Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I love Patricia Highsmith. The first novel I read all those years ago was the one she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. That was a tremendous book and I subsequently went on to read the next two books in the ‘Ripliad’ – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game, both excellent, though I still rate the first book higher.

But Highmith also wrote non-Ripley books. And many of them are brilliant. The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary come to mind. And to this list, I will also add This Sweet Sickness.

‘For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith.’ – an apt quote displayed in the opening pages of my Virago edition.

In This Sweet Sickness, we are in classic Highsmith territory. The opening paragraph immediately draws the reader into her dark, troubling world…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.

The ‘Situation’ in a nutshell is like this – David Kelsey is deeply in love with Annabelle and at one point they even briefly courted. But a job change, promising a better pay, compelled David to move to another city. In the meanwhile, Annabelle married another man Gerald and set up home with him. David, therefore, is distraught and deeply jealous.

David is a chemical engineer at Cheswick Fabrics, very good at his job and also respected. On weekdays, he resides in a boarding house in Froudsburg run by the chatty and jovial Mrs McCartney. As far as the other boarders and Mrs McCartney are concerned, David is a model resident. He does not drink, does not entertain women late at night in his room, and visits his ailing mother in a nursing home without fail on weekends.

But nothing is as it seems in Highsmith’s universe. The reader soon realizes that there is something fishy about the last bit. David’s mother died ages ago. So, he spends his weekend, not in a nursing home, but in a house he has bought in Ballard, some miles from the boarding house in Froudsburg.

It’s his own home, cozy and comfortably furnished, a home he plans to settle in with Annabelle once she divorces Gerald. Because you see, David is dead sure of this happening. For him, the husband is just an inconvenience to be straightened out.

Life was very, very strange, but David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.

But there’s more. When David is living in his house, he is no longer David Kelsey but rather William Neumeister. It’s the alias he used when he purchased the property too. It’s a secret existence and nobody in his life (not even Annabelle) know of his ‘other’ identity.

And sometimes, after the two martinis and a half bottle of wine at dinner, he imagined that he heard Annabelle call him Bill, and that made him smile, because when that happened, he’d gotten tangled up himself. In this house, his house, he liked to imagine himself – William Neumeister – a man who had everything he wanted, a man who knew how to live, to laugh, and to be happy.

There are other characters who get embroiled in David’s drama, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. There’s his best friend Wes Carmichael, also his colleague at work, who is stuck in a bitter, joyless marriage. And Effie Brennan, who also lodges at the same boarding house where David stays and is secretly in love with him.

David, meanwhile, continues to write to Annabelle, continuously expressing his wish to see her.

‘Dave, this business about your house – that’s why I’m calling. You don’t seem to understand when I write to you. I can’t ever come to your house, Dave, not the way you want me to come.’

‘Naturally, I was thinking – you’d finally get a divorce.’

Dave, I don’t want a divorce. Can’t you understand that?’

Listen, Annabelle, would you like me to come to Hartford? Right now?’

‘No, Dave, that’s why I’m calling. How can I say it? You’ve got to stop writing me, Dave. It’s just causing more and more trouble. Gerald’s fit to eb tied and I do mean that.’

‘I don’t give a damn about Gerald!’

‘But I do. I’ve got to. Just because you can’t understand—-‘

Things come to a head when one day Gerald turns up at David’s weekend home. How did he learn of David’s secret house? And how will their confrontation play out?

In This Sweet Sickness then, Highsmith is once again at her riveting best as she explores the themes of identity and dangerous obsession. It’s a novel with great psychological depth, a genre Highsmith clearly excels at. Can different identities really change at the core who you are? In what way does disturbing obsession make a person lose his touch with reality?

The focus on obsession brought to mind another brilliant novel I had read a few years ago – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, although David Kelsey is neither really down on luck nor does he spend his days in seedy bars as Hamilton’s protagonist does.

I found shades of similarity with The Talented Mr Ripley too, in that both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley seamlessly live double lives even though their motives are different.

There was another maybe significant difference. One of Highsmith’s greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for the psychopath or the murderer. It happened with Tom Ripley. In a way, it also happened with Vic in Deep Water. Interestingly though, I didn’t feel the same with David Kelsey, although he was a fascinating enough creation.

That in no way suggests that the book is any lesser for it. It has all the trademarks of Highsmith’s writing – prose that is hypnotic and compulsively readable, the sense of palpable unease and creeping dread oozing from the pages, and characters so unhinged and enthralling that the reader is interested enough to find out how it will all turn out.

All in all, an excellent book. I intend to take a break before pulling another Highsmith from the shelves, but when I do it will be a toss between Strangers on A Train and The Blunderer.

Act of Passion – Georges Simenon (tr. Louise Varese)

Last year, I decided to foray into Georges Simenon’s oeuvre. But rather than dig into the Inspector Maigret novels, which made him famous, I opted for his darker novels or romans durs, which had a psychological edge to them and were therefore richer.

The first one that I read was The Blue Room, which was excellent. Consequently, I made a note of reading more by him.

This time I zeroed in on Act of Passion published by the ever fabulous NYRB Classics. Incidentally, this novel was first published in French in 1947 as Lettre a Mon Juge, the literal translation being Letter to My Judge.

Act of Passion
NYRB Classics Edition

Act of Passion is a dark, psychological tale of buried passions and murder as the protagonist struggles to come to grips with his demons.

The man here is the protagonist Dr Charles Alavoine. The entire novel is in the form of a long letter that Alavoine composes while in prison. At the outset we know that Alavoine has committed a crime – a murder – a trial for which has already taken place.

So this novel is not really a question of who committed the crime, but rather what the motives were for Alavoine to commit the crime in the first place. It is more of a character study.

Act of Passion is narrated in the first person, by Charles Alavoine. When the book opens, Alavoine is writing to the magistrate Monsieur Comeliau. This is the magistrate who was in touch with Alavoine during the questioning sessions before the trial eventually begun. Alavoine chooses to write to him simply because he is quite confident that the magistrate will understand his motives, and somehow find it in himself to forgive Alavoine. Mind you, he does not expect the magistrate to exonerate him, because Alavoine unconditionally accepts his guilt.

You are afraid of yourself, of a certain frenzy which might take possession of you, afraid of the disgust that you feel growing in you with the slow and inexorable growth of a disease.

We are almost identical men, your Honour.

Alavoine also strongly believes that for the magistrate to really understand why he committed the crime, it was essential first for him to know more about Alavoine as a person.

And that is how gradually we begin to get an inkling of Alavoine’s personality.

Charles Alavoine is the son of a reasonably well to do peasant farmer who marries one of the Lanoue girls (Charles’ mother). It gradually emerges that his father drank too much, and getting a glimpse of the emptiness of his life, finally commits suicide.

Charles, meanwhile, grows up to become a doctor (a doctor or a priest are the two professions his mother would have preferred anyway). It becomes apparent that the mother in some way has exerted control over Charles life, and he has felt no reason to contradict her. And yet, her it is not a form of control that is obvious or in your face, it’s rather subtle.

In fact, we are introduced to Charles’ mother at his trial, where she is extremely nervous and embarrassed and worried about disgracing her son.

Here’s how Charles chooses to give some idea of his mother’s status in the overall scheme of things…

With my first wife, who was not a very good housekeeper, who was what they call at home a ‘lump of dough’, my mother remained the mistress of the house.

With Armande, things changed, that was all, because Armande has a stronger personality and very decided tastes of her own. When a woman of sixty is suddenly deprived of her occupations, can no longer give orders to the servants, can no longer fuss over the meals and the children, it is exceedingly painful for her.

Armande is Charles’ second wife. But before that we learn that Charles was married to a young woman Jeanne who bore him two daughters, and died on the birth of her second daughter. It was clearly the union of an inexperienced couple. Charles marries his first wife without really knowing her or even asking himself if he loved her. He marries her because that is what men his age did after they were more or less settled in their careers.

Charles’ marriage to Armande (his second wife) is also neither a product of love, nor any kind of passion. Armande is portrayed as a cool, dignified woman with sufficient presence of mind, who instills herself in the Alavoine household and comes to control it. It becomes inevitable to both Charles and his mother that Armande will become Charles’ wife.

Armande is shown to be a true model wife who efficiently runs the house, looks after Charles’ daughters, and slowly also has a say in Charles’ practice as a doctor. It appears to be a model of the ‘perfect’ family – Charles has a successful career, he and Armande host bridge parties, and they go on vacation with the daughters.

And while Charles through all his life has passively accepted the fate that Life has doled out to him, gradually but surely begins to feel an emptiness creeping upon him. He feels he is losing his sense of self, or maybe he never had a self in the first place.

You walk along the pavement flooded with sunlight and your shadow walks along with you almost at your side; you can see it broken in two by the angle formed by the white-walled houses and the pavement.

All at once, this shadow accompanying you disappears…

It doesn’t change its position. It doesn’t pass behind you because you have changed your direction. I mean, it just disappears.

You begin to feel yourself all over. Your body has the same consistency as on any other day. You take a few quick steps and you stop short, hoping to find your shadow again. You run. Still it is not there.

You are not dreaming. You have no shadow and, seized with anguish…

It is then that on one of his doctor’s trips to Nantes, he meets Martine. Martine is a woman, down on luck, a drifter, prone to sipping cocktails in bars, and then sleeping with men. She is neither sophisticated nor beautiful but is rather quite ordinary, and this is paradoxically what makes her extraordinary to Charles. He realizes that there is an air of innocence about her that she tries hard to mask. They end up having passionate sex in a cheap hotel room.

It is from hereon that things begin to get difficult for Charles. He can’t bear being away from her. And yet, when he is with her, he is tormented by images of the ‘other’ Martine, the one who is at the beck and call of men, and this drives him into a rage. Slowly but surely, Charles’ downfall begins…

Act of Passion then, on one level, is an examination of existential angst, and on another level is a character study of an obsessed man. Charles time and again talks about love in his letter to the judge, his love for Martine and vice versa. But while it is easy to believe that he indeed does love her, it also points out to his inexperience in terms of what healthy, loving relationships are really like.

And while the reader can sympathize with Charles and why this extra marital affair made him feel alive, bringing him out of his dull existence, we are never entirely sure what Martine really feels about it, because this account is ultimately Charles’ point of view.

Roger Ebert in this introduction for the NYRB Classics edition sums up Charles’ personality very well:

Alavoine in turn depicts himself as an ordinary doctor, a man of fixed routines, a man who submits to the supervision and scrutiny of a mother and a second wife who is like a mother, a man to whom no one could object, and in whom few could take an interest. He is a man who has reached middle age having only once done anything which gave him a sharp sense of self.

Georges Simenon can clearly write and while we will never know if the magistrate ever understood Charles’ motives from the letter addressed to him, he did a brilliant job of just about evoking sympathy of this reader, and I stress ‘just about.’

Basically, this is another wonderfully penned and fascinating romans durs from Simenon and ably translated by Louise Varese. On deeper reflection, I preferred Act of Passion to The Blue Room (and The Blue Room is very, very good).

The Gravediggers’ Bread – Frederic Dard (tr. Melanie Florence)

Last year, I was introduced to the ‘French master of noir’ Frederic Dard when Pushkin Press’ Vertigo crime imprint released his first title Bird in a Cage. It was a very clever piece of noir and I loved it.

I thought, therefore, it was time to foray into my second Dard novella, and so picked out the latest release – The Gravediggers’ Bread. It was as fascinating as the blurb promised and it is safe to say that Dard has clearly been quite the find for Pushkin Press.

Gravedigger's bread
Pushkin Vertigo Edition

When the book opens Blaise Delange – unemployed and down-on-luck –  is standing outside a phone booth waiting to place a call to his friend. Blaise has arrived in a small town to interview for a job at a rubber factory only to realise that the position has already been taken.

Finally the phone booth opens and a woman emerges from it…

In reality, the person for whom I stood aside was a woman of around thirty, slim, blonde, with blue eyes that were slightly too large.

 If she had lived in Paris she would have possessed the thing she most lacked, namely a certain sense of elegance.

Once Blaise is through with his call, he notices a wallet in the booth, left there by the woman. A closer inspection reveals 8,000 francs, the woman’s identity card, and another man’s photo.

There is nothing to stop Blaise from claiming the money; there’s no one around, he has already lost out on a job opportunity and here is lady luck giving him a consolation prize.

But he cannot get the woman out of his mind. And so rather than keep the money, he decides to return it to her.

Meanwhile, both he and the reader learn that the woman’s name is Germaine Castain and she is married to a man old enough to be her father, Achille Castain.

Achille Castain runs an undertaker business and is the funerals director so to speak.

“I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.”

When Blaise returns the wallet to Germaine, he manages to keep her out of trouble, and somehow also gains Achille’s trust. Achille offers him a job as a salesman, which Blaise accepts.

And that is how Blaise comes to stay in the town becoming quite adept at selling coffins and funeral services being quite the opportunist. It also gives him a chance to stay close to Germaine with whom he has fallen in love.

It gradually comes to Blaise’s realization that all is not hunky dory in Achille and Germaine’s marriage. Also, Germaine is keeping some kind of a secret that annoys Blaise greatly.

That’s the bare outline of the plot and I will not reveal more.

How will Blaise win Germaine over, while she is still married to Achille? How is it all going to end?

At 157 pages, The Gravediggers’ Bread is a tense, taut and riveting novella that keeps you on the edge as the ill-fated pair – Blaise and Germaine – seeks to outrun Fate. But will they succeed?

Dard has etched his characters quite well. He has successfully created an atmosphere that is bleak and claustrophobic and yet compelling and fascinating.

For all that he is unemployed; Blaise displays a flair for his new role as a salesman. There is one scene particularly, which stands out. This is when he accompanies Achille to meet his first client. Achille thinks it’s important to understand the psyche of his clientele, which he believes is the key to figure out what type of coffins will eventually sell. For Blaise that’s a passive strategy. He is bold and outspoken and chooses instead to address their clients’ hidden emotions and aspirations to make a sale.

Blaise is not just blunt and direct in his job, but also when he is conversing with Germaine to whom he frankly tells what’s on his mind. After all, despite his dubious character, he remains strangely a hopeless romantic.

Germaine, meanwhile, marries Achille because of a troubled past. And some bizarre need to stick to scruples makes her hang on to her husband even when he physically abuses her.

Achille Castain is an old brute; vicious, suspicious and a wife beater.

The Gravediggers’ Bread then is classic noir fare – obsession and murder at its heart – and with enough twists and turns (all done rather well) to keep the pages turning and make you race feverishly towards the end.

I loved Bird in a Cage, and thought The Gravediggers’ Bread was even better. I have four more Dards to look forward to and hope the Pushkin Vertigo imprint keeps more translations coming!

Translation credits from the French go to Melanie Florence.

Ice – Anna Kavan

I had meaning to read Anna Kavan – specifically Ice – for quite some time now but the tags ‘science fiction’ and ‘difficult book’ probably made me hesitant. But then I saw new versions of this novel being released by Peter Owen Classics and Penguin Modern Classics. These brilliant covers finally gave me the push I needed.

And as I kept turning the pages, I had to admit that all my prejudices were unfounded. Indeed, it dawned on me that to simply label Ice as science fiction was plain lazy, because there is so much more going on. Anyway, to cut a long story short; I absolutely loved Ice.

Ice Peter Owen
Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

Ice is one of those books that are easy to read but difficult to write about.

Here’s what Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote in a foreword to the book:

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a work of literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type.

Essentially it’s a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred.

When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves.

I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar.

We learn that the narrator and this girl were seeing each other in earlier days, although for a brief period.

I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection.

There’s more to her…

Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.

We then learn that she suddenly ditches the narrator and marries another man. The narrator goes to meet the couple at their home, and sees that she remains in a state of terror and submission in the marriage as well.

Later the husband tells the narrator that the girl has escaped, and from then onwards, the narrator decides to make his quest for finding the girl his sole purpose, above anything else.

This is also where the novel begins to take on a dream like quality, and as a reader you are strangely compelled to go along with the flow rather than try to make any sense of it.

Throughout the book, the sequence keeps on repeating…the narrator boards a ship, he reaches a town where he sees the girl only to lose her again.

For instance, in the initial pages, the narrator reaches an unnamed town and gathers that it is governed by the Warden, a powerful and brutal man. He knows that the girl is with him and makes a request to see her, but his efforts prove futile.

It’s a recurring pattern, as the girl continues to remain elusive. And yet, the narrator can’t let go of her. He wants to find her at all cost, even when during some moments of rationality, he acknowledges that he needs to abandon this desperate need to go after her.

Ice then is a tale of male obsession and desire, also giving us an uncomfortable glimpse into female objectification.

It’s a book that is disorienting and defies logic and that is precisely its strength. It’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not.

Ice also has streaks of science fiction elements running through it. The world Kavan has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice. It is a world on the brink of an apocalypse. It’s also in the description of this environment, where Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers…

She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice-walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. 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.

And here…

Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling lava had poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path.

There are many set pieces in this novel each with more or less the same result, but it’s where Kavan’s writing clearly excels. One such section to me was quite hypnotic. It was when on learning about the ice catastrophe, the Warden flees his country and forces the girl to go with him.

It was incomprehensible to her, this extraordinary flight that went on and on. The forest went on forever, the silence went on and on. The snow stopped, but the cold went on and even increased, as if some icy exudation from the black trees congealed beneath them. Hour after hour passed before a little reluctant daylight filtered down through the roof of branches, revealing nothing but gloomy masses of firs, dead and living trees tangled together, a dead bird often caught in the branches, as if the tree had caught it deliberately.

Ice Penguin Modern
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)

Just as Ice is an incredibly fascinating read so is its author’s profile. Kavan was married twice and once her second marriage ended, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns for which she was confined to a clinic in Switzerland.

Kavan also suffered bouts of mental illness and was addicted to heroin for a considerable period. In a sense, there are influences of this in her novels. The hallucinatory effect of Ice probably corresponds to the unreal, surreal world that exists for a drug addict.

Given that Ice refuses to follow conventional norms of fiction or storytelling, it is challenging to define it. But if you are willing to accept its arbitrariness, and its strangeness, then the experience of reading it is as exhilarating as any whiff of joint.

Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing.