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'Tis the Season for Ice by Anna Kavan



Ice actually isn't the best book a person could read during the festive Christmas season.  Though, if like me, you find the Christmas season and all its schmaltz and glitter difficult to endure, what with it's incessant and crude consumerism, its sickening good cheer — Ice, then, could be the perfect antidote to Christmas for you.

Other than that time I had open heart surgery in the next-to-last year of the Twentieth Century and, afterwards, in my recovery, was prescribed powerful opioids to manage the impossible throbbing pain, reading Ice by Anna Kavan is the closest I've ever come to being a junkie.  Classic though it is, Junky's got nothing on Ice when it comes to having a vicarious experience of what the long term hallucinatory effects of using heroin must be like upon one's psyche.  Sorry, William S. B., you know I still love you.

Ice is a consummate downer. It is major clinical depression — and maybe madness — incarnate, a deep freeze of the mind and spirit that is somehow resurrected as a phoenix ablaze in the preternatural imagination of Anna Kavan, who projects her cold conflagration out into the (un)natural world. Ice burns its images, it's searing insanity, into the deepest crevices of your mind — a dry ice novel if there ever was one, as smoke and snowflakes waft a-spiraling from its peculiar pages.   But it is a beautiful, brittle, burning world, imagined by Anna Kavan; her physical and psychological chaotic cosmos, an optical illusion, ruined by cold explosions of luminous, fiery ice.  My God there are so many different ways you could interpret the unnamed narrator's stark perceptions of her inner and outer worlds. She defines it for us in a line: "Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me".  I can't help wondering, hearing her take on "reality," if perhaps the "she" narrating the grim journey has dissociated, and the woman she meets early on in the novel at the "fort on the hill" is really a projection of herself rather than a separate individual? In other words, the unnamed "Her" she seeks in the novel could be a simple, but complex (and I suspect ultimately hopeless) search for herself, perhaps?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Ambiguity reigns in Ice.  Interpretations are open-ended.  Reality and delusion are so well blended they've become something else entirely, but what? A "hybrid state of being," as an online friend — Zenomax — who was also reading the book at the same time I was, coined it, with an ability to see what most of us cannot — a lucid delusion perhaps?

"Ice had already engulfed the forest, the last ranks of trees were splintering.  Her silver hair touched my mouth, she was leaning against me.  Then I lost her; my hands could not find her again.  A snapped-off tree trunk was dancing high in the sky, hurled up hundreds of feet by the impact of the ice.  There was a flash, everything was shaken.  My suitcase was lying open, half-packed, on the bed.  The windows of my room were still wide open, the curtains streamed into the room.  Outside the treetops were streaming. . . ."

What do you make of that?  Her voice, the narrator's of Ice, estranged from any recognizable reality I've ever seen, is reminiscent to me of many of the unhinged, anxiety ridden, narrators in Asylum Piece and Other Stories, who weren't so much "mad" I think, as they were erroneously and so often maliciously diagnosed by their "caretakers" or wardens, but more likely lacking the psychological defense mechanisms that protect most "sane" persons from the intensity of their feelings and perceptions over the losses, the griefs, the addictions, and the resultant isolation that are somehow triggered and later magnified whenever they are exposed for any length of time to the simple rawness of the images and sensations produced by the outer "natural" world confining them inside a subzero and cavernous spiritual claustrophobia.  A world of mental suffocation, whiteouts, disorientation, "diminishing visibility ... increasing uneasiness" creating such acute panic and paranoia that delusion and hallucinations become the understandably "sanest" refuges for this unreliable narrator in an, if we're to believe her perceptions, incomprehensible, nuclear ruined icescape.

Ice, in a sentence, is a frigid death sentence; it is an abstractionist's vision of a personal post-apocalypse.  Ice was Anna Kavan's last fix, a sumptuous suicide note, her frost bitten goodbye.

"Self Portrait" by Anna Kavan
"...she faced a stupendous sky-con-flagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold corus-cations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incan-descence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all around. 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, vi-brating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its in-habitants, 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 trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour."

Poetic, alliterative passages like the one above, remind me of William Blake.  Or is it Samuel Taylor Coleridge's frozen abyss in Kublai Khan I'm reminded of — or maybe both?  Some online friends hereabouts have astutely suggested that Ice reminds them of the late, reclusive, French author, Julien Gracq. Indeed, Ice could be Chateau d'Argol set in Antarctica.


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