Saturday, April 25, 2009

23 March 2009 – 23 April 2009 : Possession by A. S. Byatt

Byatt and her works were previously unknown to me.
Last Winter however, as I was reading several “Booker” winners one after the other, Possession appeared in the 2009 Folio Society catalogue. It was a beautiful edition, illustrated by Rowena Dugdale and I just ticked this choice on the order form.

A short investigation on the web presented Byatt as a “party pooper” and “fun spoiler” because in an article in the New York Times she dared to say that the JK Rowling books were 'for people with stunted imaginations'. She adds and I quote the article: “Ms Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip." And even better : “Byatt believed adults had become fans ( of HP ) because the books allowed them to regress into the comfort zone of childhood”.

Ok, now that Byatt has all my sympathy, what is her book Possession about?

It is her best known novel, winner of the Booker Prize in 1990 and listed by Time magazine as part of the top 100 Best English-language Novels.

What is it about?

While researching the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash in the British Library, a young and still unknown scholar, Dr. Roland Michell, discovers two drafts of a letter written by the poet , which indicate that the married Ash had an unknown romance with a mysterious lady.

Such a discovery could make Roland’s reputation in the academic world. He steals the letters and begins to investigate the identity of the young mysterious woman. He soon finds out that the letters are adressed to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash.
With the help of Dr. Maud Bailey, a modern LaMotte scholar and relative of LaMotte's family, Roland works himself trough more letters, diaries, poems, notes in order to unfold the details of this mysterious relationship.
While Roland and Maud are investigating together the amourous relationship between Ash and LaMotte, their own involvment becomes more personal and they are drawn to each other. Their emerging relationship strangely parallels the love of the two (fictional) nineteenth century poets in to whom they are researching,.
Their investigation draws soon attention from rival colleagues and the academic investigation becomes fast a race of the different Academic factions to discover the truth. This truth is finally disclosed in a grand Gothic scenery, in an opened grave, in an old churchyard in the middle of an Apocalyptic storm.
Byatt knows her subject well.

The story of the Victorian lovers is told through letters, poems, classic third-person narration, diaries, epigraphs, biographies, studies and even academic footnotes. The author switches convincingly between past and present-day literary styles, rhythms and word-use. She actually creates the art of the fictional Victorian poets who are investigated.
A real “tour de force” but it makes difficult reading as the pace of narration constantly changes.
I felt often like in a traffic jam, which advances slowly, then speeds up to come to a full stop 100 m further.

Besides being a literary detective story and a moving love story there are other topics too.
The rat race for the lost letters and diaries for example is actually quite funny.
Byatt is satirizing the competitive atmosphere of the academic world. The different factions chasing the truth are caricatures of different currents of critical approaches of literature. There are the Feminists, the Formalists, the Biographers and even the obsessive Collectors who would rob a grave to get what they want.

Finally there is the concept of possession, which makes up the title of the book. The book brings us to think about ownership and independence between the lover and the beloved, between the biographer and his subject and between the academic and his study topic. Who possesses whom?

Unfortunately, I find the book lacks “life”. At practically no moment are the present day characters coming “off the paper”. Like their study subjects they remain two-dimensional.
Besides that, Possession is a good read and a sure recommendation for bookish people.

Finally for a more detailed review see:
When There Was Such a Thing as Romantic Love: review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt