Review: Possession by A.S. Byatt

He had been taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself.

It’s quite difficult not to be impressed with (and, upon the first few pages, intimidated by) this hefty little thing, with its amazing scholarship and spectacular writing. As a matter of fact, I’ve never come across a novel like this, with its poems and its letters and its diaries and its fairy-tales. This is what I’d call literature with a capital “L,” so much so that you almost feel you have to genuflect before it every time you pick it up.

The story has to do with a contemporary English “Ash” scholar, who discovers while poking around in the dusty old library what appear to be drafts of heretofore undiscovered love letters, written in the hand of Randolph Ash, a fictionalized major English Victorian poet — perhaps on a par with Browning or Tennyson — and wasn’t known to have had a relationship with any other woman than his wife. After a little detective work, our scholar, Roland Mitchell, discovers the identity of Ash’s love interest, who it turns out was also a poet — the fictionalized Christabel LaMotte. With the help of a female LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey, the two then begin an odyssey of literary discovery, uncovering truths in the lives of these literary giants whom they have spent their young lives studying. To add density to this already dense plot is some suspense, in that other, less-altruistic scholars appear to be on their heels, and there is also the smoldering love interest between these two.

Possession is a very complex story but what is truly remarkable about this novel is that Byatt has also added large chunks of these poets’ literary works. There are numerous lengthy poems by both Ash and LaMotte. There are some of LaMotte’s stories. There are the letters themselves, written in Victorian prose, and comprising about fifty pages worth of text. There is part of the diary written by Ash’s wife. And finally, there is a lengthy diary written by LaMotte’s cousin, which solves one mystery and opens a door to another.

I really could not be bothered with going through and analyzing the poetry, could not be bothered with its barrage of riddles and symbols and legends and myths, with each poet displaying a distinct obscure style, talking about and alluding to an even obscurer range of subjects. The letters also, which begin in a somewhat dry, mock-Victorian way, eventually become more and more tiresome to read, despite their being critical to the story. But despite all these, these literary creations add a great deal to what you know of Ash and LaMotte, illuminating their character and making them more complex. Difficult as they are, it is through their works alone that you come to understanding them, and to feeling a great deal of empathy for them.

Possession is a novel which works on many different levels: there is the juxtaposition of the manners and morals of today compared with those of 150 or so years ago; there is the competition in the trenches of Academe; there is the suspenseful plot; there is the beauty of the epistles and essays and the letters themselves; and finally, most incredibly, you see how the poems themselves function as metaphors for both the newly discovered love between Ash and Christabel, and the burgeoning love exhibited by those who followed them. It is also a treatise on art, how it is created, and what in the human heart occasionally allows it to flourish. Possession, which I initially took for a romance in its most general sense, is certainly that: a romance. But it is also much, much more.

It is an emblematic postmodern novel in which texts, authors, literary movements of the past are transformed and reflected; they are presented in the form of metafictional narrative, of rewriting, of parody and pastiche, giving them a reinterpretation and recoding in a totally different cultural and literary context. The book is a tremendous undertaking of style and verve, a romance on two levels, a metafiction, and a bizarre detective story all rolled into one.

The novel’s subtitle – A Romance – points to its architextual relations with the genre of the romance and guides you into the reception and interpretation of Byatt’s novel as a romance. However, the metatextual layer testifies to Byatt’s novel being a postmodern double-coded text: it is both the imitation of the romance and Victorian poetry as well as their critical reconsideration and reappraisal from the perspective of the contemporary context. It is metafiction in which the writer resorts to parody, pastiche and the narrative destabilizing intertextuality, the moves which foreground fictiveness.

It seems to me that it is possible to detect the Byatt’s ambivalence towards and unease about the postmodern, inscribed in the novel’s text. I think that it’s possible that Byatt’s play with conventions of metafiction, the use of parody and pastiche which is one of the most important features of postmodern art, are instrumental in the construction of the postmodern, on the other hand, this postmodern move eventually results in the critique and deconstruction of postmodernism itself. Byatt’s parody is also very explicitly directed at the modern critical theories, particularly post-structuralism and feminist criticism.

Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects – all the time – and I suppose one studies – I study – literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful – as though we held a clue to the true nature of things?

It is a truly complex, intricate and multilayered novel both in terms of its structure and themes, blatantly intertextual and can be read through other texts incorporated into the author’s narrative, referring to transtextual relations.

The novel’s thematic complexity is programmed in its paratext – the title and two epigraphs. The twofold possession implicated in the title and defining the duality of presentation and interpretation saturates and connects the past and the present as well as two plot stories: the novel features the Victorian and present-day lovers possessed by love and passion for each other as well as for poetry; on the other hand, it parodies contemporary academics, literary scholars, and biographers possessed by the object of their search and research. Sparing no effort to find the missing manuscripts of a famous 19th century poet, in their maniacal search they resort to any, even the most unscrupulous means, for the sake of their academic career.

There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are – I believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings that 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 of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully congisant of, our knowledge.

With all that said, be prepared to be patient. I certainly was not. The plot stops dead, often, and you are suddenly confronted with forty or fifty pages of diaries filled with oblique references, digressions filled with much scholarship, or six pages of some epic poem that take forever to get through. Take a break if you must, but don’t skip over them. Read them. Take your time doing so, and in the end you will find that it has been a very rewarding experience.

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