Classic book review: Possession
A.S. Byatt's stunning novel about books and their readers.
[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Nov. 16, 1990.] The winner of England's most prestigious literary prize is Possession, by A. S. Byatt. It's a Shakespearean detective story loaded with 1,700 lines of verse - pretty good verse, too.
This improbably buoyant novel combines Shakespearean romance (chaste lovers, guilty passion, children lost and found), detective novel suspense (lost correspondence, visits to scenes of the crime, a coffin disinterred on Halloween), satire on academic fashions (Byatt has a wonderful ear for the idioms of her less than attractive Americans), and a pastiche of styles from Browning to Emily Dickinson. Until now, Byatt has not been known for her narrative skills. Her four other novels were densely psychological. She has also published short stories and studies of Iris Murdoch and the times of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Byatt, whose life has been bookish – her sister is novelist Margaret Drabble – retired from university teaching in 1983, lives with her second husband in Putney, southwest London. She has three daughters; she lost a son in an accident and wrote about the loss in what is widely considered her best work of fiction before this, a short story titled "The July Ghost.'' Byatt says she may use the 20,000 ($40,000) awarded with the Booker Prize to build a swimming pool: Writing is a sedentary occupation, and she loves to swim laps.
"Possession'' is about reading. The characters all read the fictitious Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. In varying degrees, they have bought into the Ash industry that has grown up in England and as far away as New Mexico. The title "Possession'' refers not only to the romantic plot, but also to the legal problems that arise with the discovery of new manuscripts by the poet.
The manuscripts are letters to a woman, a poet hitherto unconnected to the hitherto unblemished Ash. The finder of the letters is a mild young scholar named Roland. He is just about to give up scholarship for something that pays, as his girlfriend Val has already done. Through his discovery, Roland meets the beautiful, self-possessed Maud (who specializes in the person Ash corresponded with, the poet Christabel LaMotte).
Before the novel is over, everybody interested in either Ash or Christabel – scholars and "poetic trippers'' alike – becomes involved in the hunt for missing evidence as to the nature of their relationship. The book surveys contemporary academic styles with fastidious glee.
"Possession'' is not just satire; it's mostly romance. Our chaste lovers roam through the beauties of the British landscape and the Breton countryside in France. They don't find many clues about Ash and Christabel, but they do discover much about themselves.
At times, Byatt's novel reads like a mixture of Jackie Collins and Vladimir Nabokov. The steamy stuff happens not between Roland and Maud (as children of the late 20th century, they minimalize everything, including sex) but between Ash and Christabel.
Byatt has been criticized for breaking the form of the romance and allowing us direct views of the past. We see it in letters, journals, and direct narrative. Literary rules notwithstanding, this running comparison between the lives of the literary detectives and the lives of their authors gives the book its point.
Among the various texts Byatt has given Roland and Maud and the reader to wander in looking for clues are some 1,700 lines of verse. Byatt can imitate Browning's blank verse when she writes under the name of Ash, and Christina Rosseti and Emily Dickinson when she writes under the name of LaMotte. Readers of this novel may find themselves reading poetry, fable, diaries, and letters (sent, unsent, or returned unopened) as if to emphasize the breadth of the marvelous activity we call reading.
Byatt raises a number of questions: Do we really want to know all about our favorite writers? Does biography provide real insights into what we care about most in books? Toward the end of the novel, we read of Roland: "The pursuit of the letters had distanced him from Ash as they had come closer to Ash's life. In the days of his innocence Roland had been not a hunter but a reader....''
In one of the recovered letters, Ash had written to his wife Ellen about his recent work: "... it is all most violently interesting, dear Ellen, an account of the human mind imagining and inventing a human story to account for the great and beautiful and terrible limiting facts of – existence - ...''
In one of her fairy tales, Christabel says to the reader: "But you must know now, that it turned out as it must turn out, must you not? Such is the power of necessity in tales.''
In the end, Maud and Roland break the mesmerism (one of the possessions explored in the novel) that makes Roland think "partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others'' in Ash's books.
The magic of this book about books springs from the fact that its reader comes to identify with Roland and Maud. This postmodern romance tells us much about why we read romances.
While her earlier novels seemed sometimes swamped by their literary baggage, something in "Possession'' makes the literary hocus-pocus genuinely fascinating, even inspiring.
Shrewd, even cutting in its satire about how literary values become as obsessive as romantic love, in the end, "Possession'' celebrates the variety of ways the books we possess come to possess us as readers.
What reader has not felt shadowed, even haunted by the book he or she is reading at the time? Is it going to be life or art in your life? In helping readers to become self-conscious of just what they do when they read, Byatt has not only written a spellbinding romantic novel, she has helped us understand why as readers we wouldn't have it any other way.
Brilliantly put together, warm, witty and wise, "Possession'' deserves its laurels – it won not only the Booker prize but also the 22,500 ($45,000) Irish Times Aer Lingus award – and more: It deserves readers galore.
Thomas D'Evelyn is a former Monitor book editor.