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.


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.”


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.


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.)


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.


15 thoughts on “On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

  1. I’m here for this new trend of more frequent and lengthier posts.

    I assigned texts I’d never read the first semester I taught, because there were required texts (medieval theologian-philosophers) I’d never had occasion or inclination to open. It was terrifying. And, as in your case, tedious. But for different reasons.

    Seems a good exercise for a professor of literature. The experience of boredom is probably the single widest gulf between student and professor in most classes. Immune to it by our interests, familiar with technical detail that make the rebarbative rewarding and open the doors of perception, we — or at least I — forget the *possibility* of boredom. Reading *Ice* must have been a powerful aid to empathy.

    • Thanks, Robert. I had this idea I would post a short something every day this month. Obviously, that hasn’t worked out…
      Your point is well put and well taken. I think you are right about that gulf, especially since it can be hard for us to imagine that others don’t share our passions. In teaching writing, I often remind students that readers can’t get inside their heads: they need to figure out what someone who is not them needs to know about what they are talking about. But we often forget this is designing our classes.

      Did it make me empathize? I don’t know. As you can see, I was unable simply to leave it at boredom–I had to recuperate this boredom in some way, make something useful (though maybe not interesting…) out of it.

  2. I’ve been teaching modules new to me this year, so know exactly that feeling you describe of last-minute frantic preparation with a not so familiar text. I wrote at my place about this novel 3 years ago; rereading my piece I seem to have quite liked it, which is strange, because my recollection of it now is that it was – and I said this in a reply to a comment on my post – ‘strained’ – and something of a strain to read. I found your exploration of why you found it boring resonated, therefore. It’s maybe like pornography: Ice is about soulless, meaningless repetitions that bring no pleasure – and therefore reading the novel brings none. The weirdness serves no discernible purpose – though I did strive to find some possible interpretations: heroin seeming most likely (more repetitions of doses that should bring pleasure but fail to sustain). Your course sounds fascinating but challenging – no wonder your students are reluctant to speak up about texts that defy usual modes of reading!

    • Thanks, Simon. We talked a little about the heroin allegory in class, but my difficulty with that is: where does it get us? Unless, that is, we start wondering whether there is something addictive about our relationship to narrative. Are all the stories we are driven to consume (and create) ultimately empty repetitions?

      It *is* a challenging course, but it’s usually led to many excellent conversations. This group had lots to say–but they just didn’t seem to want to say it to each other. (They saved it for their writing.) That made for good papers, but difficult class sessions.

      BTW I’ve always been curious–do you in the UK use “module” the way in North America we would use “course” or “class”? “Module” fascinates me: it suggests a larger whole that you can remove or insert different sections or parts–which I guess is a good way to think about a course. Just curious!

      • I teach on a degree course that’s run part-time with classes two days a week. Students work on 6 ‘modules’ per year. When/if they pass, after two years, they can progress to the second year of the normal 3-year full-time course at a neighbouring university. So the whole 12 modules are roughly equivalent to the first year of an undergrad course. We think that’s probably too much, but there you are. So they essentially have around 32 weeks of a class per week on each module. In year 1 they have subjects like Theory, Creative Writing, ‘sense of place’, regional and national identity; in Y2 there are Romantics and Victorians, New Technology, Film, etc. So it’s pretty wide-ranging. In a full-time course these would obviously be spread in a different way over a year. So I’m not sure how or if they correspond to the terms you mention in use in America. The ones I taught this year for the first time included Romantics and Victorians – so a pretty huge pair of topics; also a Y1 module called Introduction to Literature – so another biggy: I sort of did a taster of literature from medieval to post-modern! Not sure this answers your question…

  3. A very insightful approach to the novel – I’m not sure my own view was quite as opposite to your own. As you point out, it’s a hard book to love. The background to your course is also interesting – I suspect Berg would really fit it there, and Quin is much more of a stylist.
    As for the teaching side of it, I frequently do textual analysis of unseen poems (it’s in the exam) – it’s like playing live! There’s nothing more exciting though, than a student (or indeed me) ‘getting’ it!

    • I didn’t know you were a teacher, Grant! Not sure how I missed that. Agree that teaching something for the first time can be so rewarding. At least for me, though, it’s too nerve-wracking to do on a regular basis!
      I like the Quin suggestion and will get on it.

  4. I’m another fan of these in-depth, reflective posts, partly because they offer such interesting insights into your teaching process alongside your observations on the book. And I love that you share these things with us in such an open way – they’re fascinating to read.

    You’re right in thinking that I liked the Kavan – in fact, it intrigued me so much that I ended up reading it twice (something I very rarely do). It was pre-blog, hence the lack of a review at mine. That said, I think I posted some comments at Max’s site as it was his review that had prompted me to read it in the first place – I’ll have to go back and take another look.

    I think your reflections on the fact that Ice is experimental at the book level (as opposed to the sentence level) are spot on. It was the dreamlike, shapeshifting quality of the overall narrative that really captured my imagination. (I don’t read very much in the way of speculative fiction, so this was a rare foray into that territory for me.) Your comments also made me realise why I have failed to get anywhere with The Vet’s Daughter in spite of two valiant attempts – it’s just too surreal and disturbing at the sentence level for me! So, many thanks for that insight – it certainly explains a lot.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I appreciate your kind words. Never sure if anyone is as interested in my teaching as I am!

      You are right: it was your comments at Max’s site that I am thinking of. That explains why I couldn’t find it at your blog.

      Glad the sentence vs structural experimentalism distinction is helpful for you. It helped me realize that I value syntax a lot more than I thought I did. So between us, we can like all the books…

  5. Fascinating, and I agree with Jacqui that you have something with your point about experimentalism at the level of the book rather than the sentence.

    It strikes me that for an experiment like reading alongside the students to have value it must have the risk of failure. I guess that’s already obvious to you (since it is after all your field) but that’s the risk the student’s take isn’t it? That a book will be impenetrable, offputting, uninspiring or worse yet boring. That it will offer nothing to say save the obvious.

    I do think of course that there’s loads to say about Ice (my piece looking back on it is fairly long). Interestingly you talk of slippery surfaces, and I’ve seen this described as an example (along with Ballard) of “slipstream” fiction. Here I think the slippery surfaces, the lack of traction, the iciness of it perhaps, are part of the point. None of which means that has to be a point which resonates for you or your students.

    Anyway, great post and thank you for it.

    • Thanks, Max, and thanks for your post, which , as I say, was one I pilfered from shamelessly in preparing class.

      And you’re absolutely right that a real experiment must contain the possibility of failure—and that students experience this failure more often than teachers. Though I am not always sure they understand it in so generous a way.

      I keep hearing this term “slipstream.” But I don’t know what it means.

  6. Isn’t there some old canard about literature professors, when asked if they’ve read a particular book, replying along the lines of, “Well no, but I’ve taught it”?

    What a courageous choice to teach Ice! When I saw that you’d posted about it I was eager to read what you’d thought. And no, the narration is certainly not seductive! I’m in the camp of those who appreciated the book, though I too am doubtful that I’ll read it again. I had to go back to my own review to recall what I’d admired about it and found that I’d been perhaps too much of a cheerleader and not much of a close reader. I found the novel an unusually intense and challenging reading experience. One path in for me, oddly enough – since it has almost nothing to do with Kavan’s style or literary values – was Hilda Doolittle’s Trilogy, with which I had struggled enormously when a university professor tried to teach that, ultimately unpacking the poem via distinctly feminist and psychological angles. It helped to apply that approach here, particularly to the patriarchal, patronizing and threatening attitudes of the men in the novel and to elements suggestive of addiction. Anyway, I won’t repeat here what I already wrote in my review, except to say that while I’m not sure what “slipstream” means either, I like Jacqui’s invocation of it. It’s suggestive of the slipperiness of the narrative, a deliberately sometimes transparent/sometimes opaque shifting and splintering (like ice itself). I was also struck not only by Kavan’s prescient concern with climate change – reason enough, I think, for the novel to continue to receive attention – and its then contemporary hints of nuclear winter. Another work with which one might compare it is Robert Bolaño’s Antwerp, which similarly provides the reader few if any footholds or handholds. Anyway, bravo on trying this out with students – I’m immensely curious to know more about how they responded.

    • I hadn’t heard that particular canard before (some cut-rate Flaubert could write a whole little book on academic bromides. canards, and received wisdom).
      I think the students were interested in the climate change angle (though I think it was hard for them to get how eerily prescient Kavan is here: they have no idea of world without the threat of climate change). They also noticed the nuclear angle, though again I don’t think that has the same resonance for them as it does for us.

      But in both cases, we weren’t sure what to make of these connections/allusions. The book is so chary with critique. What is its disposition to anything? Is it terrified of nuclear winter? Does it relish the possibility of apocalypse? So hard to say! And therefore so resistant to our drive to interpret.
      The evaluations went to a colleague’s office; I’ll be getting them next week, so will have a better idea then…

  7. I was similarly frustrated by Ice when I tried to read it a few years ago and ended up abandoning it partway through. I don’t think my issue with it was that it was experimental at the book-level, because I tend to like or at least be interested in books like that (e.g. Pale Fire, Robbe-Grillet’s “Jealousy”, other things I can’t think of) – more that it wasn’t clear it was a successful experiment (i.e. I didn’t feel like the obvious experimentation was “unlocking” anything or making me feel or think anything interesting).

    I love those Green and Comyns books, though. BS Johnson is the first author who comes to mind when I think about 20th century experimental British lit, but I don’t know if his work has anything to do with the Freudian uncanny framework.

    • I think this is very well put: “I didn’t feel like the obvious experimentation was “unlocking” anything or making me feel or think anything interesting.” Exactly.

      BS Johnson is a huge hole for me. I am sure he would fit in the course, but I just haven’t read any yet. Any suggestions about the best one to start with?

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