Possession – Andy was impressed rather than possessed

April 14, 2010

A.S. Byatt won the Booker in 1990 for Possession. I was hoping I’d be slagging off another Booker Prize winner in tomorrow’s mX (which will probably be today’s by the time anyone reads this, or possibly last year’s) and do a little bit of shameless cross-promotion but annoyingly they’re running another one of my reviews instead. Oh well. Maybe next week.
I’m not going to slag off A.S. Byatt. She is clearly possessed (boom boom) of a gargantuan intellect and by christ she can write. Possession is at times compelling, moving, hilariously funny. It’s occasionally sexy, often sly. Byatt’s gutsy enough to take quite scathing swipes at literary theories and ideas that bordered on monolithic at the time she was writing (and for all I know still are – her novel came out the year I graduated from university. For the past 20 years I have been completely possessed by literature; certainly not by literary theory). Possession is a gobsmackingly impressive achievement, but I’m not so sure it’s a gobsmackingly impressive story. As a display of Byatt’s skill and knowledge, it’s breathtaking; as a read, it’s a bit too much of a slog.
So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? The poetry. Byatt hasn’t just written a novel, she has created at least two sets of work by fictitious Victorian poets, one male, one female. If she works the way I suspect she does she probably wrote far more of this poetry than is published in Possession. Each of the poets has his and her own voice, style, obsessions. The poems (or extracts from them) are scattered throughout the book. Some are brief, some go on for pages (and pages and pages and pages…). This is one of the major aspects of Possession that makes it such an impressive achievement. It’s also one of the things that makes it work less well as a story, one of the things that makes the novel a slog.
“Hadn’t been able to make head or tail of him.” That’s how one of the poets, Randolph Henry Ash, is described by an incidental character. “They did go on so, don’t you think, those Victorian poets, they took themselves so horribly seriously… So pompous.” Reading these lines I wondered if Byatt’s bravery hadn’t slipped across into foolhardy because these words describe exactly my reaction to Ash’s poems (which of course are actually Byatt’s poems) as well as those of his colleague, Christabel LaMotte (which are also, of course, actually Byatt’s poems). Perhaps she was aiming for poetry that couldn’t be made head or tail of. Perhaps she was aiming for horribly serious and pompous. I doubt it, but if that’s what she was aiming for… BULLSEYE.
I don’t read a lot of poetry but I read a bit. I realise that poetry can be dense and difficult, I know it can require care and attention and re-reading. (It doesn’t have to, though. Check out the deceptively straightforward poetry of Raymond Carver, whose praises I have already sung – nauseatingly – this year.) I read every word of the poetry in Possession. I even re-read quite a lot of it. I did not put a huge amount of effort into trying to understand it or interpreting it as an integral part of Byatt’s story. Unforgivable thing for a reader of literature to admit, but … Oops!
The poems are just one of a number of intrusions into the narrative. There are letters, diaries, fairytales, academic essays, imagined autobiographies, actual biographies… Except (of course) they’re not “actual” biographies. All of these things are in fact Byatt’s work and they are truly (I’ve said this before, haven’t I?) impressive. But I’m not sure that, within the confines of a story, they work.
Ah. But do stories have confines?
Maybe I’m just getting old and dumb and tired. Or just lazy. I remember reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman in university and being at first confused by Fowles’ use of epigraphs and footnotes and then gradually realising what he was doing and being seduced by the cleverness of it all. I suspect Byatt’s a much better writer than Fowles but that’s beside the point. More than 20 years on I’m not bored by Possession, not remotely, but I’m not seduced by it, either. I’m just kind of… wearied.
I have possibly (probably? almost certainly?) misread the book but my impression is that Byatt was exploring/critiquing/ridculing the dominant literary theories of the day, and (more obviously) their practitioners. But she’s used some of the literary techniques of her targets to build her case, and in doing so undermined the quality of her book. Is that her intention? Is Possession meant to be a pisstake not just of literary theorists but of the literary establishment as a whole? Did she laugh her arse off when she won the Booker?
Can’t see it, myself. To fully appreciate a book like Possession demands a level of education and intellect and patience that few possess (boom boom). I’m pretty sure I’m too lazy these days for a book like this.

I’m not just lazy, I guess I’m old-fashioned. Literature, for me, is another word for storytelling. Some of the stories are shit, some of them are magnificent, but they’re all just stories. If you want to tell a story, tell a story. The story’s the thing. If you’ve got an ideology or a philosophy or a spirituality that you want to express through your story, to be sure to be sure, go for it. But when your beliefs takes precedence over your story… You’re fucked.
That’s not what happened to A.S., but she sails too close to the postmodernist maelstrom for my liking. I’ll get around to reading some more of her work but I doubt I’ll be re-reading Possession any time soon.

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