Happy Readings #23: Ice


This September issue of The Happy Reader’s newsletter is mostly about Ice, Anna Kavan’s mysterious classic from 1967, described by a reader at the time as a ‘mixture of Kafka and the Avengers’. It also includes news about Emily Dickinson’s hair, new issues of Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman, and other findings from literature’s more pop-cultural side.



The premise: a nameless narrator travels the world in pursuit of someone described only as ‘the girl’. Our explorer is a man of action, with military training and a network of spies. But the world is broken. Something – a nuclear bomb? – has triggered a climate crisis. A mass of ice is creeping across Earth. Life is doomed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.



Which makes Ice sound like a doomsday thriller in the manner of The Road or The Purple Cloud, but it’s more a case of: if you watched a movie with the above set-up five times on repeat, what kind of dreams would you have? The man is always arriving, by boat or by car, at yet another icy hopeless town. He asks questions. Sometimes he finds the girl, then in the next paragraph he’ll still be looking for her. Or she’ll be visibly murdered in a hotel corridor then, not long afterwards, merely bickering with the warlord known only as ‘the warden’. Is any of this really happening? ‘The hallucination of one moment did not fit the reality of the next,’ is an observation the man – who, surreally, is also a keen lemur enthusiast – makes of his state of mind at one point, and which sums up the reading experience quite well too. Yet, if it sounds simply confusing, it shouldn’t. There’s a tangible sense of forward momentum: these action-movie vignettes are building up to something. The ending is astonishing.



This isn’t a love story, by the way. The girl doesn’t like the man, or want him to rescue her, and there are reasons – good ones – as to why this is the case. As Jon Michaud puts it in the New Yorker, Ice is ‘a work of traumatised sexual surrealism, and its true setting is its author’s haunted imagination.’



Anna Kavan wrote herself into being, in a sense. Born into a wealthy English family based in Cannes, her birth name was Helen Emily Woods. She went on to publish twenty-three books, the second of which was 1930’s Let Me Alone, a fictionalised account of a miserable real marriage with a main character called Anna Kavan: a name the author would then legally adopt.



Kavan liked to spend time with racing car drivers. She lived variously in Norway, the USA, Indonesia and New Zealand, and began an article on the latter with the line, ‘I have not got any useful information about New Zealand, and would not attempt to give it to you if I had.’ Ice, which isn’t quite science fiction but isn’t not science fiction either, was Kavan’s breakout book. She had little chance to enjoy the recognition. A lifelong heroin addict with a history of mental illness, she died from an overdose the following year.



If reading Ice (or reading about it) makes you think of Charlie Kaufman’s baffling Netflix movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things with its similarly tangled pile of scenes, then congratulations – the book is right there in the movie, as per about halfway down this interview with Kaufman. Elsewhere, rumour is that Squid, a newish British band described by NPR as part of the ‘post-Brexit New Wave’, have a track named ‘Peel Street’ that is entirely inspired by Ice. The music is twangy and discordant and reminiscent of The Fall. ‘Oh, where were you when the ice came around?’ asks singer Ollie Judge. ‘Falling back, falling in, Oh, Anna, Oh, Anna,’ he declares. ‘There’s no warden following me.’



Locks of the poet Emily Dickinson’s hair are on sale on eBay for $450,000.



Had it with haiku? Check out clerihew! The new issue of The Happy Reader’s sibling magazine Fantastic Man contains instructions, codified by yours truly, for composing lesser-known formal poems such as tanka, limericks, clerihews and American cinquains. The issue is an exceptionally glamorous literary special, with poet Ocean Vuong on the cover (the Rimbaud-referencing interview is readable online here) and interviews with lettered stars including Paul Mendez, Jon Ronson, and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Meanwhile a new issue of The Happy Reader’s other much-loved sibling The Gentlewoman is out this weekend, with meteoric British rapper Little Simz as its cover star. That profile, which I was honoured to write, is here.



The next issue of this newsletter will address a Black British classic, Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen, lately reissued with a new cover by the artist Chris Ofili. Please read along and send any responses to the book, this newsletter or anything else to [email protected].



‘Happy Readings #22 was my first introduction to Georges Perec,’ writes subscriber Jade Moore, in reference to August’s newsletter, featuring Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. ‘I read it while killing time at the reception desk of the library I work at. I embraced the idea of documenting what happened in a specific (and quite mundane) setting, and set about writing down everything that happened during my last half an hour on the desk.’ Sadly, we don’t have space to include Jade’s full response to Perec’s Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, but the first line, timecoded 12:24, establishes that ‘Layla arrives to write down the headcounts. There are 25 people in the building.’ Further events, both infra- and extra-ordinary, ensue.


Many thanks for reading.


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