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.

Anna Kavan, ‘The Parson’: a critique

Anna Kavan, The Parson. Peter Owen paperback, 2001; first published 1995.

I wrote about Anna Kavan and her story collection Julia and the Bazooka on this blog yesterday.  Born in Cannes in 1901, Kavan died in 1968.  The Parson was discovered among her papers and published posthumously.  It seems to have been written in the late 50s-early 60s.

This is a good, bad novel.  The plot is lurid noir; a ‘most improbable meeting’ leads to a liaison that erupts in a wild, sinister northern land between two opposites: an innocent young army lieutenant called Oswald, a native of this land, and the glamorous femme fatale from the south, Rejane, ‘like the heroine of a romantic story, beautiful and extremely rich’.

These words from the opening paragraphs of the novel reveal its weaknesses.  The structure is contrived, the plot overheated to the point of ridiculousness.  Yet somehow it works as a short, compelling  piece of fiction.

There is a genre of novel which deals with decent men who hook up with bad, mean women who do them wrong, from Parade’s End (Ford Madox Ford) to the Sword of Honour trilogy (Evelyn Waugh) and beyond.  But this time the author is a woman, and there’s a different take on the format.

Dec 13 scenes Kavan 004The mismatched lovers are straight out of B-movie central casting.  Oswald is described on the opening page as a ‘tall, athletic young man, whose skin was tanned much darker than his fair hair’.  Rejane is attracted to him by his ‘good looks’ (modified seven lines later to ‘severe good looks and superb physique’), and a ‘puzzling’ quality she discerns in him, ‘something incongruous that required explanation.’

Rejane is described, two pages later, in potboiler romance style:

In the blond north, in that remote and unlikely setting, Rejane’s dark beauty was quite extraordinary, with its sensuous contrast of pale flawless skin and almost black hair and eyes.  Her complexion was pure magnolia.  And her hair fell in soft, dark waves that always looked perfect and perfectly natural…

The ‘glamour’ of this Lamia enchantress is apparently that of a ‘charming and lovely girl’, ‘unspoiled by money and adulation’.  Although the narrator grimly reveals that this impression is ‘misleading’, vulnerable Oswald is smitten, unable to resist.  The clunky contrast of blond/dark, innocent/experienced is overstated – but this is not a realist novel.  Just look at that knowing repetition of the ambiguous ‘perfect/perfectly’.

The melodramatic stage is set for a soul-bruising brief encounter.  Kavan is capable of much better writing than this sub-Mills and Boon tosh, fortunately.

Oswald’s nickname had been acquired in his tropical posting because of his refusal to respond to the army wives’ brazenly seductive advances.  He did so out of a mixture of loyalty to his fellow officers and sense of duty to his family.  In that morally tainted environment his comrades began to turn against him, finding his behaviour towards the wives they know are serially unfaithful an insult.  The nickname ‘The Parson’ became increasingly used as a sneer.

We’re told insistently that he’s no woman-hater, but that he has an ‘idealized notion of womanhood that made the promiscuous sexiness of the young wives so repulsive to him.’  Really?  Then we’re told he was ‘singularly innocent…without being in any way prudish, priggish or epicene.’  Perhaps Kavan protests too much.  He may not be gay, but he’s repressed.

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

He becomes lonely, unhappy and isolated, a misfit outsider.  Full of longings that ‘only a woman, he knew instinctively, could satisfy’ he returns to his Nordic homeland on leave.

His loving mother and downtrodden, resentful sister fail to provide the support and comfort they had done in the past.  It is in this setting that Oswald experiences the coup de foudre when he first sees Rejane in her hotel lounge.

He timidly offers to show her the wild beauties of this barren land of tors and moors.  Intrigued and amused by his adoring air of ‘respect and profound devotion’ – she’s clearly more used to less gallant sexual advances, and has a lover back home whom she’s temporarily punishing by taking this unlikely trip to the north – she leads him on.  She’s surprised and slightly disgusted at his failure to attempt to seduce her.

The narrator clearly dislikes Rejane:

Her pleasing, unaffected façade, the pretence that all her beauty and wealth made her no different from other people, concealed the implacable underside of her character, and an obsession with self that was truly phenomenal.

Her ‘narcissism’ and ‘glorified self-image’ cause her to believe she’s a superior being, ‘almost as though she possessed supernatural powers.’  At no point does the narrative simply ‘show’ us these characters; we are ‘told’ constantly how to assess them – yet strangely this is done with such endearing venom that it doesn’t matter.  Kavan isn’t trying for psychological depth or realism; this is the polarised world of saga and folk-tale.  Rejane is a ‘malevolent’ Wicked Witch or a Lamia – and her sinister, witchlike, reptilian qualities are frequently alluded to.  In his innocent, almost virginal worship of her Oswald flatters her ‘dream-self’ so that she is able to enjoy feeling his placing her on a throne or pedestal.

She is experienced and cynical enough to know that he loves her, but thinks he might be ‘afraid of love in the physical sense’ – he’s transforming her into a goddess.  Her ‘queenly enchantress-self’ enjoys this, but her rational self finds him laughable, even contemptuous:

That there was something witchlike about her, Oswald’s instinct had told him, warning him off.  He had ignored the warning, already infatuated by this dangerous charmer; but if he’d seen that inhuman look of mocking, cold-blooded amusement, his chivalrous soul might have taken fright.  However, he was unsuspecting and saw nothing.

Despite this purple prose, the narrative becomes more interesting from this point.  The perspective alternates between the two characters: first we see what’s going on inside Rejane’s head, then Oswald’s.  It lifts the creaky plot into a more interesting zone.  Occasionally the narrator then shifts into a neutral space between them, to pass crushing judgement:

‘How do you like our tor?’ Oswald asked, turning his blond head to beam at her warmly and protectively – he might as well have beamed protectively at a tiger.

During his month’s leave Rejane indulges him.   Just as the army husbands felt insulted by Oswald’s rejections of their wives, so Rejane feels his restraint is insulting, and she resolves to ‘teach him a lesson.’  Her contempt and ‘jeering malice’ slowly grow.

Norse peak: Wiki Commons

Norse peak: Wiki Commons

So he drives her in his car through the stark setting of this ‘barbarous’ northern land with which he feels a mystical attachment, as he does to the ‘old stories’ of the moors,

…while she amused herself with her race of imaginary pre-men, half magicians, but doomed to extinction because their development had taken a wrong twist.  Their resentment had spun a venomous web of magic to last as long as the rock into which they’d infused it.

The relationship takes a shocking turn when she insists he take her to a remote, derelict castle.  Oswald finally realises how she really feels about him, and drops his diffident manner dramatically.  They both lose track of sanity.  The final third of the novel shows how each of them has been transformed by this sexual-emotional crisis, with the narrative point of view entering into each of them alternately with a scalpel’s precision.  This is the most innovative and successful aspect of the novel.

It’s only Oswald who has undergone some king of epiphany, however.  The mask has slipped from her face, and he sees the ‘undisguised witch-like look on her face.’  But the revelation is to have terrible consequences as her indifference becomes openly cruel.

This is a curious novel, but for all its flaws it has an intensity that isn’t too marred by the exaggerated analogies with Nordic sagas and sultry southern gothic belles.  The depiction of Oswald’s tortured grief at the novel’s end after his flash of insight into Rejane’s true nature is powerful and affecting –  it reminded me of the anguish in Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness portrayal of Eveline at the end of her story in Dubliners.

I’d urge you to give Anna Kavan a try.  Just avoid her 1948 novel Sleep Has His House, which I couldn’t finish.

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Kavan, ‘Julia and the Bazooka’: a critique

Trying not to look at the stars: Julia and the Bazooka, by Anna Kavan (Peter Owen Modern Classics paperbacks, 2009; first published 1970). 

'Sleep Has His House' front cover of the Peter Owen paperback (my own copy photo)

‘Sleep Has His House’ front cover of the Peter Owen paperback (my own copy photo)

Writers such as Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard have praised the writings of Anna Kavan, but I find her work uneven – I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages of self-indulgent, rambling dream visions in Sleep Has His House, first published in 1948.  Julia and the Bazooka is also uneven, but serves as a good introduction to the qualities (and weaknesses) of Kavan’s fiction.  

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

Born of wealthy British parents in Cannes in 1901, Helen Woods (she assumed the name Anna Kavan later) was brought up in Europe and the USA.  Her glamorous mother was a feckless socialite who largely abandoned her daughter to the erratic care of a series of nannies, relatives and boarding schools; this emotionally fraught childhood probably contributed to the nervous and mental problems that Kavan suffered from throughout her adult life.

Her early life was also troubled.  When she was fourteen her father drowned at sea, possibly a suicide.  At nineteen she wanted desperately to take up a place at Oxford, but her mother refused to let her, and instead encouraged her to marry an engineer on the Burma railways by the name of Donald Ferguson, twelve years older than Helen, and possibly one of her mother’s own ex-lovers.

She lived with him in Burma for some time, but the marriage was a failure: her husband was a boorish drunk, and she eventually left him and obtained a divorce.  This difficult period of her life furnished the material for her novel Who Are You? (1963).

Her first six novels were published between 1929 and 1937 under her married name, Helen Ferguson.   After a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt in 1938 she took on the identity of a character from her 1930 novel Let Me Alone, Anna Kavan; she used this name for the rest of her professional life.  She dyed her hair blonde and adopted a chic persona at odds with the stereotypical figure of the addict she had become.  Her associates were largely unaware of her double life.

This transformation also took place in her writing; from Asylum Piece (1940) onwards her literary work became more intense and unconventional – the polished and eerie avant-garde style she called ‘nocturnal language’.  It has traces of influence from Kafka and other modernists, and is suffused (sometimes excessively so) with the surreal symbolism and structure of dreams, and the psychology of drug-related experience, mental instability and a profound sense of alienation.

Her second husband (there is no formal record of their marriage) was an alcoholic artist

Self portrait (from the Peter Owen website)

Self portrait (from the Peter Owen website)

named Stuart Edmonds.  Her life with him is the subject of the story ‘Now and Then’ in this collection.  In this account the artist stops working and spends his time drinking and smoking.  He becomes an obese, lazy brute who feels repelled by his wife and stops talking to her.  She’s reduced to smashing plates in the kitchen.  If this portrayal is accurate this sounds very like marriage number one.

She left Edmonds in the 1950s and moved to London, where she set up a property development business.   She lived there for the rest of her life.

Anna Kavan’s tennis coach in the 1920s had encouraged her to use cocaine ‘to improve her serve’, says Virginia Ironside in her sympathetic introduction to this book, although it seems more likely that her addictions arose out of the desire to self-medicate; she attempted suicide several times in her life, and underwent detoxification treatment in a number of clinics in Switzerland and England – but she never overcame her drug addiction.  The racing drivers she took up with in the South of France after her divorce introduced her to heroin, which was to become her lifelong ‘friend’.

I’m no psychologist, but it’s interesting to note how she describes these racing drivers in the story ‘World of Heroes’: ‘they live in a wartime atmosphere of recklessness, camaraderie and heightened perception’, the narrator declares excitedly, lending them a ‘personal glamour’ she finds ‘irresistible’.

They were all attractive to me, heroes, the bravest men in the world.  Vaguely, I realised that they were also psychopaths, misfits, who played with death because they were unable to come to terms with life in the world.

This gushing is quite disturbing, especially when she goes on to say that it’s their doomed sense of detachment from the mundane lives of ordinary people that also attracts her; she’s drawn to those who, like her, find everyday life too much.  Whatever the case, these are the only people she feels accepted by; she trusts them and believes ingenuously that they’ll never let her down.

At the end of the story the tone shifts and the narrative voice is chilling; her heroes have all gone and she is, as always, abandoned and alone:

I don’t look up now.  I always try not to look at the stars.  I can’t bear to see them, because the stars remind me of loving and of being loved.

Confessional literature can be interesting only to the writer, but this controlled, minimalist strain is Kavan’s writing at its best.

Bluth on the cover of 'Asylum Piece', from the Peter Owen website

Bluth on the cover of ‘Asylum Piece’, from the Peter Owen website

These fifteen short pieces  were first published two years after her death in 1968.   They mostly portray the terrifying, tormented inner world she inhabited for the last decades of her life.  Her main drug supplier was a married psychiatrist, Dr Theodor Bluth (1892-1964), a near neighbour, who started treating her when she was in a psychiatric ward in 1943. She had an intense but apparently platonic relationship with him; he figures in several of these stories, usually known only as ‘M’.

He was an unconventional practitioner and may well have done more harm than good to his vulnerable patients.  As the story ‘Obsessional’ shows, to Kavan he became ‘a famished longing’; she craved his occasional visits almost as much as the heroin he supplied her with – she describes there the ‘instantaneous charge of purest joy that went through her like an electric shock’ at his reappearances.  ‘Cosmic rays and the mystery of mutation’, the narrator enigmatically claims, had committed them to each other.

These strange, rather silly images reappear in the other stories involving this older male doctor-figure, who seems to be both longed-for lover and father.   I find this sci-fi strain in her writing one of the weakest features; her biographers say she was a fan of the television show ‘Doctor Who’ – not an auspicious influence, in my view.

‘Obsessional’ shows her tortured sense of anguish at his absence and loss – an emotional pain and isolation that pervades the whole collection.  Without him the narrator feels ‘estrangement’ from the chaos of London life that rushes past her in the streets outside; after his death doctor ‘M’ becomes a ghost for her in a way that ‘was not altogether pleasant, although, like an addiction, it was essential to her.’

Bluth seems to have accepted her assertion that heroin provided her only relief from the tortured sensibility and suffering depicted with such rawness in her writing.  Even if the character of ‘M’ is a kind of personification of her addiction to drugs, her narrator’s distress when he leaves her (withdrawal symptoms?) is intense; in ‘Mercedes’ he drives away in the eponymous car:

Suddenly, to my horror, the car started to move.  I sprang at the door again wildly, determined to open it and get in, or else drag him out.  Too late.  The Mercedes was far out of reach already, my hands only grasped the air.  ‘Stop!’ I shouted in desperation.  ‘You can’t leave me behind!’  All these years he’d been saying we’d drive off together, I simply couldn’t believe he would go without me.  Like a lunatic, I started running…

The hallucinatory tendency frequently turns surreal, most notably in ‘The Zebra-Struck’.  The narrator, a Kafka-esque ‘K’,  lies in hospital after her fourth suicide attempt (once again to escape that recurring image in these stories, the prison of life).  Those annoying cosmic rays reappear; she believes that they cause mutations like the stripes on a zebra, and have connected her with ‘M’.  He is the only one who understands her, who enables her to endure the metaphysical horror of her existence.  He’s kind and clever and praises her.  As always she’s doomed to be bereft, left isolated in her unbearable, haunted loneliness.

The title story relates in a hallucinatory sequence how the narrator was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach, and the drug helped her to win a silver cup.  His practice of calling the syringe a ‘bazooka’ is taken up by the narrator (and the author), and this enables her to laugh off the ‘sensational stories’ about drug addiction, making the ‘whole business seem not serious.’  Other scenes from the life of Julia, surely a fictionalised Anna, pass by like dream visions, with childhood, marriage, the death of a husband, a roof garden during the London blitz, another kindly doctor who understands that she needs her drugs as a diabetic needs insulin.  The ending is bleak – the undertaker has left, her ashes are in the trophy cup she won at tennis:

It has got quite dark outside, the wall has turned black.  As the wind shakes it, the faintest of tinkles comes from the pigeon-hole where all that is left of Julia has been left.  Surely there were some red flowers somewhere, Julia would be thinking, if she could still think.  Then she would think something, she would remember the bazooka and start to laugh.  But nothing is left of Julia really, she is not there.  The only occupant of the pigeon-hole is the silver cup, which can’t think or laugh or remember.  There is no more Julia anywhere.  Where she was there is only nothing.

This again is Kavan at her best: crisp, spare prose deployed with icy lucidity.

In the first story, ‘The Old Address’, another unnamed first-person narrator has been discharged from what is presumably a rehab clinic; she steps into the ‘absolute mob’ that surges along the pavement outside:

I search in vain for a human face.  Only hordes of masks, dummies, zombies go charging past, blindly, heads down…Cold enemy eyes, arrow-eyes, pierce me with poison-tipped suspicion, as if they know where I’ve come from.

Terrible eyes.  Terrible noise.  Terrible traffic.

The sky is full of unnatural light, which is really a darkish murk and makes everything look sinister, a black conspiracy hanging up there in the air.  Something frightful seems to be happening, or going to happen.

This hellish nightmare becomes even more infernal when the narrator sees herself crushed by a car; she spouts blood ‘like a whale’, and passers-by slip in the mess, which is poisonous to them.  She hates them all, calls them ‘bastards’, delights in this sanguinary revenge, drowning them ‘as if they were so many eels’.

But the sense of freedom is illusory: she realises she’s trapped and will never escape.  The streets are deserted but cars continue to roar past; in a panic she feels she’s been (a now familiar theme) ‘betrayed and abandoned’ in this terrifying prison:

Above the din of their engines louder crashes erupt all round.  Avalanches of deafening noise explode in my ears like bombs.  In all the thunderous booming roar I can distinguish the sobs of heartbroken children, the shrieks of tortured victims and addicts deprived of drugs, sadistic laughter, moronic cries, the moans of unsuccessful suicides- the whole catastrophe of this inhuman city, where the wolf-howl of ambulances and police cars rises perpetually from dark gullies between the enormous buildings.

Why, the narrator asks, is she ‘locked in this nightmare of violence, isolation and cruelty?’  Then she realises this hell is self-created, and that she can’t possibly live in ‘this terrible, hideous, revolting creation of mine.’  Neither can she escape.

So there’s to be no end to my incarceration in this abominable, disgusting world…My thoughts go round in circles.  Mad with despair, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t remember or think any more.  The terror of life imprisonment stupefies me, I feel it inside me like an intolerable pain.  I only know that I must escape from this hell of hallucination and horror.  I can’t endure my atrocious prison a moment longer.

There’s only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered, and needless to say I haven’t forgotten that.

So now I wave my arm frantically at a passing taxi, fall inside, and tell the man to drive to the old address.

Her syringe is in her handbag.  I don’t recall reading a more searing account of the mental torment and the doomed psychology of the addict.

 

Kavan's own illustration to 'A Visit' (from Bookforum website)

Kavan’s own illustration to ‘A Visit’ (from Bookforum website)

Other stories are at times more lyrical but equally haunting, if slightly less harrowing.  Most of them depict a central character lost in various kinds of nightmare or distorted reality – and at times, it must be said, these traumatised, disorientated characters become repetitive and tiresome.   But there’s just about enough variety to offset this tendency: in ‘A Visit’ there are visions of a leopard in a jungle by the sea; the narrator is saddened when it departs over the waves with a young man, seen earlier in another vision.  It’s pretty silly again, but strangely beautiful, like a Rousseau painting, which her own illustration for the story demonstrates.

Cars feature centrally again in ‘The Mercedes’, ‘Clarita’ and ‘High in the Mountains’; they are often seen as a means of attempting to escape into solitude or oblivion, as well as instruments of destruction – Kavan’s preoccupations.

My own copy of 'Julia and the Bazooka'

My own copy of ‘Julia and the Bazooka’

These stories are not a cheerful read, but there is a strange kind of uplifting hope to be found in some of them, even when the narrators confront obliterating despair.  ‘The universe has no meaning’, Kavan once wrote, but these fragments of prose prove that she was capable of circumventing, if only temporarily and incompletely, the absurdity and terror of existence.

 

 

The Anna Kavan website has a list (with links) of all of her published works.