Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Random House, New York, 1990

Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 1990 Man Booker Prize.

Another book I waited a long time to read.  I think I was intimidated by the mid-Victorian poetry angle, but I should have known.  It is A.S. Byatt.  Possession is a masterpiece.

A young academic, Roland Mitchell, stumbles upon drafts of unknown letters written by his research subject, romantic poet Randolf Henry Ash.  The drafts hint of a unknown relationship with a young women.  From this tiny hint, Roland discovers a possible link between Ash and poet, Christabel LaMotte and is pulled into a literary mystery that is layered, humorous and massively intelligent.   This novel is a deep exploration of romance,  love and possession.   What those emotions could have looked like in the past and how they can manifest in the present.  It is also a parody of modern academia,  pop culture and the cult of personality.

Complete with love letters and invented verse , Byatt uses the full range of her literary abilities.  Most chapters begin with bits of invented poems, myths or fairy tales.   Her poets, writing in the style of  Victorian romance, use language differently.  At one point she has a young French cousin of Christabel write a journal.  Again, the voice is completely different, drenched in the language of the time and expressing the cultural differences between a young lady raised in England and one raised in France.  I was constantly amazed at A.S. Byatt’s mix of history, literary knowledge and her ability with words.

Possession is also a love letter, to language, to reading and to writing of all sorts.  I was quickly drawn in, found myself moving backwards and forwards in the text, copying words, making notes and fully intend to read this book again.  Roland’s thoughts on re-reading Randalf Hanry Ash’s words discribe something of what I felt reading parts of Possession:

    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 – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onward 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 acknowledge 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 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.  From pages 511/512.


Filed under A.S. Byatt, British, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

13 responses to “Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

  1. I, too, waited a long time to read this. Started it several times before laying it down. But, once I read through it in entirety, I loved it. So much. Doesn’t it have an incredible ending, too? Not to mention all the stuff in between going back and forth between present day and past, prose and poetry…

  2. This is one I intend to read some day. I loved The Children’s Book by this author and I have no doubt I’ll love this one too. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

  3. aartichapati

    I loved this book so much, too! The ending took my breath away. The movie did it ZERO justice. I was offended.

  4. This looks fantastic. I’ve only read one of Byatt’s books before, but I love the way that she writes. It’s poetic but at the same time very readable.

  5. I got this at a book sale years ago and for some reasons, I still haven’t started it. But your review has just prompted to move it up on my long TBR list.

  6. I want to try this one but was very intimidated by it so I’m glad to hear that it worked so well for you.

  7. YOur review was so good, Gavin, that I want to pick it up and finish it! I got a little over half-way through and never finished it, and I’m still not sure why because I was enjoying it so much. So I will try again. I know I did love parts of it. I love how you reviewed it and what you found in it. too.

  8. Pingback: New Year’s Wishes and Favorite Books from 2012 | Page247

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