Possession: A Romance
| A. S. Byatt | 1990 | 555 pages
Sometimes you read a book so dense and satisfying, so thematically rich and formally interesting, so passionate and well researched and astute, that its merits are too manifold to enumerate. Possession
is a panoply of contrasts that never feel contradictory: while postmodern in form, it unabashedly adopts Romance tropes to implicitly criticize postmodernism; though situated in two very different time periods (modern and Victorian England), it discerns how similar the human struggles and aspirations of those eras can be; it satirizes academia and literary theory while possessing an admiration for scholars and a compassion for their peculiarities.
The plot is straightforward: two scholars discover clues hinting at an unknown connection between the two Victorian poets they study. They try to investigate this connection before rival scholars hone in on their research. The contemporary characters are largely described through standard narration, but the Victorian characters appear almost exclusively in the artifacts they leave behind: poems, letters, diaries, fairy tales, notes, and articles, penned by several different people, each with their own distinct voice. To quote this page from The New Canon
, "[Byatt] needs to write poetry that could plausibly come from the pen of a famous nineteenth century poet. She needs to mimic Victorian prose and epistolary styles. She also needs to be conversant with the language of modern academic criticism. Moreover, she must subsume all of these under the authorial tone of today’s fiction, while being sensitive to the genre expectations that are invariably raised by romance and mystery tales." The fact that Byatt pulls this off is a feat of unparalleled virtuosity in its own right, but what ultimately emerges is even more impressive: a chorus of dead voices, cut short by circumstance or muffled by the dust of time, who harmonize with the curious minds of those in the living present, unifying in a holistic tapestry of poetry, quiet compromise, and inexorable passion.
Hopefully that gives some sense of the scale of Byatt's overall accomplishment. In a book so overflowing, it's hard to capture even that, much less my admiration for its various components. But I feel like one aspect does deserve particular attention, because it taps into the very essence of why I love this book. I don't know of any other work of literature that describes so deftly, and with such conviction, the pleasures of reading: the delights of newly discovered nuance, the sensuality of the page, coming to love and understand an artist and their work. On top of celebrating the sensuality of the intellect, it also dotes on the sexual and emotional lives of highly intellectual people, banishing the tired old stereotype of the staid scholar or poet. To cite just one moment:
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, carved 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. There are obvious reasons for this, the most obvious being the regressive nature of the pleasure, a mise-en-abîme even, where words draw attention to the power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum, thus making the imagination experience something papery and dry, narcissistic and yet disagreeably distanced, without the immediacy of sexual moisture or the scented garnet glow of good burgundy. 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 sensual 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.)
Lands firmly on the list of "Shit Maiden definitely needs to read at some point."