different ways. First, from sheer length… Second, from the clash of consonants making it difficult (for a European at least) to articulate.
Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Which reminded me of the plant EUONYMUS, defined by OED online thus:

A genus of shrubs (family Celastraceæ), of which many species are now cultivated as ornamental plants. The only British species is the Spindle-tree, otherwise known as the peg-, prick-, skewerwood from the uses to which its wood is applied.

Etymology:  < Latin euōnymos (Pliny xiii. xxxviii. §118), subst. use of Greek εὐώνυμος   of good name, lucky, < εὐ-   (see eu- comb. form) + ὄνομα, in Aeolic ὄνυμα name.

Pliny says that the flowering of the euonymus was a presage of pestilence; hence it seems probable that the name ‘lucky’ was given with euphemistic intention.

 

I love the way one word leads to another. A linguistic dérive…