And what Netty makes of Possession, not to mention Victorian poetry and British academia …

April 19, 2010

The 1990 Man Booker Prize shortlist
– An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
– The Gate Of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald
– Amongst Women by John McGahern
– Lies Of Silence by Brian Moore
– Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler
– Possession by A.S. Byatt

(Note to self: ask Andy if he’s read any of these books. Besides the last one, obviously. Or even if he’s heard of any of them, goddamnit.)

Conversation in an inner-city bar-restaurant, earlier this month, around 9.30pm
Me: I’m reading Possession for this month’s blog.
Friend: Oh, really?
Me: (long pause) You’ve read it?
Friend: Yeah.
Me: And?
Friend: You can pretty much skip the poetry.

I think A.S. Byatt’s Possession was pretty much one of the first books that made the ANRC10 list, and I have to admit I was surprised that Andy had not yet gotten around to tackling it. I remember sometime around 1990, just after it had won the Booker, thinking, “Oh, I must read that”, baulking at the length (500-plus pages of eensy-weensy little type) and instead picking up a collection of Byatt’s short stories (specifically Sugar And Other Stories, about which I have to admit I remember not a thing). So, 20 years on, here we are (don’t say I don’t get around to things … eventually …).

Was Possession worth the wait? Oh look, there’s no doubt it’s a very worthwhile read. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Mostly. Would I recommend it? Well, yes. Should we have tackled Don DeLillo’s Underworld instead? I’ll get back to you on that one.

Byatt had a 20-year career in academia, before presumably devoting herself to full-time writing, and it shows in spades. Possession: A Romance (to give it its full title) is set in the world of British academia and is a story two-fold – the crossing of the paths of two young scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who are respectively researching the works and lives of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. As the book opens, Michell, conducting research at the London library, discovers handwritten letters from Ash secreted away in a long-untouched book. Some academic detective work on Michell’s part uncovers the identity of the woman (LaMotte) to whom the correspondence is addressed, which leads him to a meeting with Bailey and their subsequent, dual discovery of a cache of correspondence detailing the previously unknown relationship between the two poets. The history of that relationship, conducted in the mid to late 1800s, is slowly revealed – through letters and diaries both from the protagonists and other associated parties, interspersed with poems and short stories – in parallel to the modern-day equivalent developing throughout the course of the novel between Michell and Bailey. Adding another, very academic, dimension to the novel is the often vulture-like interest shown by the pair’s contemporaries and rivals in their findings, making it a race to be first to the ultimate literary prize and reaping the benefits thereof.

So, should I have taken my friend’s advice and skipped the poetry? Yes and no. Like Andy, I think it’s an admirable feat on the part of Byatt to have invented two distinctive canons of work for her characters, and whilst I didn’t care much for Ash’s poems (and what I know about Victorian poetry would fit on to the base of a thimble), I quite enjoyed LaMotte’s often whimsical and slyly feminist-slanted fiction. The excerpts are slotted into the novel to give context and to abet the story unfolding, but the ensuing stop-start nature of proceedings was frustrating to me as a reader. I found I was getting more and more into the Randolph-Christabel story, only to be yanked back into the Roland-Maud angle, and vice versa. But at the end of the day this is a minor quibble. Byatt carries off the not-inconsiderable feat with great aplomb, but ultimately I think I admired Possession more than I enjoyed it (and I did enjoy it, but with a little “but” attached). And a big thumbs-up to Byatt for being as clever as clever as, but never patronising, to her readers. You could learn a thing or two from that, Pynchon (what, me hold a grudge? For those new to our blog, see our archives for more on Pynchon, none of it complimentary from me).

PS: A 2002 movie of the same name, loosely based on the book, exists, starring Aaron Eckhart (sigh) and Gwyneth Paltrow (eek). All available evidence suggests not to waste one’s time on it.

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