Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review - A.S. Byatt's Possession

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1990
Format: Paperback, 555 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Roland Michell is an academic with very limited options. He's toiling away researching the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash while living off his girlfriend, who he doesn't much care for, in a cat pee soaked apartment, when everything changes. Roland finds an unknown letter that Ash wrote to a female that might just be Roland's lucky break. He traces the correspondence to a Christabel LaMotte, who was an almost unknown female poet at the same time as Ash, and who is the darling of feminist academia. Roland approaches the preeminent scholar on LaMotte, Maud Bailey, directly, circumventing his own department in some odd impulse to keep his discovery to himself. What the two of them find is rather interesting and will change the presumed histories of the two poets drastically. Everyone has always assumed that Ash was happily married, though sadly childless, and that LaMotte was a lesbian living with the painter Blanche Glover. But their letters to each other prove that this is anything but the case. Slowly unravelling the past while trying to keep the present at bay, Roland and Maud are gripped by a fever to find the truth of what really happened to two people over a hundred years ago.

Most people who know me now are shocked to discover that I wasn't always a reader. I didn't read much, I didn't like school and was a bad student, and I mainly watched movies. Somewhere along the way that completely reversed itself. This has had the effect that I always feel like I'm playing catchup. I'm always trying to read what others consider "standard" or "classic" books. In fact I only heard about A.S. Byatt because of the movie version of Possession. While I have said before that I have this inbuilt need to read the book before seeing the movie, in the early days of my discovering authors, a movie adaptation would help to introduce me to authors I might never have found on my own. Hence me and Possession. I too have the copy with The Beguiling of Merlin by Burne-Jones on the cover but with that lovely "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture" sticker firmly planted above Merlin's head.

I had no expectations going into this book the first time, but I was sorely disappointed. I've never been the biggest fan of poetry, and that is a bit of an issue when reading a book about poets. To paraphrase Possessions own words, poetry is a love of words where prose is a love of story, of narration. I have always loved stories, if the words are well chosen, then it adds something more, but I do not rhapsodize or wax nostalgic over the rhythm and flow of words. The epic poems of Ash and LaMotte were just sections to be read hastily for clues before the plot resumed. All this and more meant I just didn't connect and was left dissatisfied. I remember finishing the book on a warm Sunday in May and feeling this need to do something to alleviate this want in me. I met my friend Sara and we went to a movie, but all the while I was thinking about how Possession had let me down. I had that itch under my skin when you've spent so much time on something and it just doesn't work out in the end. It's a dissatisfaction on such a huge scale that it's almost like having a panic attack. Later that summer after seeing the disastrous movie adaptation with my most hated of actors, Aaron Eckhart, I knew the book could have been far worse, in the way that I knew I would come back one day to this book and try to find the connection that I had felt wanting the first time.

Possession the second time around was a far better read. I understood more what Byatt was trying to do and more of her literary allusions weren't over my head. But more importantly, I feel like I now possess the language to say why it was the book left me cold in the first place. I can now identify and name that itch under my skin and relieve it through critique. Possession starts with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's preface to his book The House of Seven Gables asking for clemency for his book's adherence to the standards and tropes of the Romance genre. He begs the reader to allow latitude in his predictability and lack of realism. By using this quote Byatt is also asking us to forgive her using the same tropes of the Romance genre, with a capital "R". There are two problems inherent in this "confession". Firstly, as an artist I was taught that you never make excuses or apologize for your work. As far as the viewer, or reader in Byatt's case, is concerned, this is the best freakin' thing that has ever been done and you need to sell it as such. If you start out with an apology you are basically telling someone that there is a flaw in the work and it is human nature to search out that flaw.

This is a flawed book, it is by no means perfect. The predictability of the story with the absurd ending that you could see a mile off was my second and ultimately main problem with Possession. Going back to the Hawthorne quote I wonder if Byatt chose this quote not to give a historic literary connection between her and Hawthorne, but to apologize for her work, by writing the quote Hawthorne himself has thankfully already apologized for the abysmal The House of Seven Gables. As I've said before, no excuses, no apology, even if you really need to make one, giving one makes you look weak. You can't justify your work being subpar by saying it's the genre that made me do it. Was it the genre that made the book have unlikable passionless characters whose connection and attraction is initially based on the mind but devolves into a physical passion that still has this weird cold and unfeeling vibe? No, that was you who did that. That was your writing, not the genre. As for the rapidity of time making things obsolete... well, that's no one's fault. This book feels dated, more so then when I read it twelve years ago, and it's not just the lack of computers and the prevalence of copy machines, but the very change in the nature and meaning of language. Glory Holes have a far far different universal connotation now... I'm hoping Byatt was aware of this then lesser used definition when she was writing the book in the eighties...

But for everything that this book does wrong, it does get things right. I love the Victorian time period, and in specific I love seances. I like both the idea that they could possibly be real, but also the intricacies of chicanery that the false mediums created in order to fool their marks. I even went to a photography exhibition years ago at the MET that was supposed proof from the time of the veracity of spirits... let's put it this way, they had the original Cottingley Fairies, so, that's the level of truth in these photographs. But what interested me in Possession was that it was posited that these seances are in some way a replacement for storytelling. The beginning of the beloved television show The Storyteller was right in that "people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, [and] foretold the future with stories." Stories were a faith. Mythology and folktales are part of us. But in Victorian England, so much advancement in such a little time was stripping away the foundations of faith. Such searching and questioning changed the world. People needed a new way to search for the meaning of life, and for some that came in the form of seances. They needed to know that life had meaning and they were searching for it beyond the vale. Ash and LaMotte are both curious and questioning individuals, it makes sense that they, as artists, would not only embrace the old ways but also the new. These two ways, through language and planchette, unite the very human needs across the generations to quench the thirst for knowledge, a thirst that is then taken up in the "present" by Roland and Maud and unifies the book not only in it's own narratives but to our own lives.


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