Mercury by Anna Kavan
Review by S. D. Stewart
Posthumously published by Peter Owen, this novel is considered by some readers to be an early draft of Kavan’s most well-known novel Ice, or if not a draft, simply a lesser version of that book. However, while there are obvious parallels to Ice, Mercury is very much its own story, sometimes filling in gaps found in Ice, serving almost as a companion piece, and other times showing us a different perspective on an identical or near-identical scene from Ice.
One main difference between the two books is that Kavan spends considerably more time in Mercury developing the male character, known here as Luke. In fact, a central theme is Luke’s struggle with his divergent feelings toward the girl Luz (or, light); on one hand, he thinks that he loves her, and on the other hand, whenever he gets close enough to observe her, he is soon possessed by a sadistic urge to either see her harmed or harm her himself. This often manifests itself in the form of a dream, vision, or hallucination. Luke sees Luz, like the unnamed girl in Ice, as a perpetual victim (“everything about her suggests a predestined victim”), whereas Luz sees Luke as the man who will either save or destroy her, presumably depending on the outcome of his own inner battle, which she may or may not be aware of. Hence, the tension of the book pivots on the shifting nature of both characters’ interpretations of the others’ intentions.
Luke experiences the desire of “possessing her fully, as he never has done.” It is possible to interpret his concurrent urges toward sadism and bondage as the result of this frustrated inability to possess her, the idea of “if I can’t have her, no one should,” a not uncommon male reaction to the “woman out of reach,” at least in terms of thought, if not action. Luke is fighting this urge, “the sadism he detested so much but could never eradicate.” As the reader sees both Luz and Luke appear in different locations around a world on the verge of ecological collapse, this constant push and pull between the two drives the disjointed plot forward, with Luke getting closer to finding Luz, even as he approaches an understanding of his violent urges toward her.
Kavan writes Luz as very much defined by the men around her. She is an ideal for Luke, and as such cannot be attained, which fuels his violence. She is a model for her painter husband, who eventually grows to detest her when he has exhausted his use for her. She is a sexual object for the pirate-faced man. She is a sacrifice to the dragon for the townspeople. She only ever serves as an instrument, a means to an end. Yet she is still an individual, and she longs for a better life. However, by burying Luz’s individuality beneath her victim role, Kavan challenges readers to look beyond the obvious and see the person behind the perceptions of the men who exploit and idealize her. Kavan serves up a similar challenge in her novel Who Are You?, which also shares themes and character dynamics with Ice.
The final few chapters do much to explicate the themes, some of which have appeared only in smudged forms beforehand. As the suspense builds, there is a degree of enlightenment in the minds of both characters as to the true nature of their relationship, but it remains ambiguous enough to hold up to multiple interpretations.
There were sections and aspects of the book that recall some of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s fictional work. In this way, it shares common ground with Who Are You?. There is one particular scene of “the girl” performing a dance in a small theater, which strongly invokes R-G’s cinematic prose style laced with the vague menace of violence, specifically bondage and sadism.
As to which novel would be best to read first, Mercury or Ice, it’s hard to say. Ultimately it may not matter, but it is certainly worth considering them together alongside each other, for there are innumerable threads to connect between the two texts.