The Anna Kavan Smile Part One—Ice

Anna-Kavan[1]Anne Kavan is inevitably smiling in photographs. It was that smile which initially intrigued me. I was browsing through My Madness when I saw the photo that served as the frontispiece. It shows a rather smart
middle-aged woman beaming away at the camera. The contrast between the blurb which alluded to drug addiction, mental breakdown and confinement in psychiatric institutions and the photograph of a lady who obviously lunched at expensive Kensington restaurants was too incongruous.  Here, I felt, was a mystery. I brought the book and went home to found out something about the enigmatic Anna Kavan.

Twenty odd years later and Anna Kavan has been the subject of two biographies and renewed critical attention, yet she remains an enigma. Which is how she would have wanted it. The details of her life (or lives) remain sketchy and in many cases she destroyed biographical information. Given the paucity of evidence and Kavan’s inveterate self mythologizing tendencies it remains probable that Kavan will remain, as she once declared herself  “the world’s best kept secret”.

However when I opened My Madness I knew none of this. After reading the excellent introduction by Brian Aldiss I started with Ice which Aldiss highlighted as her masterpiece. It is. I read Ice in one sitting (it’s a short novel). It’s unlike any other novel you will ever read. It’s a disaster novel but as Brian Aldiss points out in the Trillion Year Spree it goes beyond even the catastrophes of JG Ballard into the icy realm of metaphysics. The nameless and very unreliable narrator and a sinister figure named only the Warden pursue an equally nameless girl across a world that is inexorably being covered with ice. The pattern is eternally repeated. Whenever he catches up with the girl   he torments her and then abandons her, then when left to his own devices finds that he is overwhelmed by violent sadistic fantasies (the girl dies many times in many different ways in his imagination) and sets off in pursuit again of his elusive yet willing victim. And all the while the ice is getting closer, total annihilation is at hand, until the remaining time left for all life goes down from months to weeks to days to hours. Yet Ice has a happy ending, after its own fashion. Kavan analyzes her personal experiences to universalize them, suggesting that humanity has a collective death wish and is suicidally complicit with global destruction. Deep down, according to Kavan, what we really desire is that the world ends when we die.

Ice, like most of the novels and short stories she published as Anna Kavan, is experimental, non-linear and modernist. Ice deals in elliptic fashion with both madness and heroin addiction. Yet it remains surprisingly accessible. Because Ice straddles genres it could be read successfully as an apocalyptic action adventure, an erotic novel or as an existential espionage thriller; a roman blanc. The hallucinations of one minute do not match the reality of the next; identities shift, merge, metamorphose until held fast by the ice. That transformation, Kavan leads us to believe, is absolute and final.

One of the most astonishing facts about Ice is that it was published  in 1967 just one year before her death (she died of a heart attack, the police officer at the scene said she had stockpiled enough heroin to kill every man, woman and child in the street). Kavan was always very secretive about her date of birth, however 1901 is generally accepted, so she was 66 at the time of publication.

It didn’t strike me as the work of a 66-year-old lady who lunches. The mystery deepened, I had no choice but to read on and read more.

The Sea of Ice-Caspar David Friedrich

44 thoughts on “The Anna Kavan Smile Part One—Ice

      1. If you like them, of course they do. It’s interesting for me because I’ve never heard of most of what you post.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I thought Ice was fantastic. I wrote an extensive review on my site. Especially the moments where the male character retreated to his memories of visions of Indris and the lemur songs…

    I concluded: “Filled with unsettling yet gorgeous images, Ice (1967) is a triumph of 60s experimental literature with post-apocalyptical undertones. N’s visions of G’s destruction unnerve and cut deep. The dreamlike repetition, the interchangeability of the landscapes, N’s hallucinations and obsessions, are like some second skin you cannot shed. A melodious rumination on destruction…”

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  2. Wow, I totally forgot about Ice – and I bought it after the first time you posted this. I need to go to a third world country with no electricity and no phone service for a month just to read…..

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  3. Thanks for the fantastic critique of Ice and it’s author Anna kavan. In reading about Anna I find that she began as a painter and her artwork is defined by her tragic mental illness and addiction. I will definitely have to read this intriguing book, thank you so much for the introduction.

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    1. Thank you so much for your lengthy comment and I am glad I have aroused your interest in this marvellous writer. She shares similarities with Sylvia Plath but even though she is not nearly as well known I think she is the greater writer because of the utter lack of self pity and her ability (in the latte stages of her career anyway) to turn her mental illness into a positive factor in her writing. In Ice she manages to universal her experiences. What more can a writer achieve? Part Two will be posted very shortly.

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    1. Ah thank you Roger you comment has made my day. Part two will be posted very shortly. Intriguing she certainly was, her favourite fix was heroin, cocaine and bulls blood. Towards the end of her life she rarely went out unless to score or to go to Harrods to pick up a trout. That I think, perfectly sums up Anna Kavan.

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      1. A very different lifestyle from mine. I rarely go out except to buy more food and stock up on liquid refreshments. That said, I went to our writing group meeting this evening and it was a right riot. We had a great time.

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      2. Well Kavans was an unrepentant junkie and who wants that lifestyle. But a posh one nevertheless. She was good friends with the Welsh novelist Rhys Davis(he inherited her estate) who also had mental issues, the difference being as Davis wryly noted, was when things were going badly for him he couldn’t go a private sanatorium in Switzerland to be treated by Nureyev’s analyst. This is not to minimise her suffering, but it is a fact. I am glad you had a riot, men behaving badly?

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      3. It was a very interesting literary discussion punctuated by some ribald comments that illustrated the literary techniques. It is a literary support group rather than a writing group and we take our selves lightly and our tasks seriously. I got smiled at by a very attractive 20 year old and that smile made me very happy.

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