I first got a copy of A.S.Byatt’s ‘Possession’ many years back. I knew that it had won the Booker prize and I also knew that it was a literary detective story, involving love letters. When I browsed the book before buying, it had a lot of quotes, poetry and letters inside. I found that quite fascinating. I was a big fan of Modern Library editions – with their soft paper and beautiful font – at that time (I still am) and so got a Modern Library edition of the book. I waited for the right time to pick it up, but that never arrived. Then I moved cities and countries and my edition of ‘Possession’ ended up in a box in the attic of my parents’ house. In the new place, during one of my weekend visits to the bookstore, I saw another edition of ‘Possession’. It had a beautiful painting on the cover, and I had a strong impulse to buy it and read it immediately. I got it and took it home, browsed the book and kept it on my shelf. It ended up being there. Then I moved cities and countries again, and my second copy of ‘Possession’ followed me, unread and uncared for. Then, sometime back, I was browsing at the bookstore, and I was in a mood for buying Vintage editions of classics. And out jumped from the bookshelf, my old friend ‘Possession’! I ended up getting it again. And as it had happened before, it ended up on my bookshelf at home. A couple of weeks back, when I was thinking on what book to read next, I had a strong impulse to read a novel about literature and poets. ‘Possession’ came to the top of my mind. I hunted around in my bookshelves and got the two latest editions of the book. Unfortunately, the Modern Library edition seems to be still in the box in the attic. I decided to read the edition which had the painting on the cover, because it brought back a lot of fond memories of the time I bought that book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
What I think
Roland Mitchell is a literary research scholar. During one of his trips to the library, he discovers a previously unknown letter written by the poet whose works he is researching on, Randolph Henry Ash. The identity of the recipient of the letter is not clear. It looks like a draft letter. Actually there are two unfinished drafts. Roland digs a bit more into the history of this letter and this period of Ash’s life and discovers the identity of the recipient. She is a poet called Christabel LaMotte. Roland is intrigued. Because according to official biographies, Ash and LaMotte never met. Roland wants to find out what happened next. He steals the two draft letters from the library. He doesn’t tell his boss about it. He discovers that Maud Bailey is the pre-eminent authority on Christabel LaMotte. He fixes an appointment with her and goes and meets her. She takes him to the resource centre at her university and shows him documents which he might be interested in. Roland makes more interesting discoveries and is hooked. He discusses it with Maud and shows her the two letters he had ‘stolen’. She too gets hooked into the mystery. Both of them embark on a journey of literary adventure and detection and try to find out what happened between Ash and LaMotte. Of course in a quest like this, there will be a villain. Mortimer Cropper is an Ash scholar and has unlimited funds to get hold of objects used by Ash or letters written by him. He gets to know about the letters and starts following the trail. There are other characters who get pulled into the action. What happens further and what secrets Roland and Maud discover are revealed in the rest of the book.
I loved ‘Possession’. I loved it because it was an old-fashioned literary mystery. The focus was on the plot, rather than on long contemplative passages which seem to be the fashion among literary fiction writers these days. Though ‘Possession’ also has such passages, which come once in a while. I liked the literary backdrop of the story and the way the secrets of the mystery are revealed, when the revelation of one mystery leads to a new mystery. It was like reading a literary version of ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
I liked the portrayal of most of the lead characters in the story. Roland Mitchell is a research scholar who is trying to make ends meet. He doesn’t have a regular job and the breadwinner in his home is his girlfriend Val, who is a typist. Maud Bailey is an academic and a feminist. She is strong, proud and intimidating, atleast during the initial part of the book. I love the name Maud – it suggests, ‘strong’, ‘independent’, ‘confident’ to me. The first time I encountered a character named Maud in a book was in Jack London’s ‘The Sea Wolf’ where the heroine is called Maud. Another Maud that I know is the actress Maud Adams, who acted in two James Bond movies – ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ and ‘Octopussy’. Maud Adams was independent, loved her work, never married and never had children. She should have been the poster girl of the feminists of her era. Maybe she was. I also liked Christabel LaMotte and Blanche Glover, her intimate friend. Blanche comes in the story only for a brief while, but she leaves a deep imprint. I also liked Leonora Stern, Maud Bailey’s friend, who is also a literary scholar, and Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife. I also liked Lady Joan Bailey, who plays a minor part, but who is sophisticated, charming, refined and likeable. Most of the male characters in the story played only bit parts and weren’t really strong. Except for Roland.
The next few lines are going to be spoilers. So please be forewarned. I liked very much the way the love stories of characters from two different eras are narrated in the book – the love between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte and between Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. Though the first one is the main part of the story, I liked the second one more, because of the characters involved and for the way Byatt depicts it – how independent, proud Maud and simple, nice Roland fall in love.
I like the way Byatt goes into descriptive mode and gives a long description of the surroundings and nature, when an important scene is coming up. When the reader is dying to know what is going to happen next. It is a narrative strategy which I have seen used in old novels – probably nineteenth century ones – and it was nice to see that being used again. I also liked the ending of the book, because of the way it ties up all the loose ends and gives a satisfying conclusion, where all characters end up happy. Maybe except for one minor loose end. Which, in my opinion, was left deliciously open for the reader to interpret. It was classical perfection. Which again is not the norm these days.
I also love the way Byatt uses language and words beautifully in the book. Like the last part of this sentence, which plays with contrasts and paradoxes :
It was his first French meal in France and he was overcome with precise sensuality, with sea food, with fresh bread, with sauces whose subtlety required and defied analysis.
And this, where the simplicity of the narration and the beauty of the image evoked is a tribute to the use of language :
there were butterflies everywhere, blue, sulphur, copper, and fragile white, dipping from flower to flower, from clover to vetch to larkspur, seeing their own guiding visions of invisible violet pentagrams and spiraling coils of petal-light.
There was a part of the book, at around page 178, which is in the middle of a collection of letters, when I got stuck. It took me a couple of days to move out of that page. I trudged along painfully to finish that section. But after that the book progressed at a lively pace. That was one of the things I liked very much about the book. When one browses it, it looks very intimidating, because it has poems, quotes, letters and different kinds of fonts. It looks like an academic work. But when one starts reading it, the story progresses at a lively pace and there is rarely a slack anywhere. Don’t mistake me. There are beautiful sentences and contemplative passages. But the passages and scenes make the plot move. It is an old-fashioned way of storytelling and it continues to work brilliantly. I have always been intimidated by Byatt, because she looks like a very serious person and doesn’t seem to speak much (my own impression – this may not be true). To my pleasant surprise though, I discovered that as a writer and as a storyteller, she really cares about the reader. The evidence is there in the gripping plot, the well-paced narrative, the way the different story arcs come together, the beautiful sentences, the contemplative passages, the character sketches, the way her love for literature comes alive on the page.
‘Possession’ asks interesting questions on love and relationships, on how biographies are written, on how literary research is done, on how much of the private life of famous people should be accessible to the public and most of all on how we try to possess people and relationships and things and on whether one can really possess anything. I loved it. I can’t believe that I waited for so many years to read it. I can’t wait to read another Byatt book. Maybe it will be ‘The Children’s Book’. Or ‘Babel Tower’.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages.
Things had changed between them nevertheless. They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, ‘in love’, romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. They were theoretically knowing…
What this meant
They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.
One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.
They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.
Neither was quite sure how much, or what, all this meant to the other.
Neither dared ask.
Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his ‘self’ as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones. Mostly he liked this. He had no desire for any strenuous Romantic self-assertion. Nor did he desire to know who Maud essentially was. But he wondered, much of the time, what their mute pleasure in each other might lead to, anything or nothing, would it just go, as it had just come, or would it change, could it change.
He thought of the Princess on her glass hill, of Maud’s faintly contemptuous look at their first meeting. In the real world – that was, for one should not privilege one world above another, in the social world to which they must both return from these white nights and sunny days – there was little real connection between them. Maud was a beautiful woman such as he had no claim to possess. She had a secure job and an international reputation. Moreover, in some dark and outdated English social system of class, which he did not believe in, but felt obscurely working and gripping him, Maud was County, and he was urban lower-middle-class, in some places more, in some places less acceptable than Maud, but in almost all incompatible.
All that was the plot of a Romance. He was in a Romance, a vulgar and a high Romance simultaneously, a Romance was one of the systems that controlled him, as the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world, for better or worse, at some point or another.
He supposed the Romance must give way to social realism, even if the aesthetic temper of the time was against it.
There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, that snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.
Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.
I slept badly and as a result had a strange fragmented dream in which I was playing chess with Herbert Baulk, who had decreed that my Queen could move only one square, as his King did. I knew there was injustice here but could not in my dreaming folly realize that this was to do with the existence of my King who sat rather large and red on the back line and seemed to be incapacitated. I could see the moves She should have made, like errors in a complicated pattern of knitting or lace – but she must only lumpishly shuffle back and forth, one square at a time. Mr Baulk (always in my dream) said calmly, ‘You see I told you you could not win,’ and I saw it was so, but was unreasonably agitated and desirous above all of moving my Queen freely across the diagonals. It is odd, when I think of it, that in chess the female may make the large runs and cross freely in all ways – in life it is much otherwise.
Have you read ‘Possession’? What do you think about it?