Anna Kavan was born Helen Emily Woods in 1901 in Cannes, France, to
well-to-do expatriate English parents. Her father, Claude, had inherited
wealth from a family estate in Northumberland; her much younger mother,
also named Helen, married young, and was only eighteen when she gave
birth to her daughter. Kavan was shipped off to boarding schools from
the age of six. Her father committed suicide when she was ten. Her
relations with her mother remained strained for the rest of her life.

At nineteen, with her mother’s encouragement—or coercion, according to
some accounts—Kavan married Donald Ferguson, who was a dozen years her
senior. Kavan’s biographer David Callard suggests that Ferguson may have
been one of her mother’s cast-off lovers. The newlyweds moved to Burma,
where Ferguson was employed by the colonial administration as a railroad
engineer. They had a son in 1922, and were legally divorced in 1928,
though the marriage had effectively ended much earlier. Kavan’s second
novel, “Let Me Alone,” from 1930, offers a fictional account of their
unhappy union: a young bride, repulsed by her controlling husband’s
sexual advances, fends him off for as long as she can before
surrendering. As Callard delicately observes, this novel and later
fictional depictions of the marriage “draw an unflattering portrait of
Donald Ferguson’s lack of erotic finesse.”

Kavan returned to Europe, and she began spending time in the company of
race-car drivers. She found that she shared their love of dangerous
extremes. “I realized they were also psychopaths, misfits who played
with death because they’d been unable to come to terms with life in the
world,” she wrote in the autobiographical story “World of Heroes.” It
was around this time that she was introduced to heroin. She met and fell
in love with the painter Stuart Edmonds; they wed after her divorce from
Ferguson was final. She began to write her early, realistic novels, and
also started to suffer from severe mental-health problems. In the
nineteen-thirties, she attempted suicide multiple times. Her illness
ultimately led to the failure of her second marriage and treatment in a
Swiss sanatorium.

The young woman in “Let Me Alone”—and its sequel, “A Stranger Still”—is
named Anna Kavan. When Helen Woods emerged from her treatment in
Switzerland, she had taken that name for herself. She now had the
spectrally thin physique and the bleached-white hair that would become
characteristic of many of her fictional alter egos. (These features also
appear in her several self-portraits; Kavan painted, too.) Years of
itinerancy followed: Norway, the United States, Indonesia, New Zealand.
On returning to England, in 1943, Kavan came under the care of Karl
Theodor Bluth, a German physician who regulated her dependency on heroin
by legally prescribing her the drug. The two also collaborated on an
allegorical work, “The Horse’s Tale.” Bluth died in 1964.

“Ice” was published three years later, just as the so-called Golden Age
of science fiction, dominated by white men, was giving way to the New
Wave of the sixties and seventies. “Ice” eschews fact-based hard science
in favor of personal dreamscape, and it twists the hackneyed
damsel-in-distress story line prevalent in mid-century space operas into
something eerie and demented. Kavan’s contemporary Lawrence Durrell saw
her as a writer in the lineage of Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes;
others have placed “Ice” in the canon of drug novels, along with Thomas
De
Quincey’s
The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New
World
.” Kavan approved of a reader’s report from her publisher, which
described the book as a “mixture of Kafka and the Avengers.”

In his foreword to the anniversary edition, Jonathan Lethem puts “Ice”
on the same shelf as Edgar Allan Poe, Kobo Abe, and Kazuo Ishiguro. He
also cites J. G. Ballard’s “Crash” as a close cousin. I think that’s
nearest to the mark. Both books are bizarre one-off distillations of
their creators’ distinctive world view—and, in each case, that view is
animated by a corruption of sexual desire.

The novel’s title refers not only to the environmental catastrophe of
the encroaching walls of ice but also to the emotional numbness of the
victimized girl whom the warden and the narrator are vying to possess.
The abuse of the girl and the abuse of the environment stem from the
same driving male impulse for control and dominance. Indeed, the world
and the girl are often described in similar terms. “The defenseless
earth could only lie waiting for its destruction,” the narrator writes,
echoing an earlier passage about the girl: “There was nothing she could
do, no one to whom she could appeal. Abandoned, helpless, she could only
wait for the end.”

At the conclusion of the novel, as he is about to take possession of the
girl, during the world’s final apocalyptic hours, the narrator tells us,
“I was pleased with my achievement and with myself. I did not think
about the killing involved. If I had acted differently I should never
have got here.” He adds, “In any case, the hour of death had only been
anticipated slightly, every living creature would soon perish. The whole
world was turning toward death.” A half century after its first
appearance, Kavan’s fever dream of a novel is beginning to seem all too
real.

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