Anna Kavan - The hallucination of one moment did not fit the reality of the next. An insane impatience for death was driving mankind to a second suicide, even before the full effect of the first had been felt.



Ice by Anna Kavan
Anna Kavan, Ice. Penguin, 2017. [1967.]

redmood.com/kavan/akbooks.html


‘One of the most mysterious of modern writers, Anna Kavan created a uniquely fascinating fictional world. Few contemporary novelists could match the intensity of her vision.’ – J.G. Ballard


In this haunting and surreal novel, the narrator and a man known as the warden search for an elusive girl in a frozen, seemingly post-nuclear, apocalyptic landscape. The country has been invaded and is being governed by a secret organization. There is destruction everywhere; great walls of ice overrun the world. Together with the narrator, the reader is swept into a hallucinatory quest for this strange and fragile creature with albino hair. Acclaimed upon its 1967 publication as the best science fiction book of the year, this extraordinary and innovative novel has subsequently been recognized as a major work of literature in its own right.
A dazzling and haunting vision of the end of the world, Ice is a masterpiece of literary science fiction now in a new 50th anniversary edition with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem 
In a frozen, apocalyptic landscape, destruction abounds: great walls of ice overrun the world and secretive governments vie for control. Against this surreal, yet eerily familiar broken world, an unnamed narrator embarks on a hallucinatory quest for a strange and elusive “glass-girl” with silver hair. He crosses icy seas and frozen plains, searching ruined towns and ransacked rooms, all to free her from the grips of a tyrant known only as the warden and save her before the ice closes all around. A novel unlike any other, Ice is at once a dystopian adventure shattering the conventions of science fiction, a prescient warning of climate change and totalitarianism, a feminist exploration of violence and trauma, a Kafkaesque literary dreamscape, and a brilliant allegory for its author’s struggles with addiction—all crystallized in prose glittering as the piling snow.

Kavan’s 1967 novel has built a reputation as an extraordinary and innovative work of literature, garnering acclaim from China Miéville, Patti Smith, J. G. Ballard, Anaïs Nin, and Doris Lessing, among others. With echoes of dystopian classics like Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and J. G. Ballard’s High RiseIce is a necessary and unforgettable addition to the canon of science fiction classics.

“There is nothing else like it.” —Doris Lessing


“I can tell you about some women writers who truly are fantastic. One is Anna Kavan . . . she’s caught in a haze and then a light, a little teeny light, come through. It could be a leopard, that light, or it could be a spot of blood. It could be anything. But she hooks onto that and spirals out. And she does it within the accessible rhythms of plot, and that’s really exciting. She’s not hung up with being a woman, she just keeps extending herself, keeps telescoping language and plot.” – Patti Smith

“Brooding, mysterious…a fascinating marriage of the Goth novel with science fiction.” —Publishers Weekly

“One of the most terrifying postulations of the end of the world.” —The Times of London
“What a writer, and what a vision. What a perfect book to read in preparation for the end of the world.” –Granta

“[A] marvelously gifted writer…an abundance of writing that astonishes with poetic brilliance.” —Sunday Telegraph
“Unique…its incantatory powers move it beyond the scopt of science-fantasy.” —Brian Aldiss
“Originally and masterfully written.”Columbus Dispatch 



This 50th-anniversary edition of a novel about a surreal pursuit through an apocalyptic world should bring new attention to Kavan (1901-1968; Who Are You, 1963, etc.), a writer of intense imagination.
Kavan’s unnamed narrator returns to his home country after spending time abroad in the tropics and finds the countryside in the clutch of disturbing, unseasonable cold. He has come back to “investigate rumors of a mysterious impending emergency” but is unable to focus on anything except seeing a woman he was once infatuated with. He blames her past rejection of him for various psychological sufferings and has vivid dreams of her enduring violent physical harm that intrude upon the narrative without warning. He finally sees her, victimized by a poisonous marriage, but then she runs away, and he feels compelled to find her, beginning a lonely chase through a world succumbing to an unspecific and terrifying disaster. Governments fail, militaries take over, tension increases between countries with nuclear armaments, and, most inevitably, deadly cold and walls of ice start to overtake the planet. While elements of Kavan’s story feel sometimes like a science-fiction adventure and sometimes like a hallucinatory psychological nightmare, the whole never sits still as one or the other, and it is always slippery, bizarre, and meticulously written. Time is elastic and the horrors of reality and fantasy are rarely delineated, so the power of one scene falling after another remains unconstrained by conventional logic and is instead wielded for maximum visceral effect. Kavan’s descriptions of disaster are brutal and beautiful: “Ice walls loomed and thundered, smooth, shining, unearthly, a glacial nightmare….” There is little gentleness in this world, and the unrelenting fixation on male pursuit of female victimization might be read as problematic, but aligning that pursuit with a human-inflicted destruction of the entire world provides an interesting pairing to consider.
A gripping and uniquely strange work of science fiction. - Kirkus Reviews

An Incredible Glacial Dream-Scene
Anna Kavan’s Ice certainly counts among the most singular – and intense – works of literature I’ve read. I struggled with it at first, alternately repelled by this intensity and by its abrupt plunges into “dream” states, and drawn back again and again to its hard-edged, glittering prose and phantasmagorical, bracing atmosphere almost as a need (few books this slim have taken me so long to read, but few that have taken so long to read have so repeatedly called with such insistence from the nightstand). Good taste should probably forbid me from describing the novel’s intensity as like that of the acute burning sensation one feels when touching dry ice, but as I’ve just done that, I’ll stand by it. This is a tremendous work of concentrated imagination and ambiance, with a contemporaneity and freshness scarcely betrayed by the fact of Ice’s having been written more than 40 years ago. But the magnitude of its force comes not simply from its dazzling winter lyricism and mood, but also from the seriousness that underlies it, which conveys a rawness that – even had I not learned some outline details of Kavan’s psychological crises and heroin addiction – would have nonetheless suggested a writer in full control yet on a razor’s edge. 
The preface to my 1970 Doubleday edition is by science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who knew Kavan and was the first to suggest to her that her work was a kind of science fiction, an observation towards which she initially expressed some surprise but came to accept (this lack of self-conscious science fictionality only adds to the book’s power). The plot of Ice, such as there is one, could be characterized simply: a man attempts to rescue a fragile and persecuted woman also pursued by another man, a kind of despotic figure, with the pursuit and rivalry among these nameless characters across northern landscapes and seaports set against the rapidly encroaching catastrophe of a new worldwide ice age and its attendant panic, deprivations and violence. But this synopsis only provides the barest branches around which Ice is formed. Its complexity of mood and impression also figures gender and sexual power dynamics, a psychology of victimhood and oppression, a vision of an apocalypse that humans have brought upon themselves (in addition to its explicit suggestion of nuclear winter, Ice may well be the among the first novels beyond conventional science fiction to resonate with the threat of climate change as we understand it in its contemporary context), and an overwhelmingly dream-like, sustained representation of struggle against an array of oppressive forces within a surrounding aura of menace. Kavan’s novel unfolds through contrasts of gaiety and destruction, of violence and immobility, of imprisonment and freedom, of power and helplessness, all overshadowed by looming, pulsing waves of imminent catastrophe. Linearity of narrative is broken and buffeted repeatedly; the metaphor of invading ice extends to the narrative style itself, which splinters, fractures, crashes, subsides and glows with a cold blue hue. Yet the actual ice in Ice obeys no recognizable physical laws; at the same time hypnotically attractive and frighteningly threatening, it waits along the horizon at times, rushes in like a tsunami at others, and rears up as though exploded out of nowhere at others – as does the narrative. Temporal continuity is repeatedly interrupted, thwarted. Unreal elements burst through the narrative as though heaved there by deep geological forces, as though the walls of consciousness have suddenly collapsed and invited an overwhelming rush of frozen sea. 
A reviewer on Amazon.com has asked, “How can one not discuss Anna Kavan first when discussing her work?” I assume that this question refers to the writer’s psychiatric struggles and above all to her heroin addiction, since, armed with knowledge of the latter, one can’t help but also see Ice as a work about addiction. But given its date of publication (1967) and its narrative mélange of the real and irreal, one scarcely need know of Kavan’s drug use to perceive the novel’s drug influences. Until reading Ice, I’d never really thought much about the distinction, in terms of psychological phenomena, between hallucinations and dreams, though Ice’s irrealistic passages partake far more of an opiated dream-state, albeit an irruptive one, than of disjointed hallucinations. The narrator’s accounts possess the kind of convincing internal logic that dreams can have, with points of view that would be impossible in the physical world and equally impossible shifts of perspective that at times seamlessly transfer from observer to observed. There’s also an odd sort of performative rehearsal marking some of the scenes in Ice, in which an event will be described with one outcome and then re-described with another, as though the dreamer were trying on different versions of her dream. 
Ice possesses a dazzling poetic and thematic magnification and resonance. Aesthetically, it’s like a massive wall of ice itself, with an indistinct and illusory surface of prismatic sparkles and glints, but also startlingly profound translucent glimpses into unfathomable blue depths. This enrapturing, stupefying blast-frozen imagery interweaves with Ice’s lowering mood of portent and peril: 
With a threatening scowl, he went out, banging the door behind him. A silence followed, while she stood like a lost child, tears wet on her cheeks. Next she started wandering aimlessly round the room, stopped by the window, pulled the curtain aside, then cried out in amazement. 
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 glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the tress, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour. 
Kavan’s employment of imagery of forbidding winter – almost undoubtedly a metaphor chosen with the icy lowest depth of Dante’s Inferno in mind - is as multifaceted as it is relentless, and overlays the narrative like a controlled abstraction. Several times I found myself thinking of the novel’s aesthetic ordering as similar to that of a late Jackson Pollock painting, an elaborate, concentrated gesture in which one easily discerns a certain order, pattern and palette (I also could not shake a recurring thought of Pollock’s mysterious mid-career painting “The Deep,” with its wintry colors and illusory play of surface and depth; for some future edition of Ice it might make a fitting cover image).
Thematically Ice is equally multifaceted. Its apocalyptic imagery suggests the threat of nuclear winter and environmental neglect, crystallizing into a weighty mass the atomic age fear of self-destruction of the planet. In its tale of men questing after a woman who doesn’t want to be found, Ice plunges into the psychology of patriarchal presumptiveness and rescue fantasies. In the woman’s seeming helplessness and passivity, it explores as well the notions of victimization and psychological paralysis. In its continual evocation of inevasible ice and snow, it loosely suggests, on a meta-level, an onerous struggle against addiction, but one that the addict has elected to recount via fascination with its absorbing psychological effects, rather than parlaying personal distress into a confessional warning. 
And Ice is also an existentially courageous, starkly unsentimental story of coming to terms with death, the courage and generosity of Kavan’s story all the more remarkable for its having dared to stretch beyond a narrative of personal distress to suggest resistance against great systemic forces at work, and to situate the young woman’s suffering in a global context in which these forces – patriarchal, political, neglectful and presumptive in anything but a benign way - impinge from multiple directions. Were this a simple experiment in presenting addiction, Kavan might easily have made Ice an accession of her own struggle. But whatever personal aspects may underlie this deliberate, unique and impressive novel make little difference in the context of its mesmerizing dream-like lyricism, its disconsolate and poignant moods and complex, expansive themes. To read too much of the personal into Ice would seem little more than a disestimation to a writer who produced a novel as meticulously written and as aesthetically and thematically sui generis as this one, and that expands so eloquently far beyond the personal to address humanity’s common fate. -
seraillon.blogspot.com/2011/08/incredible-glacial-dream-scene.html


Anna Kavan’s “Ice” is a book like the moon is the moon. There’s only one. It’s cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach. It may even seem to be following you. It is a book that hides, and glints, like “the girl” who is at the center of its stark, fable-like tableau of catastrophe, pursuit and repetition-compulsion. The tale might seem simple: a desperate love triangle played out in a world jarred into ecocatastrophe by political and scientific crimes. The narrator, whose resolute search for the girl might appear at first benign or even heroic, nonetheless slowly converges with the personality and motives of the sadistic, controlling “warden,” who is the book’s antagonist and the narrator’s double. Though “Ice” is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror.
I first located “Ice” in a used-book store, in its first American edition, published by Doubleday in 1970 after Kavan’s death, and introduced by Brian Aldiss, who called it science fiction. This was during the time in my reading life when I was trying so hard to find something more like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. But “Ice” wasn’t more of anything. I doubt it helps for it to be categorized as science fiction, or to be categorized at all. Even given Anna Kavan’s remarkable life story, and amid her shelf of coolly anguished fiction, “Ice” stands alone.
Kavan wasn’t her real name — or perhaps I should say it wasn’t her first name. Born Helen Woods to an upper-class British family, then twice miserably married to older alcoholics, she published several novels under her first-married name, Helen Ferguson. From these books, which were precise and despairing, if conventional by the standard of her later writing, she seized for her self-invention the name of her own autobiographical character: Anna Kavan. The details of her long traipse through wartime exile, multiple suicide attempts, psychiatric incarcerations and decades of heroin addiction could fill books; Kavan filled 16 novels with them, though her preference was to sublimate autobiography into pensive, dislocated and somewhat numbed tableaus.
The frozen disaster overtaking the planet in “Ice” evokes that Cold-War, bomb-dreading, postwar 20th century we still, in many ways, live inside; it echoes images as popular as episodes of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” or Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.” The presentation is scattered with scenes of war, civil unrest and collective societal dysfunction, both vivid and persuasive. During World War II Kavan journeyed by steamer slowly to New Zealand and various ports, including New York, and at last returned to England. A realistic novelist might have made some epic like Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies from this, but Kavan wasn’t a maker of epics, and was accompanied not by a colorful husband but by her own violent solitude. A crushed-down and imagistic epic of flight may lurk in the interstices of “Ice,” in fact. Yet as in Kafka, Poe and Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled,” the essential disturbance resides in an inextricable interplay between inner and outer worlds.
Kavan’s commitment to subjectivity was absolute, but in this, her greatest novel, she manages it by disassociation. If “the girl” is in some way a figure of Kavan’s own vulnerability, she’s also a cipher, barely glimpsed, and as exasperating as she is pitiable. It’s been suggested that the “ice” in “Ice” translates to a junkie’s relationship to her drug, yet the book is hardly reducible to this or any other form of allegory. Heroin may be integral to the book, hiding everywhere in plain sight and yet somehow also beside the point. The drama of damage and endurance in “Ice” plays out in an arena of dire necessity and, somehow simultaneously, anomic, dispassionate curiosity.
What makes this not only possible, but also riveting and unforgettable, is Kavan’s meticulous, compacted style. The book has the velocity of a thriller yet the causal slippages associated with high modernist writing like Beckett’s or Kafka’s. The whole presentation is dreamlike, yet even that surface is riven by dream sequences, and by anomalous ruptures in point-of-view and narrative momentum. At times this gives the reader the sensation that “Ice” works like a collage or mash-up; perhaps William Burroughs has been given a go at it with his scissors and paste pot. By the end, however, one feels at the mercy of an absolutely precise and merciless prose machine, one simply uninterested in producing the illusion of cause and effect. In the place of what’s called “plot,” Kavan offers up a recursive system, an index of reaction points as unsettling and neatly tailored as a sheaf of Rorschach blots. The book’s nearest cousins, it seems to me, are “Crash,” Ballard’s most narratively discontinuous and imagistic book, or cinematic contemporaries  like Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad.” It’ll stick around, as those have, and it may even cut deeper. Like the moon, but with sharp edges. - Jonathan Lethem

I dread Boxing Day. It's the day winter really starts. It's easy to feel tidings of great joy when town is full of shoppers and gaudy decorations, but once Christmas Day is over, we're looking at at least eight weeks of perpetual cold, freezing fog and chilling credit card bills while we wait for spring to arrive. That's why my seasonal read is ideal; brutal, addictive and extremely entertaining.
Ice came out in 1967 and was the last of Anna Kavan's books to be published in her lifetime. It won the science fiction book of the year after being nominated by Brian Aldiss. He has since admitted that he didn't really think it was SF, but thought the award was the best way to encourage more people to read her work. His plan worked: Ice is by far the best known of Kavan's books, and I adore it.
The story follows three characters as they struggle against one another and almost certain annihilation. An ice shelf, brought about by some sort of nuclear war, is engulfing the world – Kavan's pun on the cold war may not be subtle but it is terrifying. The landscape is bleached; snow uniforms the landmarks and smothers the towns, cities and dilapidated buildings. Roads are blocked and the waterways of the world frozen solid, hampering the unnamed narrator as he pursues a nameless "ice maiden", as brittle as Venetian glass, with long white hair. She's being held by her husband, "the warden", a high-ranking military man who, with an army of obedient and bullying administrators, polices the country.
Kavan doesn't often name the characters in her books, instead giving them descriptive titles or nicknames. In Ice, countries, places, buildings and roads are also anonymous, adding to the sense of instability and uncertainty; we are completely lost in an oneiric dystopia without a single signpost to orientate us or show us the way out. The narrator is supposed to guide us but he slips into daydreams and hallucinations and we don't know what to trust or believe. It's not many pages into the book that we realise that this isn't a story about characters negotiating a war-torn country, but rather about the narrator fighting his paranoid, panic-stricken mind as it threatens to overcome him. This isn't a plot spoiler; in fact, it's almost impossible to give a spoiler to this book. Its meaning shifts with each reading.                       
I periodically reread Ice because I love the writing and the uneasy feeling it gives me – like reading a really good ghost story. But I also come back to it time and again because I think it tells the fascinating story of Kavan's 40-year relationship with heroin. The similarities between the white snow in the story and the powdered form of the drug I'm sure aren't coincidental.
I was once told that Kavan's love affair with heroin began when she was prescribed it for a sports injury at the time when it was administered as a painkiller in a glass bottle with a pretty label. She soon became wholly dependent on it, and when it was criminalised in the 1950s, was so worried about running out that she stockpiled it. When her body was found in her London home in 1968, it's rumoured that there was enough heroin in her flat to kill the entire street. She suffered from deep, debilitating depressions which caused her to spend time in asylums, but believed the drug allowed her to write, and that writing helped her manage her illness. I see her need for the drug mirrored in the narrator's desperation to reach the ice maiden. The story's winter weather clogs up the roads and hampers the narrator in his quest, but he continues, believing that once he has the maiden with him, all will be well.
That's my seasonal read. It's not heartwarming, it doesn't have a single picturesque landscape or sleigh bell in it. It's strange, unsettling and harsh, but that's why it's ideal. I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to reading what you think. -     https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/21/ice-anna-kavan-winter-reads


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.’
Ice’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. - Simon Lavery tredynasdays.co.uk/2015/03/anna-kavan-ice/


I’ve written before of how sometimes work, life generally, can wreck my reading of a book. A busy period, a week passes without a page turned, and suddenly a great book has become a chore. I don’t remember what’s going on or who the characters are or why the plot involves a chihuaha*. The book becomes staccato and dissolves into incoherence.
Ice got interrupted. It’s just over a 150 pages and took me over a month to read, which is not good going by any standard. Fortunately Ice embraces incoherence – the narrative is already fractured. Reading it when tired, reading it when the previous passages are only half-remembered, if anything works to its advantage. 
In terms of plot and character Ice is both extremely easy and unusually difficult to describe. A man, some kind of spy or security operative, drives through an unnamed country. He’s seeking a woman with whom he used to have a relationship. He describes the woman throughout as the “girl”, but that says more about him than we ever learn about her. She is now with another man, and the protagonist wishes to take her from that other man. 
So far so simple. Problems soon multiply though. In the opening chapter the woman is an old love of the narrator’s. The other man is her husband, a painter. The narrator visits them against a backdrop of unseasonal cold, cold he knows will only get worse until it blankets and kills the earth. His relationship with the woman, the other man, is ambiguous. Does she welcome the narrator’s presence? The husband is at first friendly, but soon appears vaguely threatening. Who is really at risk though, the narrator or the woman?
In what becomes a template for the rest of the novel the narrator loses contact with the couple, but determines to pursue the woman, to rescue her. He finds her on a ship leaving the country, but arrives too late to board. He desperately hires passage on the next ship out. They arrive at the next port, but suddenly they’re on the same ship. I stopped reading. I backtracked. Had he changed vessel? No. Did I misread it previously? No. Were they then on entirely separate ships, but now the same one and always have been on the same one? Yes. 
That’s why this novel is both easy to describe and yet difficult too. Each section makes sense in its own terms, but the whole refuses to be pinned down to any single reality (“I was aware of an uncertainty of the real, in my surroundings and in myself.”). The logic here is that of dreams. He is following her on a separate ship. Scene. He is now on a ship with her, but on a different deck looking towards her. Scene. The transition is as unexplained as the transitions in dreams, which make sense when one is in the dream but none once one awakens. 
Soon nothing is fixed. At this new town, this new country, the woman’s husband is waiting. He’s no longer her husband though, or even a painter. Now he’s the Warden. A military warlord. His relationship with the woman has become crueller, more abusive, but it’s recognisably the same relationship. They’re the same people, but their relationship to each other, to the world, has somehow slipped out of joint. 
I described the narrative here as fractured. That’s one example, but the fracture lines run right through the text. The narrator has visions, remembers scenes at which he wasn’t present (“I had not seen all the things I remembered about her”). Sometimes the perspective shifts and we see him through the eyes of the other man or the woman, or perhaps we just see how he imagines them seeing him. The protagonist suffers from insomnia and is taking drugs that give him “terrible dreams”, but it would be facile (worse, boring) to ascribe all this to hallucination or fantasy. 
Here, early on, the narrator is driving through steadily and rapidly worsening driving conditions:
For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilised her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin agonised scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was.
At the end of his drive the narrator finds the woman at home with her husband. Plainly that episode didn’t happen then. She wasn’t naked in the snow. She wasn’t entombed by rapacious ice. It didn’t happen. Within the narrative though it’s as real, as unreal, as anything else. He’s driving. He sees her and she’s devoured by ice. He’s driving and finds her at her home. Scene. Scene. Scene. 
What then is consistent? What makes this a novel and not just a random collection of incidents that don’t hang together? When you have no plot and no reliable narrative what else is there but character and writing? 
The narrator sees himself as the woman’s rescuer. He sees her as threatened, by the Warden, by the ice which gets ever closer and which is a harbinger of an ambiguous but not uncertain apocalypse, by her own innate victimhood. He sees himself as wanting to protect her, give her safety in a world which it is increasingly clear is literally ending. He sees the Warden as mistreating her, clutching her thin wrists with such force that they bruise, imprisoning her, raping her even. 
As the quote above shows though, like everything else here it’s not that simple. In his fantasies the narrator sees her beaten, abused. Does the Warden treat her as the narrator thinks, or does he just picture him doing so? Is the narrator a rescuer, or is his image of the Warden in fact a reflection of his own reality? Possessive, jealous, obsessive. Is the narrator trying to save the woman, or to control her? At times it’s not even certan that the Warden and the narrator are different people. From the woman’s perspective they might as well not be.  Either way she’s reduced to property. 
Kavan is doing something genuinely interesting here. Ice is a story of male sexual obsession. The woman, the girl as she’s referred to, is the only constant point in the book. She remains unchanged, while reality itself slides around her. As a reader though we never see her directly. We see instead the narrator’s idea of her. Perhaps she doesn’t change because she isn’t herself real. She’s unreal not in the sense that there isn’t a woman within the narrative, but in the sense that the narrator never sees that woman. He only sees his construct of her. Fragile, defenceless, vulnerable, dependent. 
Ice then for me was an exploration of male desire and female objectification, but that’s far from the only possible reading. Anna Kavan, famously, was a heroin addict and the novel is run through with apocalyptic imagery of snow smothering towns and ice clogging up seas and harbours. The ice can be seen as a metaphor for heroin deadening experience, crushing down all feeling except the obsessive quest for something that even when attained soon slips away and must be chased all over again. On another reading the apocalypse is, as all apocalypses are, personal. An apocalypse is after all death, death for the individual and for the world, but every death is of course its own apocalpyse. 
Kavan’s descriptions of a world slowly choking in ice are marvellous. She conjures scenes of panicked evacuation, of lifeboats capsising as ill-prepared middle-class refugees desperately try and find some safety on ships that flee before the relentless glaciers. She portrays towns locked in snow and bloody civil-war, only for the narrator to look back and see the whole town intact, bathed in sunshine, no perception reliable. This is a grim and paranoid book.
I should have to start searching for her all over again. The repetition was like a curse. I thought of placid blue seas, tranquil islands, far away from war. I thought of the Indris, those happy creatures, symbols of life in peace, on a higher plane. I could clear out, go to them. No, that was impossible. I was tied to her. I thought of the ice moving across the world, casting its shadow of creeping death. Ice cliffs boomed in my dreams, indescribable explosions thundered and boomed, icebergs crashed, hurled huge boulders into the sky like rockets. Dazzling ice stars bombarded the world with rays, which splintered and penetrated the earth, filling earth’s core with their deadly coldness, reinforcing the cold of the advancing ice. And always, on the surface, the indestructible ice-mass was moving forward, implacably destroying all life. I felt a fearful sense of pressure and urgency, there was no time to lose, I was wasting time; it was a race between me and the ice. Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight. I saw the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of the world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.
The Indris mentioned there are a lemur-like species that the narrator spent time with on a pacific island. The Indris sing to each other, forming a harmony of life and warmth. The narrator constantly dreams of returning to them, but his search for the girl won’t permit that. He fantasises about a pre-lapsarian world, an escape from a colourless present, but however fast he drives the ice is never far behind and the girl never fully in grasp.
In a very real sense this is a work of science fiction, one in a recognisable tradition even. That’s not because it takes place in an unspecified future in the face of a wintry armageddon. It’s because it breaks reailty to explore concepts through metaphor and image. The most obvious comparators are Ballard and Christopher Priest (who writes an excellent foreword), perhaps Dick at a slight push, but also for me M John Harrison with his marvellous and strange Viriconium stories. There too reality shifts, follows mood rather than logic.
Priest categorises fiction of this kind as slipstream, and it’s a good word for it. He argues that “Slipstream literature is a response to science (and scientific effects), an exercise of human feelings about science, if not an understanding of it, but it is not an allegory.” That’s where Ballard comes in. Ballard’s apocalypses were never meant literally, rather they are psychogeographic. Kavan reflects her characters’ (perhaps her character’s) inner world in his outer one. The narrative is inconsistent because the narrator himself is. It makes as much sense as we do.
  * Ice’s plot does not actually involve a chihuaha. - Max Cairnduff pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/ice-by-anna-kavan/

Anna Kavan is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for years, assured that hers was exactly the sort of low-tog-rating fiction I claim to seek. At the same time her most famous novel, Ice, seemed like the sort of book which didn’t need to be read at all: one of those where the blurb and chat around it seemed to say all that needed to be said. It’s easy to summarise but hard to write about: at least that’s my excuse.
Ice (1967) was Kavan’s last published work before the end of her life. That life is the one thing there’s no getting away from: like the work, the basic facts are both easily known and unknowable. Google Anna Kavan and you can’t escape the central spines of her narrative. She was born Helen Woods, and her early work (under her married name of Ferguson) was eccentric but unexceptional. After she suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown, she changed her name to Anna Kavan, a character in one of her novels, and changed her literary style to match.
Ice fits into what is perhaps a sub-genre in its own right: the possibly allegorical story of a protagonist (often unnamed) who embarks on a mysterious quest, and is frustrated by forces seemingly beyond his control. Expect repetition. Don’t expect a conclusion. Name your own examples, but Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, and Kafka (The Castle? The Trial?) spring immediately to mind. It also fits into the subgenre of science fiction which evades the usual pigeonholing; it shares with On the Beach a desperate inevitability (though is entirely devoid of Shute’s consoling patina of civilisation), and with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: the world is ending, with ice, and there’s no getting out of it.
Ice is easy to get through but eludes the reader; my usual book-thoughts slip and squirm around it. It has an unnamed narrator in a dystopic world who is trying to get in touch with a girl (“she was pale … almost transparent”), and rescue her from another man. Our narrator travels to different parts of the country, and always finds the man and the girl there waiting for him, but evading his grasp. They are everpresent but always unreachable. The transitions from one place to another are dreamlike – “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me” – and Kavan gives the literalist reader a handy get-out when her narrator speaks of his prescription drugs producing “horrible dreams” which “were not confined to sleep only”.
But a literalist reading of this strange text is impossible, or anyway pointless. In story terms, there is not much more to it than mentioned above: other than a sense of slow progress toward the world’s icy apocalypse, the positions of many of the chapters could be changed with no loss of effect. The narrative integrity is fractured: at times the narrator seems to identify with the opposing other man (“I could imagine how it would feel to take hold of her wrists and to snap the fragile bones with my hands”), and raises explicitly the question of whether they are really two people. But, to confuse things further, he also narrates some sections in the third person from the viewpoint of the girl. His attitude to the girl seems as much threatening and sexual as protective. “It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim.” In his introduction, Christopher Priest argues against reading the book as an allegory, because of its “lack of exactness the reader can grasp”. Yet how else to read it? Priest in fact goes on to accept that the book might be reflective of Kavan’s mindset through her heroin addiction in later life: or, I would add, of her broken state of mind generally. This is surely not a controversial proposition, when the book contains such nudges as, “In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.” Where some apocalyptic novels are analogues for the geopolitical fears of the times, Ice seems to retreat to innerspace for its conflicts.
It was Priest’s introduction which made me think of the connections with (my only experience of) his own work, the more controlled but equally disruptive novel The Affirmation, where, as here, reality is both clearly presented and ultimately unknowable. The coming catastrophe, although it involves encroaching ice, is not clearly defined, and at times the threat seems to be in the narrator’s head, like ‘the Emergency’ in Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword. “It appeared that the situation at home was obscure and alarming, no precise information was coming through, the full extent of the disaster was not yet known.” The inability of this reader to divorce the book from the author reaches an appropriate culmination near the end. The girl, the ever-retreating grail of his quest, expects “to be ill-treated, to be made a victim, ultimately to be destroyed, either by unknown forces or by human beings.” It’s an apt enough epitaph for Kavan’s easily summarised, difficult to understand life and work. - John Self  theasylum.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/anna-kavan-ice/


Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel, Ice, is one of the most arresting and exciting novels I’ve read in a long time.
Ice is set in a creepy mid-apocalyptic world where the titular substance (ice) is spreading globewards from the poles. As the world’s resources are destroyed by blistering cold, diplomacy falls apart and raging wars expand into all the surviving countries as those who escape the ice are forced into smaller and smaller pockets of liveable land. Into this conceptual sci-fi scenario is our unnamed narrator, who seeks across the world the woman (“the girl”) that he loves, as she bounces between him and another man’s control. That sounds like a pretty simple, tense, piece, right? Well, it’s not: imagine that narrative written as well as you can imagine it being written, and then you’re about halfway to an understanding of how good Ice is. Ice is – to be vulgar – fucking brilliant.
But let’s do what we do best (or most frequently) over here at Triumph of the Now (other than lock in Scott Manley Hadley’s commitment to being self-employed (there’s no way any potential employers would find all this evidence of fuckeduperry and then employee me)) and shift into biographical detail about the writer. Who was Anna Kavan? Who, who?
Who indeed?
Anna Kavan is about to become my favourite writer. There is nothing I like more than a fuck-up and, reader, Anna Kavan was a fuck-up. Like Malcolm Lowry and most of the people I used to party with before I lost my hair, Kavan suffered from that most sympathy-killing of all diseases, affluenza. She travelled across the world, tried numerous different careers and jobs, developed a lifelong heroin addiction, had several breakdowns, was treated by psychiatrists and psychologists so expensive I’ve heard of some of them most of a century later; she was hospitalised numerous times for depression, attempted suicide more than once, published rather trad, autobiographical, novels in her late 20s and then, after her second marriage ended, her son died in WW2 and the heroin became normalised and necessary, she started writing GOLD.
Kavan’s writing has been lumped in with literature that is known as “slipstream”. This was a term that she – and many of the other people it was retroactively applied to – never heard, and other writers included under this umbrella include Kafka, Borges, J. G. Ballard and Haruki “better than Bob Dylan” Murakami1. For me, Ryu Murakami would be a better fit, especially Coin Locker Babies which, like Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut) and possibly Game of Thrones (television) ends with a planet consumed by ice. Slipstream novels are novels that leave the reader and the characters confused – what is real and what is not real is never explored. Fight Club is another popular example (and one we’ll return to), with other films such as Memento and Being John Malkovich also appropriate. Slipstream presents the unreal alongside the real, but not as if it is normal (like magical realism) or demanding of explanation (like science fiction). We respond to the unreal with surprise, but not focus – what is happening is secondary to how we are feeling and why we are feeling that way. Slipstream defines a mode of approach, guarantees a confusion and a lack of explanation: it is fiction where we must acknowledge that what has/is happened/ing is unignorable, but that we will never understand it and must thus never attempt to do so. OMG, just realised that my secret favourite TV show is slipstream, The Leftovers.
So, does this give a bit of background on the writer and her place within the canon? OK, good, let’s crack on.
ce is immersive and impressively evocative of landscape and emotion. We start off easy, a man travels to meet an ex and her husband in cold winter, in a barren place. He reminisces on the time he visited before, in a happier summer, and when he does arrive things are awkward – the husband is drinking heavily alone, the woman seems unhappy and trapped. The narrator leaves. We are then somewhere else and we meet people who seem like those we have met before, and we learn of the advancing ice. We follow the narrator as he tries to find the woman again and free her from her abusive relationship, and though he finds her – the husband now morphed into a militaristic warden of a northerly province who keeps the woman locked in a soundproofed room for the purpose of raping her – we are never certain how real what is real is, because characters change status and import and – seemingly – ages with regularity. We move from North to the South, then North again then South again, but the second time the South is like the North the first time. There are gripping chase scenes through wintery cities being destroyed by ice, we see walls of frozen tidal waves advancing and we catch whispers of propaganda machines and terrifying plans and manoeuvres and death everywhere, death travelling with the ice, before it, above it, and within it.
This was Kavan’s final novel, and her most successful. Some readings of it evoke the ice as metaphor for addiction, for a mind addled by a lifetime of smack, the memory lapses and hallucinations of a physically damaged brain. Others see the ice and the two butch men fighting over a single young woman as a metaphor for the destructive nature of masculinity and the patriarchy more generally. It is almost implied that the two men may be one person, like Tyler Durden, though possibly not, and maybe the narrator only wants to feel this way because it then excuses his behaviour that has been most like his enemy. The two men are similar yet different, the narrator is moving away from a militaristic career whilst the warden is moving towards one, then have similar gestures, are both dangerous, violent, outsiders, in love with “the girl”…
There’s a lot of sexual violence, which is unpleasant to read, but it’s meant to be. This is a creepy and terrifying version of a world collapsing, falling inwards and spiralling out of reality, out of comfort, out of heat. Landscapes and cityscapes are expertly sketched, and a reader becomes lost in the folds of Kavan’s deliberately ambiguous descriptions. Ice hides everything, covers everything – this is a murky, unpleasant, desperate world where base desires and angry violence destroy anything resembling humanity, where all is thrown aside in pursuit of survival and aggressive urges to save people who men claim as their own.
Great stuff. Incredibly evocative, incredibly good. Read it. - scottmanleyhadley 
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“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 bid as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world” (37)
Anna Kavan’s masterful post-apocalyptical novel Ice (1967) parallels the death throws of a relationship with the disintegration of the world.  As the unnamed narrator (N) and the girl (G) traverse an indistinct, interchangeable, world transformed by glacial encroachment, only the same movements are possible: flight, pursuit, flight, pursuit…  Repetition reinforces the profoundly unnerving feel of both physical and mental imprisonment: as movements are predicted, trauma is repeated.
Kavan described her own writings as “‘nocturnal, where dreams and reality merge” (Booth, 69).  In the prologue  to her earlier novel Sleep Has His House (1947) she explains the reason for this self-description: “Because of my fear that the daytime world would become real, I had to establish reality in another place” (quoted Booth, 78).  Kavan’s fiction is highly autobiographical and informed by her experiences in asylums, heroin addiction (she died the year after Ice was published), and psychiatric treatment (and friendship with psychiatrists) by various proponents of existential psychology.
It is hard not to see similarities with her contemporary J. G. Ballard (especially the fraught apocalyptical landscapes of The Crystal World and The Drowned World), who was a fan of her work (Booth, 70).  Francis Booth, in Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980, points out that both Ballard’s early post-apocalyptical novels and Ice operate in ruined worlds both psychological and physical (70).
Kavan was an literary author who operated outside of SF conventions.  The novels published after she took the name Anna Kavan—from one of her earlier pseudo-autobiographical characters—were highly experimental in nature.  It should be pointed out that Kavan did not intend to write science fiction despite the fact that Brian Aldiss voted it the best SF novel of 1967 (Booth, 97).  According to Booth, most likely she had not read any of her SF contemporaries—also, many of the tropes that appear in Ice had appeared in her writing for decades (Booth, 97).
Highly recommended for fans of literary SF in the vein of early J. G. Ballard and the more radical experiments of Brian Aldiss.
Brief Plot Summary Analysis
N (the unnamed narrator) is sent back to his homeland “to investigate the rumors of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world” (17).  Of course, the government would not disclose the facts but he had been privately informed about a steep “rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device” (38).  Whatever the exact nature of the disaster, Kavan is uninterested in laying out lengthy scientific discussions of manmade ecological transformation, a “vast ice-mass” is created that creeps unchecked across the landscape (38).  This metaphorical agent of destruction mirrors the psychological state of the characters.
N claims that “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”  Places which he once remembered are now “becoming “increasingly unconvincing and indistinct” (17).  This “general disorder” is a pervasive quality (17).  He soon gives up his aims to investigate the impending emergency and instead seeks an unnamed “girl” (G) whom at one point he had intended to marry.
For N, G is an object to possess: “I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real” (19).  N’s psychological state is often disturbing.  His hallucinations/dreams, which N claims are caused by drugs prescribed to combat his insomnia and headaches (2), visualize her crushed by ice, suffering, screaming: “I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in a white face, heard her thin, agonized scream” (18).  And, N feels no pity for her but rather feels an “an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer” (18).
The countless occasions N hallucinates visions her destruction, her erosion, her fragmentation, her brittle limbs cracking like ice, are repetitive, the symptoms of N’s deep trauma, of atavistic desires to possess and control.  She too is scarred by her experiences.
“Her face wore its victim’s look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it was the faintest possible hint of bruising on the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eyes and mouth.  It was madly attractive to me in a certain kind of way […] At the moment, in what I took for an optical delusion, the black interior of the house prolonged itself into a black arm and hand, which shot out and grasped her so violently that her shocked white faces cracked to pieces and she tumbled into the dark” (28).
N is caught between two opposite forces.  The first, possessing G who flees from all meaningful connections, almost resigned to the destruction of the world.  The second, his study of “an almost extinct race of singing lemurs known as Indris, living in the forest trees of a remote tropical island.”  He is transported away from the destruction of the world by their melodious voices: “I began speaking to them, forgetting myself in the fascination of the subject” (21).  N is drawn to them.  G is repulsed by them: “To me, the extraordinary jungle music was lovely, mysterious magical.  To her it was a sort of torture” (25).  He wishes to return to the land of the singing lemurs and laments his inability to separate himself from his visions of possession: “She prevented me, holding me back with thin arms” (101).
After G flees from her husband, N runs after her possessed by horrific images of her death and destruction: “She escaped from the forest at length only to see the fjord waiting for her.  An evil effluence rose from the water, something primitive, savage, demanding victims, hungry for a human sacrifice” (71).
Flight, pursuit, flight, capture, escape, pursuit, flight.  As if caught up in some post-apocalyptical performance of Ravel’s La valse (1919-20), a macabre dance of death, N and G—possessed by primordial forces—move across an imprecise allegorical landscape at the end of the world where powers shift and mutate and realign and decay.
As the destructive dance continues, fragmentation occurs:  N cannot separate himself from the captors who hold G “I fought to retain my own identity, but all my efforts failed to keep up apart.  I continually found I was not myself, but him.  At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes” (131).  But they are both trapped in this pattern.  The visions of Indris and the melodious lemurs are but memories crushed too by the end.
Final Thoughts
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…
“Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains.  Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling laval poured.  There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path” (131). -

Cover of Ice by Anna Kavan
My reading life began with my parents’ bookshelves. I would read anything with a naked woman on the cover. I picked up the 1967 Picador edition of Ice with its image of a pale girl at the foot of a flight of stairs and read it breathlessly in a way that mostly eludes me now. It was so new to me, a sort of apocalyptic not-quite-science fiction that crackles with erotic violence and dread.
Kavan makes such great assumptions of her reader that it is almost flattering how obscure, how ungenerous she is willing to be with her writing. The narrator’s hallucinations or dreams interrupt the text with no warning and nothing – not a single character – is given a name. As a young woman who suffered from extremely disturbing dreams there was comfort in the way Kavan gave my fright a shape and a beauty and did not try and explain anything away. The book is full of half-heard snatches of conversation, shimmering snow and bruised flesh. Just as we think we have found our way, like the narrator we are plunged elsewhere to negotiate an unfamiliar landscape – or a room that appears a certain way in one moment and completely transformed the next. Even the girl in the story is an amorphous beast, transparent and silent and growing thinner by the moment. ‘She’s dying,’ her husband tells the narrator at one point. ‘As we all are.’

Some people see the book as a metaphor for Kavan’s heroin addiction. I think that is terribly neat and boring. It’s unfortunate that a writer’s biography has to be laboured over, especially if that writer is a woman. But Kavan systematically destroyed personal correspondence and diaries in an attempt to resist precisely this. What a writer, and what a vision. What a perfect book to read in preparation for the end of the world. - Eli Goldstone


Anna Kavan’s last novel Ice is a disturbing, eerie story. It takes place in an unsteady world threatened by impending disasters and destruction: a global war is being waged while the world has entered a “new ice age” (131). Snow and ice are gradually covering the surface of the Earth, which makes movement and travelling difficult. Yet the novel opens on a scene in which the narrator is driving his car to visit “friends in the country” (6), a married couple. The narrator is still attracted by the woman of the couple who used to be his lover before she left him. She is an albino, referred to as “the girl” throughout the novel. At the beginning of the second chapter the girl vanishes: she leaves home and no one knows where she is. The rest of the novel stages constant action yet it does not have a plot as such: it is an account of the narrator’s obsessive hunt for the girl, who is in turn dead or alive, a fugitive, a guest or a prisoner in a rapid succession of scenes. The text thus displays the double paradox of an endless chase in a frozen, end-of-the-world context. - Céline Magot  read more


Anna Kavan’s Ice is a novel of relentless, evanescent beauty that depicts a world in which two explicitly linked forms of violence dominate and inexorably and insanely destroy it. First published in 1967, on the eve of the second wave of feminism, Ice has never been regarded as a significant work of proto-feminist literature, although scholars occasionally include it on lists of sf by women written before the major works of feminist sf burst onto the scene in the 1970s. The novel’s surrealist form demands a different sort of reading than that of science fiction driven by narrative causality, but the text’s obsessive insistence on linking the global political violence of the Cold War with the threateningly lethal sexual objectification of Woman and depicting them as two poles of the same suicidal collective will to destroy life makes Ice an interesting feminist literary experiment. - L. Timmel Duchamp  read more






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
Image result for Anna Kavan, I Am Lazarus,






Anna Kavan, I Am Lazarus, Peter Owen Publishers, 2013. [1945.]

Short stories addressing the surreal realities of mental illness, from an incredible cult writer often compared to Kafka and Woolf
The tortured life of Anna Kavan brought her some reward in terms of great pieces of art. Her drug addiction bore fruit in the Julia and the Bazooka collection of stories; while this companion volume recalls her experience of the asylum—powerful, haunting works which can be harrowing but are full of sympathy too.


Kavan’s view of the capital and some of its war victims in this momentous era are typically original and oblique: ‘Lazarus’ is a patient revived from catatonia who somehow remains institutionalized; the Blitz spirit is coolly stripped of cheeriness and never-say-die in ‘Glorious Boys and ‘Our City’; there is a Hithcockian horror story in ‘The Gannets’, while in ‘Who Has Desired The Sea’ and ‘The Blackout’ the ‘shell-shocked’ have ultimately only seen war exacerbate old, long-suppressed psychological wounds. Chilling but compassionate classics, the I Am Lazarus collection is an essential and honest document of the time – and of Anna Kavan.




The story’s opening paragraph introduces an English doctor who distrusts “anything he did not understand,” particularly “this insulin shock treatment there had been such a fuss about” (p.270).
Polish neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Manfred J. Sakel introduced insulin-shock therapy:
Sakel had used insulin to tranquilize morphine addicts undergoing withdrawal, and in 1927 one addict accidentally received an overdose of insulin and went into a coma. After the patient recovered from the overdose, Sakel noted an improvement in his mental state. Sakel hypothesized that inducing convulsions with insulin could have similar effects in schizophrenics. His initial studies found the treatment effective in 88 percent of his patients, and the method was applied widely for a brief period. Follow-up studies showed the long-term results to be less satisfactory, and insulin-shock treatment was replaced by other methods of treatment. [1]
Until the discovery of the tranquilizing drugs, variations of insulin-shock therapy (also called insulin-coma therapy) were commonly used in the treatment of schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions. With insulin-shock treatment, the patient is given increasingly large doses of insulin, which reduce the sugar content of the blood and bring on a state of coma. Usually the comatose condition is allowed to persist for about an hour, at which time it is terminated by administering warm salt solution via stomach tube or by intravenous injection of glucose. Insulin shock had its greatest effectiveness with schizophrenic patients whose illness had lasted less than two years. [2]
Two large studies carried out in the USA in 1939 and 1942 gave him fame and helped his technique to rapidly spread out around the world… . [However], Initial enthusiasm was followed by a decrease in the use of insulin coma therapy, after further controlled studies showed that real cure was not achieved and that improvements were many times temporary. [3]
The opening four paragraphs of Anna Kavan’s story introduce us to the unnamed English doctor who lives in a village near the wealthy Mrs. Bow. When the doctor plans a motor trip to Europe, Mrs. Bow asks him to stop in and see her son at the clinic where he’s being treated for dementia praecox, an outmoded term for what we now call schizophrenia. Readers are guided not to think highly of this doctor: “The English doctor was not a very good doctor. He was middle-aged and frustrated and undistinguished” (p. 270). When Mrs. Bow had told him of her plan a year earlier to send her son to the clinic for treatment, the doctor had opposed the idea. “It was a useless expense. It couldn’t possibly do any good” (p. 271).
Not wishing to offend the rich Mrs. Bow, the doctor stops by the European clinic:
He glanced at the beautifully kept gardens. The grounds were really magnificent, the watered lawns green in spite of the dry summer, every tree pruned to perfection, the borders brilliant with flowers. (p. 271)
The clinic superintendent, who “had exactly estimated the unimportance of his companion” (p. 272), describes Mr. Bow’s prognosis:
“We’re very proud of Mr. Bow,” he said. “He’s an outstanding example of the success of the treatment. He responded wonderfully well from the start and I consider him a quite remarkable cure. In a few months he should be well enough to go home.” (p. 272)
Apparently the mediocre doctor from England who had dismissed the possibility of a cure was wrong about the treatment given at this clinic with the perfectly manicured grounds.
The superintendent takes the doctor into a workroom where some patients, including Mr. Bow, are working with leather: “The different pairs of hands, large and small, rose and fell over the table… . The Englishman looked uneasily at the faces and at the hands which seemed to be rising and falling of their own volition in the banded sunshine above the table” (pp. 272–273). Mr. Bow, with his “flat, hazel eyes,” “sat stiffly correct in his place at the sunny table” (p. 273). This opening section of the story ends with the doctor’s reflection on what he has seen:
“I should never have believed it possible,” the Englishman said with emphasis and repressed indignation. “Never.”
He felt disapproving and indignant and uncomfortable without quite knowing why. Of course, the boy looks normal enough, he said to himself. He seems quiet and self-controlled. But there must be a catch in it somewhere. You can’t go against nature like that. It just isn’t possible. He thought uneasily of the young inexpressive face and the curious flat look of the eyes. (p. 274)
Then the focus of the story abruptly switches to Mr. Bow:
He spoke to no one and nobody spoke to him. He methodically went on sewing the pigskin belt with steady, regular movements of his soft hands… All around the table were different colored shapes whose mouths opened and closed and emitted sounds that meant nothing to him. He did not mind either the shapes or the sounds. They were part of the familiar atmosphere of the workroom, where he felt comfortable and at ease. (p. 274)
And suddenly the reader begins to see what the English doctor vaguely sensed but was unable to understand: that the outside viewer’s perception of Mr. Bow’s existence is vastly different from Mr. Bow’s own. On his way to lunch Mr. Bow walks “rather stiffly” through grasses that respond felinely to his touch: “like thin sensitive cats they arched themselves to receive the caress of his fingertips” (p. 275). Daisies growing in the field “had yellow eyes that squinted craftily through the grass” (p. 275). In the washroom
Several coats hung on the wall. Thomas Bow avoided the washbasins nearest the coats. The hanging shapes filled him with deep suspicion. He watched them out of the ends of his eyes to make sure they did not get up to anything while he was washing his hands. (pp. 276–277)
And when Mr. Bow enters the dining room
The young man looked round cautiously. The pretty dresses of the women gave him pleasure but he was not at ease. At any moment something might pounce on him, something for which he did not have the formula. He waited tensely, on enemy ground… . The waiters, like well-trained sheep dogs, skillfully maneuvered the patients toward their chairs. (p. 278)
Now we realize that the perfectly ordered and manicured grounds of the fancy clinic represent the perfectly ordered and regimented existence of the patients, who have been trained to respond like robots. The irony of the situation is that the undistinguished, “not very good” English doctor was correct in his evaluation of how well Mr. Bow’s treatment has worked.
The story’s title provides a final stroke of irony:
“He doesn’t know how lucky he is,” said the dark doctor. “We’ve pulled him back literally from a living death. That’s the sort of thing that encourages one in this work.”
Mr. Bow walked carefully in the sunshine. He did not know how lucky he was and perhaps that was rather lucky as well. (p. 281) - Mary Daniels Brown     www.notesinthemargin.org/weblog/2014/12/01/i-am-lazarus-anna-kavan/

Unlike Julia and the Bazooka, this collection of Kavan’s short fiction was originally published during her lifetime, and the significance of this distinction is clear. This book is more balanced, with most if not all of the stories written during a period of Kavan’s life in wartime London following her return from living abroad. While there are a few that stray beyond the more obvious parallels to Kavan’s experience, such as the gothic tale ‘The Brother’ and the horror snapshot ‘The Gannets’, most stories here reflect that distinct time in her life. Certainly Julia contains a few outstanding stories, some perhaps even better than any in this collection, particularly those written in Kavan’s surreal dream style that tends to outshine even her best modernist work. But when considering that posthumous collection as a whole, it’s hard not to wonder if the selections were strung together with more of an eye toward profit than artistic integrity (e.g., playing up the heroin angle feels cheap, and discounts Kavan’s significant literary achievements).
Evidence of Kavan’s familiar themes can be found throughout this collection. Several stories recall the parts of Asylum Piece that with cold brilliance capture and condemn the ‘benevolent’ evil bestowed upon those unfortunate enough to enter a psychiatric facility. In these stories, impassive older men pull all the strings, certain of the benefits of their nefarious practices while either oblivious or indifferent to the havoc they are wreaking on people’s psyches. These particular stories feature soldiers recently returned from the front with shattered minds, and the doctors determined to wrench them out of their silence using whatever means necessary. Kavan worked with these men in a military psychiatric facility during this time of her life, as well as having had her own experiences with the monolith of psychiatry, placing her in a unique position from which to write.
Other stories, including ‘All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive’, ‘A Certain Experience’ and the 10-part epic ‘Our City’, focus on another of Kavan’s favorite themes, futility in the face of authority. In these tales, a person is either unjustly accused and/or forced to negotiate a gauntlet of smug, irrational bureaucrats intent on making the person’s life a living hell. It is in these stories where Kavan feels closest to Kafka and yet she puts her own twist on them, specifically in how this theme intertwines with her exploration of the perpetual victim role. In ‘All Kinds of Grief Shall Arrive’, the character of A feels ‘resigned to everything’, a concept Kavan later takes to its extreme outposts with the girl’s character in the novel Ice.
In addition to its concerns with bureaucracy, ‘Our City’ offers an extraordinary portrait of life in London during the Blitz. Kavan captures the unsettled tension pervading everyday life during this horrific period. Her narrator’s experience is compounded by her own uncertain role following a recent return from living abroad. She feels disoriented from being dropped into this wartime horrorscape, leading her to identify as both an outcast and a prisoner. She strives to continue her habit of walking in the open, even when so few of her fellow city dwellers are willing to risk the threat of death from above. She likens the city to a metaphorical triumvirate of octopus, leg-hold trap, and judge that also carries out its own sentence.
Most of the remaining stories in the collection lean toward the gothic, pervaded by an atmospheric sense of foreboding, though usually never culminating in any extreme act. They are haunting, uneasy tales, but they are tales of the small horrors of everyday living for someone who feels oppressed on all sides, someone whose trust in humanity has been broken long ago and yet who still grapples with ‘this indestructible, pitiless hope’.
What exactly is it that’s wrong with me? What is the thing about me that people never can take? Her thoughts wandered although she knew the answer perfectly well. It was the woolgathering, of course, the preoccupation with non-human things, the interest in the wrong place, that was so unacceptable. People took it as an insult. Intuitively they resented it even if they were unaware of it. - S. D. Stewart  lostgander.wordpress.com/book-reviews/i-am-lazarus-stories-by-anna-kavan/



book cover of Julia and the Bazooka

Anna Kavan, Julia and the Bazooka, Peter Owen Publishers; Reprint ed., 2009.


Anna Kavan now stands alongside Virginia Woolf as one of Britain's great 20th-century modernists. In this posthumous collection of Kavan's short stories, some of the author's most compelling writing is revealed, inspired in great part by her personal experiences—especially her nearly lifelong addiction to heroin. An important literary work, these narratives highlight the shadowed world of the incurable drug addict and probe the psychological aspects of addiction


Onto these twelve brief stories, the English author, who died in 1968, die-stamps with increasing intensity her ""black hole"" vision of tormented consciousness -- the terror and despair of not-being in which the world outside is ""a vagueness, like a room if you look at it out of focus."" More recently Joyce Carol Oates has explored the sexual context of this female sense of ego-absence that can only he filled with a male presence -- which, before complete consummation, recedes and vanishes. Kavan's male saviors also fade -- into the sea, into grossness, into a Mercedes, into silence. Like early Oates, Kavan's tales are filled with roaring machines (her heroes are racing-car drivers), frigid vistas of ice and snow, and guilt in the wake of loss: ""he still enters my dreams. . .a loss. . .should have been prevented, for which I am myself to blame."" There are stories of exotic landscapes filled with blood and snakes and orchids, ""masked dummies"" from the outside world, and hospitals with the everpresent bazooka (syringe). Kavan's images have a drug-trip brilliance, and her prose, often curiously banal (""I live alone in my mind, and alone I'm being crushed to suffocation. . ."") still has the hypnotic effect of a busy abacus -- bright beads clicking back and forth over the steel certainties of desolation. - Kirkus Reviews


She lived in many places from Burma to Scandinavia to California, and she had many different names. After reading about the character called ‘K’ in Kafka, she named herself Anna Kavan, and when this collection of stories was published in England after her death it made that name famous. It should do so here.
And Other Stories. By Anna Kavan. Edited and with an Introduction by Rhys Davies. 155 pp. New York: Aifred A. Knopf. $6.95.
Because “Julia and the Bazooka” is only the second of Anna Kavan's nine books to be published in the United States, this writer's work and the extraordinary experience of her life are virtually unknown here. Born in France in 1901, Anna Kavan spent her childhood traveling with her wealthy, chilling mother. As a young woman she had TB. She was divorced twice and had one son who was killed in World War II. One husband, a painter, took her to the Chilterns where she raised bulldogs. She renovated houses, painted, worked as an editor and used amphetamine and heroin for the last 30 years of her life.
After one of her frequent hospitalizations for breakdowns and overdoses, her journal “Asylum Piece” was published and acclaimed. During a later incarceration she met a doctor‐poet who became her companion, filling various roles alluded to in the stories. After his death, Anna Kavan continued to work, tormented by a spinal disease and a leg badly abscessed from needles. Worse perhaps, drug regulations had become more stringent: to an addict the only fear, finally, is that there won't be any more. Anna Kavan died in 1968, in London, in her house with its private jungle garden.
She will remind you of John Fowles; other times, notably in the story “Fog” in “Julia and the Bazooka,” she reminds one of Kafka. Her novel “Ice,” a gorgeous amphetamine dream book with the games and elusiveness of “The Magus,” also brings Baudelaire to mind. But Anna Kavan is as coolly contemporary as Joy Williams.
She holds her experience up to the light of her imagination like a sheet of plate glass and smashes it. The images stay there on the fragments like jigsaw bits of mirror, and the pieces will fit together. Although I hope a complete collection of her work will be published here, “Julia and the Bazooka” is a fine beginning. The excellent Rhys Davies introduction is informative enough so that the short stories in this volume can be read together as an intricately composed psychological novel.
I tried to imagine how these stories, written late in Anna Kavan's life, were completed and I thought of the character in Robert Stone's “Dog Soldiers,” who, to function through excruciating pain, focuses his entire being upon getting an imaginary red circle inside a blue triangle, pinning his energy to this as to a magnet. One senses this same desperate concentration in “Julia and the Bazooka.” D. H. Lawrence said, “we shed our sicknesses in our books.” Here the pain is put into forceful images of powerful compression. This is striking control: “The ashes of the tall girl Julia barely fill the silver cup she won in the tennis tournament. To improve her game the tennis professional gives her the syringe. He is a joking kind of man and he calls the syringe a bazooka.”
Kavan kaleidoscopes her entire life in this, the title story. There is a kinky‐haired young man, a bridegroom. Read him as her son—there are always more layers, like mica, like skin, to peel away, to see through, even more clearly. It is here, and in all these stories, that Anna Kavan's symbols, the characters of her world come together. Here are the mask‐faces that stand for world she at once runs toward and away from: the doctors; the disapproving women; and the cars.
Such cars these Bugattis—a Mercedes lined with mink, dream cars; and killer cars that crunch through crowds and roar through jungles where the liana flowers turn into snakes that the heroine slices with her car. And the racing cars, driven by the men in “World of Heroes,” one of the most bitter of the stories. “Occasionally it's the car I love first,” the heroine says, “the car can attract me to the man.” “You and I are good friends,” she says, to another car, “We both love speed.” No one has ever evoked as well the love affair have with a car.
But behind all these stories, and the two books I have read, the primary passion is, or seems to come from, her rage at her mother. You will meet her in these stories playing “Clarita.” In “Ice” she is an assassin. And in “A Scarcity of Love,” a classic fairy tale novel, as grim a tale of a woeful wraith as ever Edward Gorey devised—as grim as Anna Kavan's own life—she is the vain countess, ingeniously done in. One does not think for a minute that, like any fairy tale stepmother, she stays dead. The child inside Anna Kavan does not let her.
And then there is this child: her most important image, dazzling metaphor for her own creative spirit, the adolescent child who lives inside the writer and the painter. In the stories and the novels, the child is threatened by ice and snow. A character in one of the stories in “Julia and the Bazooka” (“Now and Then”) compares heroin with frost, with snow white crystals. And in other stories — most dramatically “Ice,” where the world ends in an avalanche of ice—the adventures take on additional potency when one sees them as parables of Anna Kavan's fight with herself. She defines, with her imagination, the addict's ambivalence.
This is not to imply lived outside the world know. She gives us enough to go by, to make a gauge which helps make her other world more concrete. Her hated husband character, Oblomov, in one of the short stories, “wears his fat like an expensive suit?” And when his wife hates him so much she cannot him, she smashes dishes. woman fears the abandonment of her doctor‐lover ‘M’ in story called “Obsession,” she speaks of loving, and ing that loving, in ways can all identify.
The undercurrent of sexual tension in the stories “Julia and the Bazooka” reminiscent of Pauline Reague's “The Story of O.” “A Visit” like a summer afternoon ual fantasy, an erotic dream painted by Rousseau. It begins: “One hot night a leopard came into my room and lay down upon the bed beside me.” case we have forgotten how sexual a story can be without the rough trade details, Anna Kavan is here to tell us and turn us on.
Her style apparently carried over into her appearance. suspect she would want you to know that, like Djuna Barnes, who can be spotted by the angle of her hat, Anna Kavan always looked smashing. Her “social conduct” (as Rhys Davies puts it) was quite another matter. It could pass “too swiftly from the most delicate perception of a guest's mood to hurling a roast fowl across the table at him, then retiring to her bazooka and shortly her bed reading a novel and eating chocolates.”
In “World of Heroes”, the heroine says that only the race car drivers told her the truth: “Not one of them ever told me life was worth living.”
Cold comfort it is to woman, to the writer who transformed her pain to art, but Anna Kavan is a discovery for all of us. She should come through into our literary consciousness at the 90‐miles per hour speed she preferred. Some of her original legacy, her sorcery, is here in “Julia and the Bazooka.” The rest, I hope, will be on its way. -
Anna Kavan, Guilty, Peter Owen Publishers, 2007.






Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.
In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.
Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:
Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.
The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:
The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.
Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.
After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.
The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths. - https://mimichootings.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/asylum-piece-1940-anna-kavan/





Anna Kavan, The Horse's Tale (with K.T. Bluth)





Anna Kavan, A Bright Green Field:  short stories

Anna Kavan's earlier short stories are already regarded by prominent critics as classics. Her volumes of stories Asylyum Piece and I am Lazarus established her in the front rank of English writers, and admirers of her work will not be disappointed with this new collection. The title story is allegorical writing at its best, and bears the stamp of the author's compulsive power. In contrast, the other stores, like Happy Name, The Birds Dancing and New and Splendid, show her grasp of the conflict between dream and reality, and an acute awareness of human dignity constantly threatened by insensitive unkindness. Ice Storm and The End of Something, in their delicate evocation of mood, stand as testament to Miss Kavan's wide range.
Anna Kavan, Who Are You?


Anna Kavan, My Soul in China: novella and short stories

Anna Kavan, Mercury

This hitherto unpublished novel, an exciting literary discovery, is from Anna Kavan's most creative period. A work of sustained imaginative vision, it contains some of the novelists' best hallucinogenic writing.
The beautiful 'glass girl' Luz is pursued from one imaginary country to another by Luke, whose love for her becomes a pathological obsession. Luke is as bewitched, too, by the Indris, singing lemurs whose magical harmonies he encounters in a tropical forest of pellucid charms. The lemurs have no enemies in their jungle world 'where intelligence and affection were cherished, and destruction and cruelty had no place'.
Luke has chosen his wandering life of exile to escape his own shortcomings and failure in human relations. And he wants to protect Luz, estranged from her sadistic husband Chas. Luke himself reveals shades of latent sadism and becomes dependent on tablets that induce horror, shame and ecstatic excitement.
The narrative is projected like a series of dream sequences, enigma and illusion intertwined in the mound of Kafka. Yet, as in her novel Ice, Anna Kavan has fashioned a coruscating landscape of her own making - apocalyptic, compelling, unforgettable.

    Posthumous novel from an English writer noted for the influence of drug-taking on her work (Sleep Has His House, 1980, etc.), an extended dream-turned-nightmare detailing obsessive relationships. Protagonist Luke takes comfort only from the memory of once hearing a dawn chorus of singing lemurs in the heart of a tropical jungle: ``an amazing sound, melodious and of limpid purity''--a purity that makes his subsequent disintegration even more intolerable. If the lemurs' voices are the songs of Apollo, the events that follow are the harsh words of Mercury, the god whose presence also haunts the story. On vacation, the convalescing Luke meets the extraordinarily beautiful Luz and her domineering mother. He is attracted to Luz, but never thinks about marriage and even derives a ``certain unacknowledged satisfaction'' from his beloved's enslavement by her mother. But when handsome painter Chas. arrives and successfully woos Luz, Luke is devastated. Luz and Chas. marry, but he soon begins to abuse her physically--as Luz notes towards the end, ``the anguish she feels is part of a recurring pattern of her life, of her victim's fate.'' Luke, taking hallucinogenic medications for his various ailments, and concerned for Luz's well-being, pursues her and Chas. across nameless continents and seas, but as his hallucinations become more terrible and unreal--he once sees a dragon devour Luz--he recognizes his own latent sadism. Ill and exhausted, he returns to the lemurs, realizing that he had never seen Luz ``as she really was, but only in the role he had imposed upon her...a lamb led to the slaughter.'' He catches up with her at last, and the two cling together like ``the terrified children'' they indeed are. Exquisite, lapidary prose brilliantly illuminates the eerie land that lurks deep within the mind, waiting to surprise and torment. - Kirkus Reviews


Anna Kavan, The Parson

Recently discovered, this hitherto unpublished novel presages, through its undertones and imagery, some of Anna Kavan's later and most enduring fiction.
"The Parson' of the title is not a cleric but an upright young army officer, so nicknamed in his regiment stationed in the East. One leave in his native homeland he meets a rich and beguiling beauty whom he equates with the girl of his dreams.
The days that Oswald spends with Rejane, riding in and exploring the wild moorland, have their own enchantment. But Rejane grows restless in this desolate land, while seeming to discourage any intimacy with her adoring companion. Until, that is, she persuades him to take her to a sinister castle situated on a treacherous headland.
The Parson is less a tale of unrequited love than an exploration of divided selves, momentarily locked in an unequal embrace. Passion is revealed as play of the senses as well as a destructive force. It is this pervasive quality in the writing that sets the narrative apart from purely romantic conventions.

Anna Kavan, A Charmed Circle


Anna Kavan, The Dark Sisters

The Dark Sisters is set in the London of the twenties, in a world in which the convulsions of the First World War, female emancipation and general social upheaval have made possible the life towards which Beryl Dean aspires. The sisters, Emerald and Karen, live an independent metropolitan life: Emerald as a successful but manipulative fashion model. Her younger sister Karen seems to be unmotivated and content to live in a fantasy world of her own making, so Emerald tries to engineer a match with a rich young man. As in A Charmed Circle, the novel seems to end with a return to the status quo. Emerald, afflicted by guilt, takes Karen back to London, where she can return to her imaginary life.


Anna Kavan, Let Me Alone

Anna Kavan's reputation is escalating internationally, and translations of her books are appearing in many languages. This early novel is therefore of especial interest, as an account of personal stresses which she was later to use and develop in more subjective and experimental ways. Indeed, it was the name of the central character of Let Me Alone that the author chose when she changed her name as a writer (and her personal identity) from Helen Ferguson to Anna Kavan.
Anna's mother dies in childbirth and she is brought up by her father and a governess, in a remote Pyrenean village. When she is thirteen, her father shoots himself. She is adopted by a rich, beautiful and ruthless aunt, who relegates her to a boarding school. There she first becomes attached to the headmistress, Rachel, who takes a possessive interest in the unusual and attractive girl, and then to a fellow-pupil, Sidney Reeve. This girl prises Anna away from Rachel, but is finally supplanted in Anna's affections by another girl, Catherine. Leaving school, Anna is made to feel unwanted by her aunt, who forces her into a loveless marriage. She comes to detest her husband and his bourgeois family, but cannot break away and accompanies him to Burma. There, in an exotic setting described with Lawrentian intensity, the story reaches its climax.
Sharp characterization combines with fine descriptive writing, especially of the Burmese countryside. In addition to is literary interest, the book evokes life in England and is colonies from the early years of the century through the period following the First World War.

Anna Kavan, A Stranger Still

A Stranger Still was first published in 1935 under Anna Kavan's early married name of Helen Ferguson. An intriguing, well-plotted story, it was much acclaimed at the time, and its freshness and vigour remain undiminished.
The wealthy Lewison family occupy centre stage. William, a widower, presides forcefully over his empire of Greater London stores, as well as over his sons, Cedric and Martin, and his impressionable daughter, Gwenda. A fictional 'Anna Kavan' appears as a young girl adrift from her husband and now in pursuit of romantic fulfillment. The story takes us from fashionable and Bohemian London to Paris, the South of France and Italy. The autobiographical element is implicit for those familiar with the author's enigmatic life.
Anna Kavan captures the ambience of the thirties with conviction, yet her pre-hallucinogenic writing has the uninhibitedness and immediacy of a novel of today.

A first US appearance for a novel of acutely detailed alienation and despairing acceptance, first published in 1935 in Britain under the pseudonym Helen Ferguson. Kavan (Mercury, 1995), a writer always attuned to sensibility and mood, offers a story with a strong autobiographical element and period flavor that, in keeping with the despair that lurks beneath the surface, brings little solace. Lives intersect as Martin, the younger son of London department store magnate William Lewison, meets a woman named Anna Kavan while vacationing with his father in the south of France. Lewison Sr. has just prevailed upon Martin to divorce his French (and most unsuitable) wife, Germaine, on the grounds of her adultery with Martin's best friend, and Martin, self-centered but full of good intentions, is awaiting the final decree. Anna Kavan has left her husband Matthew in Burma and fled to London, but the attentions of a wealthy old judge who wants her to be his mistress, and the difficulties of a frustrating business venture with a friend, have driven her to France. Acknowledging her own cool and egocentric nature, she determines to make a life for herself, but she is neither wealthy nor educated, and when she meets Martin and the two fall in love, Anna wants to marry him. But Martin prefers his freedom, so Anna, unable to survive alone, reconciles with her husband. Meanwhile, the Lewison fortunes suffer a reversal, William falls ill, and Gwenda, Martin's sister, betrays her family by siding with their rival Tony Quested. Only William and Martin seem made of tougher stuff: William determines to revive his business, and Martin pays his debt to Anna by painting her portrait: It keeps ``alive a good and lovely thing which otherwise would have perished.'' Lives that are brittle, even shallow, are mercilessly stripped bare to reveal all their flaws and inadequacies by a writer who sees more often than not through a glass darkly. Chilling but intriguing. - Kirkus Reviews


Anna Kavan, Goose Cross

THE BACKGROUND of Helen Ferguson's new novel is a small English village in which Thomas Spender and his wife Judith form the centre of a community of very varying characters. Adam Green, a young poet and writer, comes back from the East and is caught up in the web if Judith's dreamy and yet possessive personality. There are many other threads in the story which act and react upon the principal theme and are inextricably interwoven with it. Miss Ferguson handles her many characers with great skill and particularly uses the art of anti-climax with such a success that the event to which everything in the story leads up never actually takes place.





Anna Kavan, Rich Get Rich


THE BOOK is the story of the struggle in a young man's nature of two opposing forces, one of which urges him to escape the painful realities of life through wealth, which alone seems to him to give its possessor leisure and opportunity for the appreciation of beauty, while the other, with equal insistence, forces him into the fight that is being waged to set that beauty free for all mankind.
It shows something of the conflict in which the gentle, the innocent, the dreamers of this world inevitably become involved with cruelty, ugliness, and oppression. Swithin's struggle is one in which every reader, to a greater or lesser extent, has shared; its echo is to be found in every human heart. Helen Ferguson has written in Rich Get Rich a beautiful and moving book, which helps the reader to think as well as to feel.





Why is it that certain writers get forgotten or as Jeremy Reed puts it of Anna Kavan, discovered anew by each successive generation? Often these are writers that belong to no particular sect or school of writers. They are literary exiles, needles in a haystack that are rarely found. Why is it that Kafka, Woolf and Ballard are stocked on the shelves of any bookshop worth a diversion, but the peculiar delights of Anna Kavan and Denton Welch require dedication and perseverance.
In his Anna Kavan biography, A Stranger on Earth, Jeremy Reed writes, “If the author does not network or promote a book, it is as good as dead. Unless they are in the know, how does anyone differentiate the good from the bad? How do you find Anna Kavan?” I’ve known of Anna Kavan’s existence for some time but it was a Twitter comment from @FarSouthProject that drew an analogy between Julia and the Bazooka and Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that compelled me to urgently explore Anna Kavan’s work.
As I read Julia and the Bazooka, I laughed grimly. The analogy is perfect in some ways, not for the books’ subject matter but for their supersensitive and singular way of interpreting the world. I am too accustomed to that strange and formative concoction of a parent that dies in early childhood, followed by neglect, and being passed from household to household until old enough for boarding school. I come to Denton Welch and Anna Kavan as a familiar and can promise little objectivity. I recognise the emotional numbness and dissociative state that continually compromises social relationships. I recognise also the tendency to fantasy but unlike Denton Welch and Anna Kavan have been unable to turn that world of imagination into beautiful stories. Instead of writing I have a pleasant supply of rich books to distract me, and now and then I jot down here or in my notebooks some thoughts about them. I am a dabbler that wrestles between dreams and realities.
I have dropped my mask a moment because it is precisely what Anna Kavan does in the fifteen stories in Julia and the Bazooka. These, like Denton Welch’s stories, are deeply personal considerations that deal in different ways with the alienation of self and otherness. It is a mode of fiction that directly engages the imagination to unravel the influence of the unconscious on the writer’s conscious behaviour. It is influenced not only by Anna Kavan’s history, memory and trauma but also by collective and shared memories. Unlike Kafka, Woolf and Ballard, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch are not first and foremost storytellers, but writers that use fiction to try to understand how psychological projections and inflated identifications drive or drain psychic energy and underpin our deceptions. - Melissa Beck  timesflowstemmed.com/2016/03/06/forgotten-writers-anna-kavan-and-denton-welch/




One of the worst things about hell is that nobody is ever allowed to sleep there, although it’s always night, or at the earliest, about six o’clock in the evening. There are beds, of course, but they’re used for other purposes.”
—My Soul in China
It has been said that Anna Kavan wrote in a mirror. The body of work left by the now obscure British modernist represented a constant inquiry into her own identity, and the invention of a personal mythology—or demonology, as it would become later in her career. The experience of reading Kavan’s works one after another, in chronological order, is like hearing the same story repeated again and again, recasting familiar situations and characters in tones that grow more nightmarish as the years pass. Her writing can be seen as an attempt to put into language a lifetime of rejection and alienation. The characters in Anna Kavan’s world are travelers of neverending journeys, by train and by ship; they stop in small, indiscriminate towns where rows of faceless houses are as closed-off as their inhabitants; finding strange faces and obstacles everywhere, the landscape one of silent hostility. Her alter egos veer into melancholy and disillusionment and even derangement. They are abandoned orphans seemingly too sensitive for reality.
“So many dreams are crowding upon me now that I can scarcely tell true from false: dreams like light imprisoned in bright mineral caves; hot, heavy dreams; ice-age dreams; dreams like machines in the head.” Born Helen Woods in 1901, in Cannes, Kavan was active as a writer from the thirties through her death in 1968; she wrote about these dreams in some seventeen novels and collections, two published posthumously, which move from first-person essayistic fragments to surrealist experiments,from Freudian fairytales to metaphysical science fiction. The scope of her writing is breathtaking, although the quality of the output is irregular. Once heralded as the heiress apparent to female experimental writers like Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes, and called “Kafka’s sister” (and the K in her choice of pseudonym, “Kavan,” has been read for Kafka, her neighbor alphabetically on the bookshop shelf), she is now only remembered—if at all—for Asylum Piece, her exploration of madness, or Ice, her sci-fi crossover success.
Despite recurring bouts of mental illness that would result in three suicide attempts, and despite a lifelong addiction to heroin, and in the midst of two failed marriages, Kavan wrote tirelessly, and reinvented herself, over and again, in the process eventually taking on the name of one of her earlier heroines. The titles of her novels provide clues as to the transformations of this chameleon, in life as well as writing: Let Me Alone (1930), A Stranger Still (1935), Change the Name (1941), Who Are You? (1963).
Beginning in the late ’20s, Kavan published a string of very good yet conventional novels under the name Helen Ferguson, using the surname of the first husband she abhorred. The Helen Ferguson novels, published by Jonathan Cape with some success, feature young women suffering in suburban miserabilism, trapped by their families and the constraints of gender. There are hints of the sense of persecution and enforced isolation that would inform the later works. A Charmed Circle, Kavan/Ferguson’s first novel, published in 1929, features two sisters, Olive and Beryl Deane, both unhappy and stuck living in a small manufacturing town—an homage to the schoolteachers Ursula and Gudrun Bragwen in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. A Charmed Circle also calls to mind the delightful weirdness of Jane Bowles’s short story, “Camp Cataract.” The Deane sisters with their “dark secret faces,” live under the tyranny of their hermit father and their dainty mother, who dotes on their cruelly arrogant older brother. “We’re all of us miserable, and we all of us hate each other,” Beryl complains.
Let Me Alone is based on the author’s first year of marriage, which she spent in Burma. Its heroine, named Anna Kavan, is a repressed young orphan who finds herself pushed into marriage by her cruel aunt, forced in the process to give up a scholarship to Oxford. Ferguson portrays the tropics where the new couple settles as an unrelenting, alienating hell. Kavan’s husband only wants to control her: “It made him indignant that she still remained somehow apart. It shattered his complacency to think that he had not finally conquered her yet.” The character of the sadistic husband was revisited many times by Kavan, and his apotheosis is the narrator in what would be her masterpiece, Ice, a man who chases a girl all over the globe so that he can possess her, and the monsoon climax at the end of Let Me Alone presages the stylistic power of her later, experimental writing. In the sequel, A Stranger Still (1935), the character Anna Kavan is separated from her husband and living in London, where she falls in love with a Sunday painter and heir to a large department store fortune, modeled on Helen Ferguson’s somewhat tumultuous love affair with the painter Stuart Edmonds, who she married in 1931 (although no legal record of their union exists). With Edmonds she traveled Europe for two years, then settled into a domestic life in Chilterns, Bledlow Cross, where they bred bulldogs; a rural setting utilized for the later Ferguson novels such as Goose Cross (1936).
After a suicide attempt in the late ’30s, following the dissolution of her second marriage, Kavan was admitted into a sanatorium, emerging with her new name and persona, as well as the material for two books that would drastically depart from the tightly controlled realism of the Helen Ferguson years. As has been noted elsewhere, it’s almost imperative to speak of Helen Ferguson and Anna Kavan as two different writers. Part of the fascination of the Helen Ferguson years is in the break that occurs along with her assumption of a new identity and style. Like Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, Kavan rose as if from the dead, specter thin because of hospitalization and narcosis. But instead of rising with the red hair of the poem, the former hearty bulldog breeder and brunette girl-nextdoor bleached hers movie-star blonde to mirror the fragile waif, the “glass girl” that would become the nameless heroine in her later works.
First came Asylum Piece, her debut as Anna Kavan in 1940, where a desperately unhappy first-person narrator drowning in anxiety struggles to maintain a dialogue with an increasingly deaf outside world, becoming more and more neurotic until she is institutionalized. “I began to feel that if I did not succeed in breaking out of the loathsome circle I should suddenly become mad, scream, perpetuate some shocking act of violence in the open street,” she writes. With this collection, Kavan broke from the structure of the conventional novel and began to develop her obsessive dystopian vision. Some of the stories or fragments in Asylum Piece can be described as almost journalistic, or essayistic, without much narrative momentum, containing impressions in a style that is sparing and still. These are the dispatches from the inside of a fractured identity. In several of the stories, the first-person narrator undergoes relentless persecution from an anonymous “they” who communicate with her on stiff blue official paper. There is the simple, haunting “The Birthmark,” where a schoolgirl happens upon a castle that turns out to be a penal colony for those who do not belong. No one is to be trusted in the world of Kavan’s fiction—everybody’s a stranger with a hidden motive. “For how can I tell whether the person to whom I am talking is not an enemy, or perhaps connected with my accusers or with those who will ultimately decide my fate?” asks the narrator in “Airing a Grievance.” In a Kavan story, any plotline is subject to distortion, a fog literally or symbolically seeping in. In “The Birds,” the narrator becomes convinced that two brightly colored birds outside her window in January, “two tiny meteors of living flame,” are in fact hallucinations. Color is a deception—the world is actually gray and dismal, dissolving into a dreary fog. In “Machines in the Head,” she asks, “Is it possible that I am still living in a world where the sun shines and flowers appear in the springtime? I thought I had been exiled from all that long ago.” (According to her biography, her wealthy British expatriate parents had sent her away to a chilly clime in her childhood, and she theorized that her wet nurse must have hated the cold, and transmitted this aversion in her breast milk.)
In 1942, in the aftermath of the death of her son from her first marriage, Kavan attempted suicide a second time. She returned from abroad (having moved to New York in 1939—where she legally changed her name to Anna Kavan—and then to New Zealand for two years), and settled in London, a place she portrays as simultaneously imprisoning her and driving her out in the story “Our City,” collected in 1945’s I Am Lazarus. This story and others in the collection document the communal insanity caused by the Blitz. Kavan worked as a researcher in a psychiatric military unit, and in I Am Lazarus she escapes solipsism at times to tell the stories of some of its patients.
This is Anna Kavan at her best: exacting, sympathetic, powerful. In the fourpage opening story, “Palace of Sleep,” an older doctor gives a young upstart a tour of the narcosis ward. (In the thirties and forties, Kavan went in and out of various sanitariums and nursing homes for her heroin addiction, where among other treatments she underwent narcosis, a sort of sleeping cure for drug addiction.) In the story, there’s the captivating image of a patient in a red dressing gown, shuffling down the corridor with a nurse who calls her “Topsy”:
The patient swayed and staggered in spite of the firm grasp that guided her hand to the rail. Her head swung loosely from side to side, her wideopen eyes, at once distracted and dull like the eyes of a drunken person, stared out of her pale face, curiously puffy and smooth under dark hair projecting in harsh, disorderly elf-locks. Her feet, clumsy and uncontrolled in their woolen slippers, tripped over the hem of her long nightdress and threw her entire weight on the nurse’s supporting arm.
“Welcome to the palace of sleep,” the older doctor quips at the story’s end. Overall, the pieces in Lazarus are less fragmented and subjective, although there are relapses into Asylum Piece’s poetic screeds about invisible enemies, as well as further exploration of the theme of exile, this time in an Antipodean setting. In “The Picture,” the narrator is once again living in a foreign country, going to pick up a picture that she had dropped off to be framed the day before. She’s excited and optimistic, since the man at the picture shop seemed like a “benevolent gnome.” But when she goes back to the shop, she finds herself under surveillance by another man, and treated rudely by the dark-haired girl behind the counter, who gives her someone else’s picture instead. She asks for the old man, hoping for yesterday’s touch of humanity, but he pretends not to recognize her. “Then it began to dawn on me that the thing which has so often happened to me in this country had happened again, that I had made a mistake, that I had fallen into the trap of accepting as real an appearance that was merely a sham, a booby trap, a malicious trick.”
In the early forties Kavan met Dr. Karl Theodor Bluth, who would become her confidante, analyst, and heroin supplier. Kavan and Bluth later authored a dream allegory together, published in 1949 by a specialty press, starring a poetry-spouting circus horse named “Kathbar,” an amalgam of their two names. Kathbar escapes the slaughterhouse by moving to an artist’s colony and founding the existentialist school “Hoofism.” Kavan’s third known suicide attempt would come in 1964 when Bluth died. Many of the pieces in the posthumously published Julia and the Bazooka mourn her longtime analyst, as well as being the only stories to deal directly with her drug use (“bazooka” was the nickname she gave to her syringe).
Kavan also began to experiment more with style and form, incorporating the language and logic of dreams into her fiction and continuing her move away from realism. In the surrealist Sleep Has His House (1948), titled The House of Sleep in the U.S., Kavan attempted to write scenarios directly from her subconscious, interspersing these sections with fragments of autobiography (calling to mind H. D., another disciple of psychoanalysis). The effect of reading Sleep Has His House is that of entering a highly coded dream world, and although some of the poetry and imagery is rich, it was shunned both commercially and critically, charged with being pretentious and unreadable.
Still, this collection won Anna Kavan an admirer in Anaïs Nin, who became one of Kavan’s staunchest defenders. “Anna Kavan explored the nocturnal worlds of our dreams, fantasies, imagination, and nonreason,” Nin writes in her critical study The Novel of the Future, which highlighted novelists such as John Hawkes, Djuna Barnes, and Marguerite Young. “Such an exploration takes greater courage and skill in expression. As the events of the world prove the constancy of the nonrational, it becomes absurd to treat such events with rational logic.” She also wrote that Asylum Piece was “a classic equal to the work of Kafka.” Still, as much as Nin admired Kavan, even writing letters to her that remained unanswered, the admiration was not mutual, according to Kavan’s biographer David Callard. Kavan was known for dismissing fellow women writers; for instance, she admired the nouveau roman, but disliked the work of Nathalie Sarraute. However, there were exceptions—she supposedly admired Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, as well as Barnes’s Nightwood.
In the fifties, Kavan departed from the subjective first-person experiments of the previous decade to externalize the nocturnal world of the unconscious, the “queerdream plasma which flows along like a sub-life, contemporaneous with but completely independent of the main current of one’s existence” (I Am Lazarus). The same ideas and images repeat—the chilly, dismal Victorian childhood; the manipulative, glamorous mother; and the two ex-husbands who try to usurp the Kavan-figure’s sense of self—but the characterizations become crueler and more fantastical. Although the controlling mother figure is a specter throughout her fiction, Kavan recasts her as a witchy countess modeled on Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen in 1956’s Scarcity of Love, which Kavan paid some fifty pounds to publish with a vanity press. (Jonathan Cape dropped her after the failure of Sleep Has His House; unfortunately, the press that published Scarcity went bankrupt soon after the review copies were sent out, and the remaining stock was pulped.) With its Ann Radcliffe mysticism and gothic overtones, Scarcity of Love—a revenge fantasy written right after Kavan’s mother died, leaving her with no inheritance—debuts some of the imagery Kavan would use in her adventure stories, as well as the character of the frail girl-child as perfected later in Who Are You? and Ice.
Eagle’s Nest (1957) has been called Kavan’s most Kafkaesque work, further developing her concept of a “second secret existence,” a real world with an underworld percolating beneath. The nameless narrator in this fantasy is potentially delusional, as in Ice, possibly having imagined the fantasy/nightmare world of the “Eagle’s Nest,” a fortress-like mansion with curious servants and a strange code. The title story of the collection Bright Green Field (1958) moves towards the science fiction of Ice, except here it’s grass that’s the natural force threatening to obliterate humanity—in a “great green grave.” The collection also contains the disturbing “Annunciation,” about a young girl whose rich, controlling grandmother hides her from the world after her first menstruation, and the beautiful, tragic “Happy Name,” in which an old woman returns in a dream to the large Victorian home of her childhood, which she enters through a picture in her nursinghome room.
“That’s the way I see the world now,” Kavan remarked to Peter Owen, her publisher in later years, explaining her gradual shift to science fiction—externalizing the purely mental apocalypses in her earlier works. But Ice (1967)—the work that yielded her first mainstream success—transcends genre. To Kavan, the world had ceased to be rooted in reason, and her final and most famous novel articulates her horror of this transformation. A psychosexual adventure story, Ice is a fantastical retelling of Kavan’s meanderings through the world during World War II (a volume of her travel writings is forthcoming from Peter Owen). Max Brod once described Kafka’s The Castle as the “prodigious ballad of the homeless stranger,” which could as easily describe Ice. In the novel, an anonymous hero must save the world from global destruction—walls of ice closing in amidst war and carnage—all the while chasing the nameless object/victim of desire who haunts him. “She was so thin that, when we danced, I was afraid of holding her tightly. Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit Venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.” Drugs the narrator takes for his insomnia produce horrific hallucinations in which the girl is thrust into an obstacle course of pornographic violence, resembling Pauline Reage’s Story of O: she lies bleeding, broken in the white snow, is snatched out of doorways by looming shadows, and is even thrown to a dragon by hostile townsfolk. The novel was published one year before Kavan died of heart failure, although it was widely reported as a suicide.
In Kavan’s most haunting inquiry into the loss of self, the 1963 novella Who Are You?, she rewrote Helen Ferguson’s threehundred-plus page novel Let Me Alone. The controlling yet basically harmless husband from that novel becomes the sadistic and alcoholic “Mr. Dog Head,” whose activities include raping his wife and bludgeoning rats with his tennis racket. The lonesome yet fiercely independent Anna Kavan is now simply “the girl,” yet another blonde victim living in a nightmare she can’t escape. The title comes from the monotonous song of the birds that live in the tamarind trees in the tropics, whose mechanical and piercing cry mounts in the background throughout the novel. The cries of the “brain-fever birds,” which Kavan characterizes as an assault on identity, form an ominous chorus for the main character’s breakdown:
Who-are-you? Who-are-you? Who-are-you? . . . The frantic cries sound to her not only demented but threatening, so that she feels uneasy. Some of them seem to sound distinctly ominous. Yet she must imagine this, for, in reality, all the cries are exactly alike. All have the infuriating, monotonous, unstoppable persistence; all sound equally mechanical, motiveless, not expressing anger, or fear, or love, or any sort of avian feeling—their sole function seems to drive people mad.
This is Kavan’s “hot” novel, as opposed to the cold of Ice, with evocative descriptions of heat building once more to a monsoon climax. Who Are You? resembles the novels of Robbe-Grillet (the nouveau roman was the only school of writing Kavan ever identified with, although much of her work predates it). The novella conjures up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, and a stylized and fragmented descent into hysteria, as the young girl begins to lose her identity in the stifling heat. Following an ambiguous first ending, Kavan stages a second, with a different outcome. The result is to destabilize any reality in the preceding narrative, imbuing Who Are You? with all the clarity of a fever dream.
Kavan was known to be an enigmatic and difficult woman. The fact that she was able to make art out of her distorted mirror and so eloquently inquire into the evolution of madness—and let’s even call it female madness, although she would have detested the term—is even more extraordinary considering how painful it was to live in her version of the world. Kavan portrayed female characters with a desire to fall, to luxuriate at the bottom: shattered women who harbor the hope that someone will come and save them, but who always, in the end, return to the struggles of solitude. These portrayals of women dangling on the brink—or, rather, woman, since it’s usually the same character—call to mind Jean Rhys, especially her boozy nihilist Sophia Jansen in Good Morning, Midnight, who sets out to drink herself to death and busies herself with the idea of dying her hair. Kavan only received true recognition for her genius a year before her death, with the success of Ice; interestingly, Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea was published the year before, to much acclaim. Of its success, Rhys famously intoned, “It has come too late.” Both Kavan and Rhys were writers many had believed to be dead, Lady Lazaruses who found recognition too late in life to appreciate it. But Rhys is still widely read, and accepted as a great modern talent, while Kavan, every bit the equal of every writer that she was compared to, has—regretfully—vanished. - Kate Zambreno  www.dalkeyarchive.com/anna-kavan/






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