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Possession, A.S. Byatt

I am stunned.

How often do you finish a book, slowly turning the back cover to close, as the hair on the back of your arms twitches upward with the electricity of mingled pleasure and sadness? This happens less often for me as I grow older, but at this moment I sit stunned for I have just finished this wonderful book by Ms. Byatt and I am not yet willing to surrender the feeling. Yet, I also am urged to write this. The best writing–storytelling–does this to me. Even as I marvel at what I have just experienced, I also am goaded to try my hand at miracles as well, like the child who sees the magician at school and rushes home to ask the parents for a magic set. Like a child I am, to want to sit at the same table as Ms. Byatt, but yet I must, for maturity begins by imitating adults.

Possession is a book about words, so how unsurprising that I was thinking of these words that I would write upon finishing its words. I made mental notes to myself–“remember this passage” or “here, here is a meaning not to be forgotten.” I can only hope to do justice to my past impressions of this book in this first impression. First of all, this was not an easy book to read. As I commented to some people when I was only a hundred or so pages into it, the plot so far is the ultimate in boring, yet the writing is so good that I find myself continuing to read. Then I got stuck.

But I must stop and give a little summary of the actions in the book for those who haven’t read it. There is a story within a story. The outer story is the discovery by Roland Mitchell of an instance in the great poet Randolph Henry Ash’s life previously unaware to scholars, namely a connection with a little-known poet named Christabel LaMotte. The story of LaMotte and Ash forms the inner story. As a character says,

“Literary critics make natural detectives…You know the theory that the classic detective story arose with the classic adultery novel–everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?”

What is the secret, indeed. The need to know the secret, to possess it, spurs Roland to track down the elusive link between Ash and LaMotte.

While the story of the two poets is beautiful and complex in its own right, the meta-story of Roland and the rest of the Ash/LaMotte scholars has a lot to commend it as well. Although the beginning seems to be about boring, dry academics, Byatt is actually setting up the characters in the best way, showing you what they are like, and when things start moving later, nothing seems unnatural.

The title says so much. This is a story of “possession” in all its myriad meanings, just as words so often do double and triple duty in the best poems. I am tempted to go through every definition of the word in the O.E.D. and then cite an example from the book, but instead I’ll just do a sampling. When Roland discovers the letters that begins the search (and the novel), instead of presenting them to his supervisor, Prof. Blackadder, he keeps them in his possession. The possession of the letters and memorabilia from Ash’s life is a consuming interest of the American counterpoint to Blackadder, Mortimer Cropper. Ash declares himself to be possessed by LaMotte; Roland and his partner, Maud Bailey, are possessed by the search. These are just a few of the many aspects of possession in the book.

I said before that I had gotten “stuck” in the book. About a hundred pages in, Roland and Maud discover a correspondence between Ash and LaMotte that fills about 35 pages. Byatt captures the Victorian letter style perfectly, almost too perfectly for this modern reader. Full of run-on sentences–often connection by dash after dash–the letters are of utmost importance to the plot, just as the Ash and LaMotte poems that grace the beginnings of each chapter. However, a modern reader understands how to read poems. The letters I tried to read as part of the novel rather than as letters, and immediately found myself frustrated and bored. I put the book down and read something else before returning to trudge my way through the letters. After that, the book was a joy to read. The poet Christabel LaMotte is quoted in the book as saying, “A writer only becomes a true writer by practising his craft, as a great artist may experience with clay or oils until the medium becomes second nature, to be moulded however the artist may desire.” This could be read as my review credo.

I looked at Possession in the store when it first was published and several times after. I had finally made a decision that I wasn’t going to read it, based on my perception of the subject material and its length. However, Mike Godwin responded quickly to my call for feedback in an earlier review, and recommended this book. I’m glad that he did, and I now pass on his recommendation with my own. This is a wonderful book.

[Finished 14 July 1993]


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First Impressions Copyright © 2016 by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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