Possession: A Romance
- Publication Date:
- 07 February 1991
- Modern & Contemporary
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It’s a superb book. There are so many layers to it that it would be impossible to deal with all of them in a short review. At the plot level, it is a story of two contemporary literary scholars who discover a secret love correspondence between two Victorian poets and pursue it in a covert quest. At the literary level, it is a great mixture of narrative, literary criticism and different writing forms including letters, stories, and poems all packed into a detective story convention. Words have multiple meanings, there are myths interwoven into the plot, symbols and comments on reading and writing. All this is wrapped in beautiful writing. A real delight to read.
One-paragraph synopses of this work not only fail to do it justice but are incapable of encapsulating what it's really about. I avoided this book for a couple of years because I was expecting some sort of soppy romance, two researchers sighing over the passions of their respective biographical subjects when suddenly their eyes meet...a sort of literary Paolo and Francesca, acting out the imagined scenes of their counterparts of a century previous.Not so. It is a romance, yes, in several senses, but also a solid mystery, a suspense-filled quest, a vivid tale of memorable characters and deep secrets, and a thoroughly satisfying intellectual adventure.Among the entangled and entangling threads of this masterwork are such transcendent themes as loss and betrayal, guilt and redemption, passion and its aftermath, art in life and life in art, the universality and truth of myth, and, perhaps above all, the meaning of <i>possession</i> in all its many senses.It is also about literary scholarship, the drama and peril of life in academe, the biographer's art, identity, the fusing of researcher with his or her subject matter, and, most especially, voice. One of the principal characters is known as the Great Ventriloquist for his ability to assume the personas of his chosen subjects and speak in their voices through his poetry. Byatt herself performs this feat with stunning adeptness as she fabricates literary works, correspondence, journals, and point-of-view scenes in distinctly different character voices, styles, and degrees of intimacy. The awareness of <i>audience</i> as an informing presence is everywhere, sometimes explicitly, and pointedly reveals how the envisioned reader participates in the author's act of creation.The compositions of the nineteenth-century characters are not merely showcases of Byatt's command of language, genre, character, and voice. The poetry is an intrinsic part of the novel (unlike Tolkien's exhausting verses, which can all be skipped) and is a remarkable feat in itself. Byatt's masterly revelation of her long-dead characters' personal histories, piece by piece, allows the reader to experience in the poems something of the same flashes of comprehension and sense of discovery as do the scholarly twentieth-century characters themselves while unraveling the mysteries of their subjects.This novel more than rewards the investment of reading it. It demands much of the reader and gives back still more. I can only marvel at the mind that created it. I have to give this one five stars; nothing less would do for this monumental work.
A crime of passion, you might call it, when Roland Michell, a scholar of the great nineteenth century poet Randolph Henry Ash, steals two pages in the poet’s writing, the draft of a letter he discovers in a long-neglected book. The letter leads him to a possible intended recipient, the lesser known poet Christabel LaMotte, and that poet’s devoted scholar, Maud Bailey. Their present hums with academic espionage and whimpering, frustrated careers, the past is alive with journals, essays, and poetry, such poetry that the reader can’t help but dig in right along with the main characters, appreciating every sacrifice they make along the way. We meet the poets of the past, and snatch their precious secrets from hidey-holes and graves. Despite our distance from them, Ash and LaMotte are so very real, so fragile and so great, the essence, masculine and feminine, of the nineteenth century. And here is Byatt’s feat. She wrote every stitch of their work herself. Though very much their own persons, these two are meant to be the embodiment of their age, and have as much to say about our idealization of the past figures that we build our knowledge upon as about themselves. More than a romance, although it can certainly be enjoyed that way, the key to the book’s layered meanings is its title. In Byatt’s new introduction, she explains that the idea of the novel came to her while she was contemplating a literary scholar, wondering if the scholar’s subject possessed the scholar, or the reverse. Of course, both are true, as is every extrapolation thereof we can become dizzy contemplating. <i>Possession</i> has the dearth and architecture of a 19th century novel. Byatt has a gift for character voice, each point of view unmistakable, every world within world breathing history and charm. Wise, kind, and full of a kind of intimate detail any scholar or bibliophile would appreciate, this is a sensory treasure.
A great novel. A.S. Byatt has done nothing better than this. Delightful satire on the pomposity and pretentiousness of university literature programs; with characters one genuinely cares about, and fictional 19th century poets whom Byatt brings to life in their (entirely fictional) poetry, letters, and journals. Anyone who has taken an English lit class in college will enjoy this one. Its freshness and relevance hasn't dimmed in the 18 years since it first emerged. A keeper.
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