Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Possession" by A.S. Byatt (book review)

I have just read Possession, A.S. Byatt’s expansive novel about love (the lover possessed by the beloved), about biographical-historical-literary scholarship (the biographer possessed by his / her subject), and other forms of possession, including 19th-century parlor-room “spirituality” (subject of a poem within the novel called The Mummy Possest), sexual jealousy, and a beautiful women’s fear of becoming the possession of her would-be lover. The kind of possession that I experienced while reading it was a kind of obsession, where the book took hold of my mind and would hardly let me put it down. This novel is over 500 pages long, but I read it in the space of a week. I found the ending so touching – the Postscript of 3 pages dated 1868 – that I cried when I finished it. Long before I came to the end of the novel, I entertained thoughts of re-reading it immediately (though I won’t right now because I can’t spare the time!).

I only just learned about A.S. Byatt a few months ago when a friend asked us to read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye for book group – a short story that blew me away, by the way. Only since then have I become aware of what an important writer Byatt is, and have noticed that so many of my literary friends have read Possession; it was even on the list of “100 books everyone should read” that recently circulated on Facebook. By now the novel is 20 years old. Boy, did I feel like a Johnny-come-lately. How can I presume to write a review of this novel? Surely hundreds of reviews have been written about it already – the author won the 1990 Booker Prize, and received lots of laudatory comments from prestigious journals blurbed on the back cover. I have read none of those reviews, nor do I want to. However, I will try to do more than just gush about how AMAZING I thought this novel was and how much I LOVED reading it.

Although I hadn’t read this novel before, I had a persistent sense of déjà vu as I read. If I found out that I actually HAD read it and forgotten completely, I wouldn’t be surprised; it had such a familiar feeling. Plus I was able to easily guess the big surprise ending – though I imagine its obviousness is intentional on the author’s part. I think I must have seen the film, not in any very memorable way, perhaps on an airplane some years ago. That must be the explanation. But another aspect of the novel’s familiarity is that it fits in squarely with a certain genre – a pseudo-historical detective story, and I am thinking specifically of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (which I only listened to as a “books on tape” recording) and Headlong by Michael Frayn, a novel about the discovery of a possible Brueghel painting in a dilapidated English country house.

Byatt’s novel is far superior to both those others. The most impressive thing about Possession is the range of narrative voices and literary genres Byatt assumes as its author, creating so very many authors within this weighty text, providing each of them with a unique voice, some in several genres. I am impressed by the combination of talent, skill, versatility, and perseverance that allowed her to master all these voices and genres. Here’s a list, though not complete:

1. Randolph Henry Ash, 19th-century poet; genres: poetry, letters
2. Christabel LaMotte, 19th-century poet; genres: poetry, letters, fairy tales (prose)
3. Blanche Glover, Christabel’s domestic partner; genres: diary, letters, will / suicide note
4. Mortimer Cropper, 20th-century American biographer of Ash; genres: biography, autobiography, public lecture
5. Ellen Ash, Randolph’s wife; genre: diary
6. Leonora Stern, 20th-century American literary scholar; genre: literary criticism
7. James Blackadder, 20th-century English literary scholar; genre: scholarly text
8. Sabine de Kercoz, 19th-century Breton (French) cousin of Christabel LaMotte; genre: diary
9. Hella Lees, 19th-century London spiritualist; genre: memoir
10. Gode, 19th-century Breton servant in the Kercoz household; genre: ghost story (set down by Sabine de Kercoz in her diary)

Cropper’s biography of Ash in the novel is entitled The Great Ventriloquist, but the nickname is appropriate to A.S. Byatt herself. Curiously enough, we never see anything written by Maud or by Roland, the joint protagonists of the novel, both of whom are published academics.

In addition to these fictitious characters, Byatt quotes a wide range of authors from Wordsworth to Freud to Milton. Perhaps the most admirable accomplishment of the novel is Byatt’s quite lengthy poems, which imitate Victorian poetry quite convincingly. She seems to revel in the epic form – Milton is clearly one of her favorite poets, she also quoted him in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – and Christable LaMotte’s epic poem The Fairy Melusine resonates with medieval chivalric romance like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

My favorite passage, though, was Byatt’s short meditation on the pleasures of reading. Some readers might not like her self-consciousness about literary processes – but to a certain extent, that’s what the whole novel is about, the process of becoming a writer, of finding one’s voice, whether as a poet, a novelist, or a scholar. I will quote from the novel at length; this is from Chapter 26:

“It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex. Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force, the green-flecked gold omelette aux fines herbes, melting into buttery formlessness and tasting of summer, or the creamy human haunch, firm and warm, curved back to reveal a hot hollow, a crisping hair or two, the glimpsed sex. They do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading….And yet, natures such as Roland’s are at their most alert and heady when reading is violently yet steadily alive. (What an amazing word ‘heady’ is, en passant, suggesting both acute sensuous alertness and its opposite, the pleasure of the brain as opposed to the viscera – though each is implicated in the other, as we know very well, with both, when they are working.)

“Think of this, as Roland thought of it, rereading ‘The Garden of Proserpina’ for perhaps the twelfth, or maybe even the twentieth time, a poem he ‘knew’ in the sense that he had already experienced all its words, in their order, and also out of order, in memory, in selective quotation or misquotation – in the sense also, that he could predict, at times even recite, those words which were next to come, or more remotely approaching, the place where his mind rested, like clawed bird feet on twig. Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other….”

(To me these 4 paragraphs were the climax of the novel, though still a couple chapters away from the final denouement; I omit one full paragraph, and give you this final one in full:)

“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 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 recognized, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.”

Here Byatt seemed to be responding to the sense of déjà vu I felt as I read her novel, the sense of familiarity that sprang from it. Maybe it’s the idea that all stories have existed before, they’re just being retold over and over, and what’s remarkable about them is the author’s ability to inflect them in her own unique way. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye was remarkable for its retelling of classic stories – the genie in the bottle story, and many others. In Possession, Christabel tells her young cousin Sabine (an aspiring writer): “All old stories, my cousin, will bear telling and telling again in different ways. What is required is to keep alive, to polish, the simple clean forms of the tale which must be there…and yet to add something of yours, of the writer, which makes all these things seem new and first seen, without having been appropriated for private or personal ends.”

One aspect of the story is troubling, and that is Byatt’s treatment of the lesbian relationship between LaMotte and Glover. LaMotte throws off her long-standing arrangement with Glover to be with Ash only for a month, or a summer (we don’t know exactly how long it is, maybe 6 weeks). She spends the rest of her life alone and grieving the losses of both. The privileging of the heterosexual relationship over the homosexual one is not uncommon in novels, and perhaps this too helps account for the sense of déjà vu.

On another level Byatt satirizes academia and the competitive scholars who go to extreme lengths to possess knowledge, or even to possess relics of the dead poets they study. She also makes forays into critiquing the critical theories they employ – feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction. Maud tells an older female scholar, “The whole of our scholarship – the whole of our thought – we question everything except the centrality of sexuality – Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology myself.” Maud seems weary of the emphasis on sexuality, and skeptical of scholarship that relies so heavily on it. Byatt herself, in the lengthy passage I quoted, wants to call our attention to the pleasures of the mind, of reading, as opposed to the sensual pleasures. Yet, at the heart of this novel , which is ostensibly about poetry and literature in general, the plot revolves around sex: the sexual relationship between two long-dead poets, as well as in the lives of the other characters, living and dead. I can hardly say more without spoiling the novel for you, so I will just urge you to read it.

Note: The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is the title both of a long and engrossing story by Byatt, AND of the collection in which the story is published – along with 4 other stories. As I read Possession, I discovered that at least two of the other stories from The Djinn (possibly three) were originally published as part of Possession, embedded in its narrative. These include “The Glass Coffin” and Gode’s story about the little dancing thing. I don’t understand the logic behind their republication as stand-alone stories.

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