Some Penguin Classics don’t seem quite right until you actually see them in the familiar restrained format, staring out at you with that quintessential Penguin Classic quiet assurance (in this case considerably abetted by a stark cover illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng). Then you start to think, “Well yes, this is probably right. I’ve certainly never been able to forget [X] – and maybe that’s as good a definition of ‘classic’ as anything else.” And slowly, gradually, you experience the quietly wonderful feeling of adding a classic to the world’s roster, of admitting to the ranks another book that’s going to go right on making its strange and irreducible claims to generations of readers, whether the author’s around to disavow it, whether interpreters are around to claim they spotted it first … that’s going to go straight to the readers and sticking with them.
Such a book is certainly Anna Kavan’s Ice, which now becomes a Penguin Classic on the 50th anniversary of its publication in 1967. Many lurid cheap paperbacks have followed from that debut, and many readers, famous and obscure, have encountered the book at their library or on the metal spinner-rack of their small-town dry goods store and read its weird story of an unnamed man crossing a broken, ice-stalked version of modern reality in search of a “glass girl” who seems never quite willing to materialize – read the story and then tried to understand it, only to find that it, too, never quite materializes. This is a fantasy about sick longing, a quest novel in which the search erodes the searcher, and hard at every one of its perimeters is looming ice. Kavan, who wrote many more-or-less conventional novels under the name Helen Ferguson, wrote this one under not a pseudonym but a fictional character’s name, and speculation has been rife ever since about the extent to which Ice is a parable about her own struggles with drug addiction.
Either way, what she creates in these pages is a telescoping gallery of horrors. The man’s quest evolves into a tour through all the depravities of an intensely depraved world, and in scene after scene, monsters creep through the cold up to cabin windows, pause to listen to the talk inside, and hear stories of yet more monsters:
Now she was with a man she called father who sat just inside the window. Because he was so close to me, his was the first voice I understood. He was relating the legend of the fjord, how every year at the winter solstice a beautiful girl had to be sacrificed to the dragon that lived in its depths. The other voices gradually became silent when he began describing the rite itself. “We untie her as soon as we get her up there on the rock. She must struggle a bit, otherwise the dragon might think we’d palmed off a dead girl on him. The water foams down below. The monster’s great scaly coils appear. Then we hurl her down. The whole fjord becomes a maelstrom, blood and foam flying in all directions.”
“They might have been talking about a football match between their team and a rival town,” we’re told.
This Penguin Classic edition of Ice is introduced by the talented novelist Jonathan Lethem, and that turns out to be both good news and bad news. He opens his Introduction, for instance, like this:
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.
There are 184 moons in Earth’s solar system. 11 of them are extremely similar to Earth’s moon. 4 of them are virtually identical to Earth’s moon. Earth’s moon is not white. Earth’s moon is not defiant. Earth’s moon is not frantically on the move. Earth’s moon is not out of reach – men have visited it, there are pictures. Earth’s moon does not seem to be following you, although Anna Kavan’s Ice will, especially if you’re reading it for the first time. As Lethem more helpfully writes “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.”