Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Possession ~ A.S. Byatt

So, Possession was an interesting read for me.  I initially picked it up because so many bloggers were all Bestest thing ever!  Read now or die!  And I was all, you know, gullible.  It immediately proved to be a slooooow read, due to the often flowery writing, lack of action, repeated decisions during the first 100 pages to give up on it (none of which I stuck to, fortunately), and, of course, the Telegraph Avenue read along which sucked up much of my reading time.  If you remember my first post about Possession, I was having a tough time deciding if what the characters all do (i.e. study literature in crazy depth for a living) is really a worthwhile undertaking and if anything truly belongs in a museum.  Well, I delighted to see that the author, A.S. Byatt considered these questions as well, and seems to have come to some of the same conclusions as me, which was gratifying.  In the end, I really found myself wondering who I would recommend this book to.  But first, the book.

Before I really get into Possession, I think I need to start this post with a plot summary so that we can all be on the same page.  So, there's this British nobody part-time scholar Roland, who studies (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Ash, and has just decided to open a recently-discovered book that belonged to Ash, and discovers all sorts of crap inside, among which is a draft of a letter to a mysterious someone.  Roland is naughty and steals said letter because he wants all the answers (But he'll put it back!  Double dog swear!).  Using his deductive skills, he comes to the conclusion that the intended recipient was (fictional) Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, so he decides to go have a chat with Maud, feminist LaMotte scholar who happens to be descended from LaMotte.  In their explorations, they stumble upon some other LaMotte descendants who still live in the house where LaMotte resided for a time and enter her old bedroom, which is shrine-like in the fact that it's never been touched.  Maud uses her deductive skills and creepy recitations of LaMotte's poems to find a stash of letters between the two authors, thus throwing the literary world on its head, except that Roland and Maud are the only ones who know.  Meanwhile, Roland is neglecting his dull girlfriend and keeping said information from his Ash-obsessed boss, Dr. Blackadder; Maud is covering her pretty blond hair because the feminists do not approve and keeping said information from her LaMotte-obsessed American colleague, Leonora; and everybody is making extra-sure that American Ash-obsessed scholar/collector Mortimer Cropper doesn't find out because he will steal all the things for himself and put them in his museum and nobody will get to look at them anymore because they're all gone.  And then, of course, everybody finds out, and the shit hits the fan, and who do the letters belong to?  ARE THEY MINE?!  And then all of these people plus several more end up in a graveyard digging up the remains of Ash and his wife and/or trying to catch people digging up the remains of Ash and his wife and there's a thunderstorm and they're all fighting for their lives.  As scholars are wont to do.

It was really weird to write that, because all along it felt like nothing was happening but in reality a whole lot did, and even more than I just wrote (see mirroring relationships and trips to the British and French seasides and various resignations).  And it's amazing how much drama there can be over two dead people who did not die mysterious deaths.

The book is written in a combination of present day narration, which usually closely follows a specific character, though sometimes the narrator goes off on her own tangent and muses on things; letters written by Ash, LaMotte, and some others; the poetry of LaMotte and Ash; and, twice, switches to narrating the lives of Ash and LaMotte.  So, I liked the variety because that's my kind of thing, but the poetry and letters were so boring and were like a sleeping draught every night that I read this.  There was this one long chapter of letters that literally took me a week to finish, because I just couldn't stay awake.  And I couldn't help but be a little judgmental of the fact that Byatt made up these two celebrated poets, and then wrote their poetry, which kind of suggests that she has the ability to write poetry that will still be obsessively studied more than a century after its time.  Which maybe was not her intention but seemed rather hubristic to me all the same.

In an effort to keep this short, some observations in list form:

1) The literati are like pharmaceutical companies.  They want all the knowledge and refuse to share.
2) The contrast between the British and Americans were hilarious.  The British are all small and polite and the Americans are all large and imposing.  It's like Byatt was describing my dad (who is not especially large physically but certainly seems to take up a lot of space).
3) The characters are all individuals.  National stereotypes aside, I felt like these were all real people, with their own issues and compulsions and interests.
4) I don't really want to get into it because I don't know much about it, but the issue of feminism and literature was interesting and unexpected.  I feel like women wouldn't traditionally be excluded from the study of literature, but that certainly seems to be the case.
5) The Victorians - at least in Byatt's conception of them - use far too many hyphens - I mean what's the point of them - they just detract from meaning - learn other punctuation -
6) The postscript (epilogue) was all sweet and nice and so annoying.  WHY must authors insist on including these unlikely endings just to force happy endings?  And WHY do I keep reading them?  I smell a post coming...

So...who would I recommend this book to?   I'm pretty sure some of my family and friends would never speak to me again if I tried to get them to read this book.  It's definitely a book with a well-defined audience - or would be if I could define who that audience is.  I guess... people who are interested in literature, who don't mind a slow pace, who can stick to a book even if it's boring and/or annoying, who like to think not just escape when they read, who like the Victorian era because that's definitely a selling point...  I think I'd have to take it on a case by case basis, but I'd definitely say that Possession requires an investment of time and a commitment of effort and is not for everybody.  For me, though, it was worth it in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, I, too, was sucked into buying a copy of this because I heard its praises AGAIN and AGAIN. I heard the same about The Children's Book and ended up not finishing because it was SOO slow and a little weird. I've been torn because I felt that possession would suffer the same fate. I'll probably give it a chance considering you thought it was worth it in the end.