Category Archives: A.S. Byatt

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.

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Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Canongate, New York, 2011

From my local library.  Read as part of Once Upon A Time VI.

Using her own experiences in World War Two as a template, A.S. Byatt retells the Norse myth about the end of the world.

As  bombs begin to rain down on England a “thin child” is evacuated to the countryside. The child tries to make sense of  the world around her, of the difference between the dark, fearful time she experiences  and the peace and love preached in church.  She misses her father, knowing he is flying somewhere over Africa.

The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lives in provisional fear of imminent destruction.  They faced the end of the world they knew.  The English country world did not end, as many others did,  was not overrun nor battered into mud by armies.  But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it… From page 4.

Then the child is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of ancient Norse myths written by Wilhelm Wagner, and she began to understand.  These fascinating, terrifying stories of love, betrayal and revenge help fill in the missing parts of the world.  They seem real and vital, much more real than what adults are telling of the world.

I’ve said it before,  A.S. Byatt is a master story-teller.   She has taken the bitter, violent tales of Thor and Odin, Loki and Balder and given them new life through the eyes of the thin child.  By doing so she renews them for those of us who remember them from childhood or school.  Her language turns dark, dangerous things into creatures of great beauty, even the snake Jörmungandr, a voracious monster who ends up encircling the world, is at times beautiful.  Between sections of myth, the “thin child” begins to find ways to bring the “real” world and the world of the Gods together, and have it make sense.

Byatt connects the myth of the end of the Gods to the horrors of war.  We come to know something of the inner life of a small child living in war-time, of the constant fear that surrounds her, of her questioning.

But the author also connects the myth to the loss and devastation we bring to our world, our home planet.   She tells of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and all the things that live in and on her, even under her.  She even adds the tale of Rándrasil, a huge kelp tree, and the rich sea gardens that lie at her feet.  These passages, filled with a multitude of plants and animals, are an inventory of loss.  The End of the Gods?  Byatt shows us the possible end of so much more.

It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe.  As I read this small book I wanted to hear the words, to be read to.  Maybe someone has created an audio version.  Regardless, this is a book I will add to my personal library.

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Filed under A.S. Byatt, LiteraryFiction, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts