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The Triumph of Glaciers: On Ice by Anna Kavan and The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

By Xenobe Purvis.

Ice by Anna Kavan

Ice by Anna Kavan (Penguin, 2017) and The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Penguin, 2018)

Peter Owen, founder of Peter Owen Publishers, made a name for himself through an eclectic publishing list that included many works in translation. He was – according to his obituary in The Telegraph in 2016 – “a champion of the obscure, the neglected, the modern, the foreign, the difficult and the downright unpopular”. His first editor, Muriel Spark, memorialised her experience of working with Owen in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae; “We were rather attached to each other,” she writes, “there in the office at 50 Old Brompton Road, with one light bulb, bare boards on the floor, a long table which was the packing department, and Peter always retreating to his own tiny office to take phone calls from his uncles.” From this spartan setting, Owen enlisted the fiction of authors as wide-ranging as Herman Hesse, Anaïs Nin, Paul Bowles, Yukio Mishima and Colette, among many others, bringing unknown and unconventional writers to the attention of the English reading public. And now, two years after his death, Penguin has re-issued two of Owen’s most unusual books: Ice by Anna Kavan, and The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

Of the two, Kavan’s Ice is the greater oddity. This, given the life of its author, is unsurprising. Born Helen Woods, Kavan’s early life was chequered with tragedy. According to some of her own accounts, her father drowned himself when she was ten (other versions differ on the details; her autobiographical writing is notoriously slippery). She was an unhappy child, sent to boarding school at a young age by an emotionally distant mother. In her twenties, she turned to drugs. Her story ‘Julia and the Bazooka’ describes the circumstances of her first encounter with heroin, a recommendation, she says, from her tennis coach “to improve her game”. She remained addicted to heroin for the rest of her life, despite protestations – in surviving fragments of her diary and to her despairing friends – to the contrary.

Life, for Kavan, often bled into her fiction – and vice versa. A disastrous marriage to her mother’s friend (and rumoured lover) Donald Ferguson, thinly disguised in her early novels and short stories, led to a complete reinvention of self. At thirty-seven, after a second stint in a sanatorium being treated for addiction, she emerged as Anna Kavan – the name of one of her own ill-fated characters. On seeing Kavan again, her friend Rhys Davies wrote: “I failed to recognise the woman running to me from under the trees… Helen Ferguson had vanished. This spectral woman, attenuated of body and face, a former abundance of auburn hair shorn and changed to metallic gold, thinned hands, restless, was so different that my own need to readjust to her was a strain.” It is no coincidence that a later book of her short stories would be titled I Am Lazarus.

The self-styled Kavan led an uneven existence in Kensington, selling her possessions for upkeep (her tenant – the notorious Gerald Hamilton of Mr Norris fame – failed to pay her any rent), and maintaining her heroin addiction until her death. Her writing got stranger and darker, underpinned by an obsessive nihilism. One particularly bleak story, contained in her collection Asylum Piece, describes an “implacable enemy” who follows the narrator wherever she goes. “I know that I’m doomed,” she writes, “and I’m not going to struggle against my fate. I am only writing this down so that when you do not see me any more you will know that my enemy has finally triumphed.”

Kavan found mild literary success in her lifetime, fostered by the support of Peter Owen, but it was only after her death that she got to be better known, a reputation cemented by the cult-like status of her final novel, Ice. Originally published in 1967, Ice is truly unconventional. Steeped in violence and paranoia, it acquired a wide readership through the help of science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who loudly championed the book, calling Kavan “De Quincey’s heir and Kafka’s sister” – an astute description. In Ice, Kavan mimics the surrealism of Kafka, while inhabiting De Quincey’s strange illusory landscape.

Ice is set in a world overcome by an encroaching ice age, in which an unnamed man – our narrator – pursues a beautiful young woman. “I treated her like a glass girl,” he admits, “at times she hardly seemed real.” His obsession with the girl leads him on a disjointed odyssey across the globe. He repeatedly visualises acts of violence against her, and in both his fantasies and in reality the girl is totally passive, a victim to the whims of her salivating admirer and other men, as well as the ice. In one of many descriptions of the ravaging ice, she is described to be

completely encircled by the tremendous ice-walls… 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 icelight, 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.

The setting for Ice is both awful and awe-inspiring, an apocalyptic blue-white world from which the girl cannot hope to escape. It feels reasonable (if obvious) to read Kavan’s own experiences in this narrative; her lifelong addiction to heroin clearly informs the girl’s relationship with the ice and her “resignation” to “the triumph of glaciers and the death of her world”. Kavan lays the groundwork for such a reading in an earlier short story ‘High in the Mountains’, which describes a woman, dependent on heroin, seeking to escape from her alcoholic husband. “When he drinks too much,” she writes, “he gets quarrelsome and aggressive, embarrasses people by stumbling about and making stupid remarks. What I do never affects anyone else. And a clean white powder is not repulsive; it looks pure, it glitters, the pure white crystals sparkle like snow.”

The haunting descriptions of a transformed planet in Ice are the novel’s greatest strength. But the book is not without its failings: its narrative – while an intriguing insight into the unstable mind of the narrator – is difficult to follow, and there is little in the way of characterisation. Kavan defended the novel’s unusual structure; in response to an early criticism from one of Peter Owen’s readers, reluctant to take up Ice due to its lack of “internal logic”, she wrote that she “saw the story as one of those recurring dreams (hence the repetitive voyages etc.) which at times become nightmare. This dreamlike atmosphere is the essence of the whole concept. Without it, the book would be meaningless.”

Kavan’s admirers – Anaïs Nin was one – were drawn to the novel’s “dreamlike atmosphere”. In The Novel of the Future, Nin writes, “I have always admired Anna Kavan among the few writers who dared to explore the nocturnal world of our dreams, fantasies and imagination.” (Nin often wrote to praise Kavan, but the pair would never cross paths. The night that they intended to meet – at a party at Owen’s house – was the night Kavan died.) Reiterating this appreciation of the “nocturnal” nature of the novel, Doris Lessing called it a “phantasmagoria”, adding in a review that “[h]owever we class the book, there is nothing else like it”.

The Ice Palace

Lessing was less guarded in her enthusiasm for Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace, a tale about a girl who goes missing in a small Norwegian community. “How simple this novel is,” she observed. “How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary.” Vesaas depicts a nuanced, three dimensional cast of characters, who deal convincingly with feelings of grief and guilt, and Lessing praised his portrait of the villagers in no uncertain terms; “There are few things in literature more touching, more admirable, than the way this community of adults and children care for Siss, a little girl frozen with shock and with grief,” she wrote.

Although The Ice Palace was published in English translation only four years before Kavan’s Ice and shares with it a sub-zero setting, the two novels are worlds apart. What one enjoys in glittering menace, the other makes up for in a simple but affecting plot and an absorbing troupe of characters. The warmth and wisdom of the villagers and the sensitivity of The Ice Palace’s protagonist, Siss, are at its heart. The opening lines of the book introduce us to Siss in language that feels almost Imagist in its simplicity: “A young, white forehead boring through the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss.” Siss feels things keenly. She is fascinated by the new girl in her class, Unn, and when Unn goes missing she grapples with emotions that lie beyond the reach of her childish lexicon. The narrative – in a nod towards the rich history of Norwegian folk literature – often has a fairytale-like feel, with moments of surreal invention (“Afraid of the dark? No. Bright woodwind players had appeared and were walking along the sides of the road.”), punctuated by poems and songs.

Vesaas’ writing, beautifully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, has none of the feverish imagery of Kavan’s dystopia. Instead, it is very simple, slowly building impact over the course of the slim novel. Take this sentence, for instance: “The black, gliding water acquires yellow and white eddies, it licks more boldly at the lacework edging the banks – and when it finally pours over the shelf and down into the foundations of the palace, it does so in a cloud of spray with a gruff voice.” Or these ones: “They had Siss in the middle of them when they all went home. There was no noise. They walked along, keeping her in the middle. She did not dislike it either, she realized. It was funny how excited you could be over such a quiet homecoming.” Focalised through the perspectives of the children and – in the occasional chapter – the birds and the natural landscape, the language feels enchanting yet unassuming. It is worth noting that Vesaas wrote in Nynorsk as opposed to Norway’s other official language, Bokmål; Nynorsk has its roots in rural Norwegian dialects, while Bokmål (“Book tongue”) is a child of the Danish written language.

The Ice Palace was not Vesaas’ only book to have been translated into English. Of his twenty five novels and many volumes of poetry, four further books – all sharing his trademark psychological insight and exquisitely spare prose – were published by Peter Owen. Vesaas, beloved in Vinje, southern Norway, where he lived and died, was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature thirty times, but never won. Despite Owen’s efforts, Vesaas’ books have largely been forgotten by English readers, making Penguin’s recent re-issue all the more welcome, as well as paying fitting tribute to Owen as we approach the second anniversary of his death. When asked which – of all the varied books he’d ever published – was his favourite, it is said that Owen would reply without hesitation. The Ice Palace was the work of which he was most proud.


Xenobe Purvis

Xenobe Purvis is a freelance writer and researcher, currently assisting in the preparation of a volume of Christopher Isherwood’s selected letters.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 1st, 2018.