Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Book Review - Possession by A.S. Byatt
I know the Booker winning novel, Possession was written several years ago. I did read it when it was published, but I couldn’t resist reading it again. I’m currently writing a book that for some odd reason, reminds me of Possession. I’m not sure what the connection is. None of the characters in my book are poets or academics, though one is highly intrigued by poetry, and his deceased mother was a poet – of sorts. There is no race to find something that will turn the academic world on its ear. None of it takes place in Victorian England. In fact, it takes place in mid-20th century Appalachia. It has a far larger cast of characters than Possession. But for some reason, something about my book’s tone reminds me of the tone of Possession. Maybe there’s only one scene that reminds me of Byatt’s book. I hope so. While I admire Possession greatly, a writer has to be original. Whatever it is, I felt the urge to reread Possession, one of my favorite books of all time, and since I didn’t review it the first time around (I didn't even have computer access until 2001), I thought I would this time in case any of you are still “on the fence” about whether or not to delve into it.
Possession begins in 1986 in the Reading Room of the London Library, when Roland Mitchell, a postdoctoral research assistant at London University who’s studying the work of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (aka Robert Browning) opens the poet’s personal copy of Giambattista Vico's Principi di una Scienza Nuova. As Byatt writes:
The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.
The book alone sounds intriguing, but when he opens it, Mitchell finds an unexpected surprise. Besides the expected marginalia, there are two letters to an unnamed woman Ash apparently met at breakfast in the 1850s. (Mitchell recognizes Ash’s characteristic shaky handwriting.) Although he’s a “good guy,” Mitchell can’t resist removing the letters and taking them with him. He knows what a potential treasure he’s just stumbled upon, and he fully intends to find out just who this unnamed lady could have been.
Mitchell, who’s a pretty good literary detective, soon discovers that the woman Ash was writing to was another poet, Christabel LaMotte (Christina Rossetti). Ash was unhappily married, and Christabel was in a lesbian relationship with a woman called Blanche Glover, though LaMotte was bisexual. Mitchell immediately recognizes that if a credible, long term, i.e., more than the two letters, relationship existed between Ash and LaMotte, it would make literary history and go a long way toward advancing his academic career.
In his quest to find out the secrets that haunted Ash’s life, Mitchell teams up with a chilly, seemingly unemotional, feminist academic, Dr. Maud Bailey, who lives “on the outskirts of Lincoln” and just happens to be the world’s leading LaMotte scholar. In fact, she’s distantly related to LaMotte. And, although Roland Mitchell’s attracted to Maud Bailey, he can’t see himself falling in love:
Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his ‘self” as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones.
Although Roland Mitchell can’t see himself “in love,” he does “enjoy” an uninspired relationship and is currently living in a damp basement flat in London with a woman named Val. While not as chilly and icy as the very distant Maud Bailey, and a nice enough person, Val doesn’t really inspire romantic feelings in Mitchell, and their relationship lasts only because neither one is inclined to end it.
Of course it comes as no surprise that Mitchell and Bailey “sort of” fall in love as they uncover “the truth” about Ash and LaMotte. In one of the best parts of the book, they visit the country manor house of Sir George Bailey (a wonderful character), the house where Christabel LaMotte lived most of her life in seclusion.
The narrative, which I found beautiful, is sprinkled with letters from the poets to each other, poems supposedly written by both Ash and LaMotte, and 19th century diary entries. Most of the people I know who read Possession told me they skipped the poetry. I think that was a mistake. The poems are organic to the story. No, they might not have been written in the 19th century, and I’m no expert on 19th century English poetry, but I felt Byatt did an excellent job with them, and she is an expert on Victorian poetry and the Victorian period in general. I felt many of the poems were quite beautiful in their own right, but really, that’s neither here nor there. The fact is they do add much to the story. The poetry, diary entries and letters allow Byatt to let Ash and LaMotte tell their tragic love story in their own words, something I think added greatly to the book. And the love story that existed between Ash and LaMotte eventually becomes a counterpoint to the growing, and far less passionate, relationship between Mitchell and Bailey.
As Mitchell and Bailey advance in their search for the truth about Ash and LaMotte, they come to realize they aren’t the only ones journeying on the same quest, and some of the other participants are far more powerful than they. One is Professor Leonora Stern, an overweight lesbian from the United States, who is interested primarily in LaMotte’s relationship with Glover. Then, there is Professor James Blackadder, who has been editing Ash’s Complete Works since 1951 and just happens to be Mitchell’s mentor. And I can’t leave out Mortimor Cropper, a scholar and entrepreneur whose greatest desire is to possess anything and everything that Randolph Henry Ash once possessed.
With all these people trying desperately to uncover the secret behind Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, the quest becomes more of a race on par with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, though it’s much better written, of course. In fact, in my opinion, Possession is a gorgeously written novel, and though I didn’t care for the love relationship between Mitchell and Bailey (I found it dry and as chilly as Maud Bailey, herself), I thoroughly loved the one between Ash and LaMotte.
“The truth” is revealed at the novel’s end, as all the above, minus Ash and LaMotte, of course, meet in a Sussex churchyard. A lot of readers are going to guess the end, and the secret, long before it’s revealed, though those who don’t will probably enjoy the book most of all.
I adore this book, but I do have to repeat that the one thing about it I don’t adore is the relationship between Mitchell and Bailey. It isn’t that I didn’t find it believable. I did. I just didn’t care for Maud Bailey, and I felt both Mitchell and Bailey paled so much beside Ash and LaMotte that their characters suffered. You might like them, however. Literature is nothing if not subjective.
In the end, Possession is a gorgeous book, gorgeously written, and it’s one that burrows down into the subconscious, never letting you forget the impact of its closing pages.
Recommended: Yes, to those who love literary fiction and the 19th century. Be aware, though, that although this book is a Booker winner, every person I know besides me save one has not cared for it, mainly because of the inclusion of the letters, the diary entries, and the poetry. It’s difficult-to-impossible to predict how one will react to this book. I would have rated it 5/5 if I’d liked the “chilly” characters of Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey more.
Note: I’ve also seen the movie, Possession, based on the book, and while I found it true to the book, my dislike for Mitchell and Bailey, especially Bailey, was only reinforced. Still, the movie is worth a rental. I actually own the DVD.