A.S. Byatt won the 1990 Booker Prize (now called the Man Booker Prize), for Possession. Apparently Byatt is considered to be a critics darling, but is less popular with readers. Byatt, who was born in 1936, is certainly an old school literate writer, with academic credentials and numerous awards to her name. Having read Possession I can certainly understand the dichotomy between readers and critics. The book is a dense interplay of history, poetry, romantic suffering and redemption. There’s also a mystery that drives the plot till the very end. For the average reader it’s not a page-turner by any means, but it is creativity in excelsis.
Possession is one of those classic multi-layered novels that tests the reader’s resolve but can also be extremely rewarding to those with patience. Possession is essentially a detective story, with two academics seeking to solve the mystery of Victorian poet - Randolph Henry Ash and his involvement with a less renowned female poet - Christabel LaMotte. Roland Michell, an academic in waiting, discovers several early drafts of letters from Ash to a mysterious recipient in the pages of a book Ash had owned that had been sitting undisturbed in a library in London. Roland links up with academic Maud Bailey, an uptight but beautiful expert on the writings of LaMotte, who is also a far removed relative of LaMotte. They combine their talents to discover what really went on between the two (fictional) Victorian poets. They have to be secretive, as the likes of fellow academics Mortimer Cropper and James Blackadder lurk in the background, vying to possess any writings or objects related to Ash.
The novel is set partly in the 1980’s and partly in the mid 1800’s. Byatt weaves the two eras in and out of the erudite narrative. Byatt is an accomplished writer and the beauty of some of her descriptions of the English countryside is astonishing. The plot acts as a loving pastiche of detective and romance novels. It’s also a gentle satire on academia and the monomania displayed by literary experts bent on knowing everything about their subjects. Never has literature seemed so important and life changing.
The academic characters are charming, eccentric, frustrating and entirely flawed. The arcane world of academia is explored via the feminist struggle to have works by female authors recognized and taught in universities. LaMotte herself is a literary feminist icon, having lived as a lesbian whilst writing poetry that displayed a unique female perspective. Maud Bailey both benefits and suffers from this political struggle. Afraid to have her long hair out, she bundles it up tight lest she be criticized by radical feminists for pandering to male perceptions of what women should be like. Beatrice Nest, a female academic who has been shunted aside to specialize in Ellen Ash’s journal writing, is a dowdy spinster afraid of intimacy because of her enormous breasts (I’m not making this up). These characters are not caricatures; instead they are fully realized and entirely engaging.
The Victorian era is rendered beautifully via numerous letters between Ash and LaMotte, which help reveal their mystery little by little throughout the novel. There are also journal entries and long poems by both poets. These poems and letters, written by Byatt herself, pose the biggest challenge to the reader. They are long, arcane and frustrating to read. The highlight of the Victorian parts of the novel comes when Byatt provides a chapter of direct interaction between Ash and LaMotte on a trip they take to the coast. Despite the obfuscation of their letters and poems, in the flesh they are engaging characters and you can’t help but get caught up in their romance and the romance of the times.
Possession is a curious book, at once inviting and brilliant with its lush descriptions and fully realized characters; it also frustrates and sometimes causes outright boredom. The pace of the narrative is slowed by the poems and labyrinth-like digressions that slowly reveal new aspects to the mystery at hand. In an interview I read with Byatt she refers to the concept of ‘narrative greed’. Narrative greed is the readers’ insistence and expectation that secrets are to be revealed quickly, without digressions and complications. Byatt does her best here to counter that desire, in fact she extinguishes it completely. The ending is rewarding, if you can make it, and plays with the notion of happy endings in romances without resorting to outright cliché.
There’s no doubt that Possession is a significant achievement and that Byatt is a talented writer. Possession is also one of those books that will appeal to a certain kind of reader, one who is up to the challenges of the narrative – there will be many others who will give up in frustration. I really struggled with this book and due to the demands of the book club I was trying to read it too fast. Although one weekend over a few glasses of wine I realized that it’s actually a work of genius. I also wondered why I wasn’t enjoying it. The problem was, I decided, is that it just didn’t make me care enough about the mystery and about the various romances within the book. As to why, perhaps it is a matter of taste? Some readers, if they were working from my rating system, would give this book a sublime rating, whilst others would give it a mediocre rating or somewhere in-between. As I’m writing this I’m still uncertain just how I’ll rate it.
Before I get to that there’s something else I’ve realized about Possession. It’s written by a sometime academic and it is also partly a satire on academia. It displays a highly literate style and is full of the kind of techniques beloved by academics. So if Possession were taught at universities (and I’m sure that it is), academics would therefore be analyzing a narrative about academics that are analyzing narratives. I wonder if any of them would recognize themselves in this book? They’d be too busy analyzing wouldn’t they?