Monday, 6 June 2016

Review: Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt

Two academics specialised in 19th century poets discover a pile of old letters. Sessions of analysis, cross-reference and furious filling of index cards ensue.

That is basically the premise of "Possession". Either you think it makes a terribly dull book or you think it’s awesome and can’t wait to read it.

I fall into the latter category. Even after all the literary analysis classes, which, more often than not, left me feeling something like this...

...yes, even after all that, I found this book fascinating.

Right. Two academics come across certain letters that have lain hidden since the 19th century. They turn out to be a correspondence between the poets whom the two scholars have devoted their careers to: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. It was not known that the two were in any way connected. What were they to one another? The answer might change the entire scholarship!

There are two storylines: a historical one and a more contemporary one. The contemporary storyline is mostly told in "normal" narrative prose, while the historical one is narrated mostly through letters, poems, diaries, folk tales etc. Since the poets are fictional, A. S. Byatt has written the poems in the 19th century style - I can't say how well they imitate the fashion of that time, I'm not that familiar with it, but they could have fooled me. And that is not all: the prose also has something of a poetic quality, the language is beautiful and the sentences have this unique... rhythm.

It’s true that you can’t call this book fast-paced. There are no thrilling action scenes; much of the action happens on paper and/or inside the characters’ heads. There’s plenty of tension, however – I found that my heart was galloping when the rival researcher team was about to get important information into their hands! And there is even a bit of grave-robbing involved, which is unexpected yet fitting, considering the 19th century Gothic influences. Since the scholars hunt for clues about these two poets in order to piece together their life stories, one could even claim that the novel resembles a detective story. As one of the characters remarks: "Literary critics make natural detectives."

The title also says "Romance". Do not, however, expect this to be anything you find in the “romance” section in a bookstore (actually, I can’t be entirely sure about that since I’ve only made the mistake of buying those books a couple of times – historical romances, which should be perfect for me but for whatever reason just aren’t). There is love, though, passion and tragedy – however, I would also, or even primarily, read this novel as a love affair with reading, books, writing, literature...

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones on fire, like points of stars in the dark...”

I’ll admit that what made the book particularly interesting for me was that two of the main characters were writers. Another thing that I found fascinating was Christabel LaMotte's struggle with a woman’s role in the 19th century – being a female poet (being recognised as a poet) and gaining and maintaining her independence weren't exactly easy.

There’s a layer upon layer upon layer here; you’re reading a story within a story within a story (sometimes I lost count). And of course there’s more than enough symbolism, metaphors, allegory, intertextuality etc. etc. I’ll have to admit that I had a feeling that I would have enjoyed the novel even more had I possessed a greater knowledge about 19th century poetry or literature in general. I’m sure there were references that I missed because I’m no expert. I'm aware that quite a many academic papers, essays, studies and analyses have been written about "Possession" itself – I'm not attempting to do anything like that here (after all, my most common excuse for reading is pleasure and entertainment), but literary analyses about a book that is, at least partly, about literary analysis... just the kind of thing that amuses me!

The author gently makes fun of academics and the sometimes rather peculiar topics of their studies. How important is it, after all, to analyse the scribblings of long-since dead poets? One might also distinguish certain criticism towards literary criticism. Isn’t it always a matter of interpretation, after all (I refer back to the image I posted above)? And when our sources are letters, diaries, other texts, don’t they give us a very incomplete picture of a person? How well can we ever truly know anyone? The book also raises certain ethical questions, such as, is it acceptable to read private correspondence (even decades after the authors of the letters passed away)? How far are we prepared to go in our quest for knowledge... or in our will to possess?

There is a film based on the book – I’ve seen it, but I don’t actually remember anything about it. I’ll have to watch it again; it’ll be interesting to see how such a complex book works on film.

I definitely enjoyed "Possession" and am happy to have discovered it – quite unexpectedly. I had added the book to my TBR list on Goodreads, then found it in our local little library by accident! I never even thought to look if they have it, since their collection of English books is rather small. I was reaching for another book entirely, when I saw that there was something familiar about the book right next to it...

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