It is dark at 5 p.m., and I don’t deal well with the dark. Every winter, I struggle with the gloom and the cold. Thank God the Winter Solstice is almost here, so we can look forward to the return of lighter days. Meanwhile, turn on the lights, drink some wine, and get in the winter mood by reading wintry books.
FIVE WINTRY BOOKS & AN ODE.
1. Ice by Anna Kavan. Kavan, an English writer who became addicted to heroin during a stay in the hospital in the 1930s, has a reputation as a “cult” writer. In her famous novel, Ice, the world is on the brink of an icy nuclear war, and the narrator is searching for a mysterious, fragile girl who has eluded her two male pursuers, the narrator and her husband (who thinks she is in need of psychiatric treatment). For those of us who’ve read Kavan’s biography, it is obvious that the fragile girl is based on Kavan, who charmed men but rejected them in favor of heroin. The narrator of Ice tells us, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.” Lyrical prose and a weird trip through a winter world.
2. The Silent Land by Graham Joyce. The plot of this eerie novel is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife. Zoe and Jake are on an expensive skiing holiday. One morning they are on the mountain before anyone else, and then there is an avalanche. Zoe is buried upside down and there is only a small pocket of air. They make it back to the hotel, which is eerily empty, and have all the food they need, but every time they try to leave the village they cannot get beyond a point. What is happening? Are they dead? This novel is brilliant beyond description.
3. In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende. In this gorgeously written novel, Allende deftly interweaves the complex narratives of two Latin American women and an American man. The book commences during a blizzard that shuts down New York. Sixty-two-year-old Lucia, a visiting lecturer at NYU from Chile, is freezing in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, cuddled up with Marcelo, her Chihuahua, and wondering why Richard, her cheap landlord and boss at NYU, doesn’t turn up the heat. Lucia is a warm, optimistic woman who still hopes to find love, despite her husband’s desertion of her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is also dealing with the recent loss of her mother, and the decades-old anguish over her brother’s disappearance after the 1973 coup in Chile. When Lucia and Richard encounter a Guatemalan refugee, they take a drive in a blizzard to save her from her homicidal employer.
4. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I never appreciated this Nobel-winning classic until I read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s elegant translation in 2010. Talk about winter: this brilliant realistic novel has more snowy scenes than you’re likely to endure in the Arctic in the age of global warning. Doctor Yuri Zhivago, an idealist, doctor, and poet, does what he needs to survive the Russian Revolution but is separated from his family and conscripted as an army doctor. He also struggles with his love for Lara, a teacher who is the wife of a fanatical revolutionary. Utterly breathtaking, history, romance, and snow.
5. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. In this award-winning science fiction novel, the soldier narrator, Breq, has trouble identifying gender, and is on a special mission in search of a special antique gun. The book opens like a noir western: on a winter planet (a nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), Breq finds a body in the snow: it is Seivarden, a person he used to know and didn’t like. Seivarden’s body, frozen for 1,000 years after a disaster, was recently rediscovered and thawed. She is a drug addict who will sell anything she can find for drugs. Breq understands her tragic history: she refused “re-education” and turned to drugs after she was suddenly awakened and found herself in a world she didn’t understand. The two form a strange alliance. You won’t be able to stop turning the pages.
7. And as a bonus, here is Dryden’s translation of one of Horace’s odes about winter, Ode I.X
Behold yon mountain’s hoary height
Made higher with new mounts of snow:
Again behold the winter’s weight
Oppress the labouring woods below’
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.
With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
And spritely wit and love inspires;
For what hereafter shall betide
God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.
Let Him alone with what He made,
To toss and turn the world below;
At His command the storms invade,
The winds by His commission blow;
Till with a nod He bids them cease
And then the calm returns and all is peace.
Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.
Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign
And hides but to be found again –
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.