On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

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Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

A Little Henry Green for Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, as I persist in calling it; I’ll never get used to Veterans Day. About some things I am immune to cant, unable, for example, to clap for our men and women in uniform on airplane flights (that was a thing for a few years after 9/11, not so much any more), but about others I’m terribly sentimental. And always at this time of year I think about the deliciously solemn Remembrance Day assemblies of my Canadian childhood, the lusty intoning of “In Flanders Field” (how I loved that poem), the reveling in the myths of Vimy, the crucible that forged a nation, etc, etc. I know there’s pious and even pernicious hooey surrounding the holiday, but I miss wearing a poppy, I really think that’s a beautiful tradition, and I also miss the weather, which in my memory anyway is blustery and miserable with a little sleet or snow in the air.

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My feelings about Canada are especially turbulent this week, after the US election debacle. As someone who really could go to Canada, but who can’t figure out what he’d do once he got there, I’m at once even more susceptible than usual this week to nostalgic feelings for home and yet not entirely convinced that it still is home. Indeed, there’s nothing like finding out that half of the electorate is fine with overt misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, Islamaphobia and hatred of of people of colour generally to make you question what home really means.

At any rate, in honour of Remembrance Day, here’s a passage from the incomparable Henry Green’s memoir Pack my Bag, published in 1940 when, he notes, he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would die in the coming war. (He served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz, dangerous work described vividly in Caught, one of his nine beautiful and elliptical novels.) About a third of the way through the memoir, Green describes how his wealthy family’s estate was turned into an officer’s convalescent home during the First World War. Twelve-year-old Green is fascinated by the men, especially a shell-shocked Australian:

Unattractive in every way, small, ugly, with no interests one could find, he had haunted eyes as though death to which he was still so close and which walked arm in arm with him through our meadows could be a horror worse than what he was still suffering. He did not sleep, he hardly ate, he shook all day and he was like an old specimen jar which is cracked and irreplaceable, others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same, so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces, so that if one laughed he always screamed. If forty yards away you banged the door he screamed.

Green’s amazing, idiosyncratic, and amazingly idiosyncratic syntax is on full display here. The soldier isn’t exactly appealing—the use of “ugly,” which at first seems redundant, suggests that the opening modifier is about something more essential than his looks, though they’re clearly not up to much either. Yet by the end of the passage we sympathize with him, partly through the upending of the pastoral tradition (et in Arcadia ego), in which death is intimately present (walking arm in arm with him though the meadows) yet nonetheless subordinate to a trauma of such magnitude it can only be described indirectly (“what he was still suffering”). I can’t quite figure out how “still” is being used in that first sentence. It appears twice—does it mean the same thing each time? He’s still so close to death—which presumably refers to the battlefields he’s ostensibly convalescing from—but he’s still suffering from shell shock. Death and horror are differentiated from, even opposed to, each other, but the soldier nonetheless seems to experience both at the same time.

If anything, the next sentence is even harder to parse, offering a fine example of the wayward rhythms of Green’s prose, which sometimes seem to replicate speech, or more accurately a particular kind of associative logic that characterizes speech rather than anything one might actually say. The old specimen jar is presumably an antique jar, but it could be a jar for an old specimen, which is what the solder seems to be to the boy Green. Specimen is from the Latin “to look”—it’s a jar you’d put moths or plants or other living things into. In this sense the soldier is said to be preserved but also stifled or entombed, as if the jar were a mausoleum, yet a broken one that is nonetheless valuable (“cracked and irreplaceable”). The almost parenthetical observation “others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same” suggests both outmodedness and singularity, assuming that “the same” means “the same as the cracked but irreplaceable specimen jar that the soldier is like” and not “the same as each other,” which admittedly would be weird since it would suggest the newfangled models are unique rather than mass-produced.

This clause—“others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same”—is even harder to figure out because we can’t at first be sure of its relationship to the next one, which reads “so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces.” At first I thought this clause modified the one about the other jars that might be better but aren’t the same, as if the reason they aren’t the same, that is, the reason they seem to have something wrong with them even though they’re supposedly better is that they’re cracked and ready to break at the mere sound of a shout. But if that were the case, Green ought to have said “enough to shatter them in jagged pieces.” I realized, then, that this clause is actually connected to one before the one before it, namely, the original description of the man as a cracked but irreplaceable specimen jar. That’s what’s “so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces,” the echo or half-rhyme of the double consonants in “shatter” and “jagged” imitating the sharp, abrasive quality the words are describing.

All of which leads us to the final clause, “so that if one laughed he always screamed.” Initially we might take it to be parallel with the previous one—after all they both start with “so”—but we soon see isn’t. “So” means something different in each case. The first “so” (“so cracked that a shout”) is an intensifier (the jar is very cracked); the second (“so that if one laughed”) is a coordinating conjunction meaning “such that.”

After this extraordinary sentence—which like many others in Green’s books must be read several times before they can be parsed—the passage’s concluding sentence is much simpler but no less moving for that. It’s an extension of the previous sentence, which has told us that a laugh, which apparently is felt by the man as a shout, makes him scream. Even something as simple and distant as the banging of a door does so too. We’re left with the image of a man so raw, so broken that ordinary life has become terrifying and intolerable.

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Of course we already know this, because in the sentences just before the passage I’ve focused on here Green tells us: “He was no longer human when he came to us. He committed suicide when he left to go home [to Australia], he found the bustle on board ship to much for him.”

To you from failing hands we throw the torch, etc, etc.