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.