Saturday, June 27, 2009

The N-Spot: Review of A.S. Byatt's 'Possession'

For a year and some change, A.S. Byatt’s Possession beckoned to me from the rocky crags of my various bookshelves; first, from the ten-foot-high, cheaply-minimalist shelf of my high-ceilinged dorm room (the bookshelf my friends were convinced would crush me one day, toppling over from the sheer weight of my book collection). But no, I would say, I want to save the book for a time when I can immerse myself entirely in it; not while I’m reading five others for classes. And then this summer, the siren’s call echoed throughout my shoebox of a bedroom. This time, however, I kept putting it back on the shelf for no other reason than that when I ordered it online over a year ago, I received the unfortunate film-tie-in edition—yes, those dreaded reprints of novels that infect serious scholars of lit-ruh-chah with embarrassment, for we would never wish to seem as though we were reading a book because of its film adaptation! Instead of the arresting Burne-Jones’ painting, “The Beguiling of Merlin,” that was the original cover of the novel, I was subjected to Gwyneth Paltrow’s bland half-smirk and a strangely dizzying—not to mention unfitting—neon landscape of London.

And so Byatt just had to wait; yet, as the summer wore on and I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with my reading list thus far, I figured, what the hell? I gathered my courage, I steeled my easily-flushed cheeks, and I dove into the novel—each time convincing myself that when I closed its pages, ol’ Gwyn wouldn’t be staring back at me. The novel overcame my initial reservations, and broke the procession of good-but-not-great-novels I’ve been reading of late. You see, it was on the shining recommendation of a favorite professor, and a favorite fellow student in said professor’s course, that I picked up Possession. We were reading, I think it was, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (blech) and talking about woman-monster figures; and what comes up, but the myth of Melusina! Instantly, aforementioned professor and fellow student begin gushing over Possession, by some woman—A.S. Byatt?—with enough brilliance, evidently, for ten master novelists. Who was this Byatt woman? And why hadn’t I—a serious lover of contemporary women writers—heard of her?! Of course, I rationalized this for myself; they must be speaking of some Victorian novelist, right? Professor is a Victorianist, and student is a Medievalist who dabbles in Victoriana. So that would explain it—a Victorian woman writer, fallen into obscurity and possibly poverty because of the vicious patriarchs that dominated her era.

Oh, how wrong was I. I added Possession to my account, noting sourly that the novel was published in 1990. I would have been three years old; my Victorian fantasy instantly deflated. Imagine my surprise, however, that my limp fantasy was, indeed, a central conflict of the novel! (I’ll derail again here momentarily to say that once I swallowed my pride and ordered Possession, I also threw her short fiction collection Elementals into my shopping cart. That one I did manage to read in the whirlwind of last semester—and my god, it was a whirlwind in and of itself! If you are at all in doubt that short stories can be moving, powerful, life-changing, or simply beautiful, read Elementals. A longer story within, “Cold,” is quite possibly one of the most incendiary and breathtaking stories I’ve ever had the fortune of devouring. And that’s just one masterpiece among five others!

Okay, that said. I should preface this, too, by saying that there were two things working against Possession as I embarked upon the journey: 1) I had hyped it up over the year-and-change so much that it would be next to impossible for it to live up to or exceed my expectations and 2) I discovered very soon after beginning the novel that this is undoubtedly a ‘winter experience’ sort of novel. It’s intended for frigid nights and five-P.M. moonrises and reading tucked away in your favorite blanket in your favorite chair. It is by no means a summer novel, a beach read, or something to be engrossed in while you swat mosquitoes from your thigh. For this very reason, I’m looking forward to a delicious re-read over Winter break.

Possession, then, is a sort of patchwork quilt. There are two central narrative threads—the clandestine affair between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, and the research-based affair-of-sorts with Roland Michell and Maud Bailey—but that is only just the beginning. For we have, too, the narratives invoked through Ash and Lamotte’s poetry; we have the sordid history and expedition of Mortimer Cropper; we have Ellen Ash—that original Hillary Clinton—and her correspondences; we have Leonora Stern and Beatrice Nest and James Blackadder (three very distinct academics, each with their own motives and passions); and interwoven myths and fairytales and legends and more. With such a hodge-podge of characters and events, each offered up in what one might term a post-modern relativist sort of way (the author’s slant is ever-ambiguous, so to speak), the reader—here, Me—may find him or herself liking bits and being bored to tears by others. At times, it felt like a salad-bar sort of novel; for example, no matter how I tried, I found Ash’s poetry—which often ended up being ten or fifteen page stretches of awful(ly) Victorian prose-poems—an insufferable chore. I tried reading aloud to grab the cadence, with no such luck. Lamotte, on the other hand, works with a lucid, precise, melodic poetic voice—and her subject matter, the fairy Melusina and the City of Is, grabbed me by the gut. Likewise, the detours into fairy tales—again, like the one we are given to ‘by’ Lamotte—are engaging and stunningly written. Byatt has a knack for fairy stories, and the several featured throughout Possession could be published on their own (in fact, I think two of them are featured in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye).

But ultimately, love or hate ‘em, you have to appreciate Byatt’s depth of investment into the various threads of the novel. She clearly had a grasp on Victorian poetry and the contemporaneous interest in evolutionary principles (remember that Darwin’s Origin of Species was 1859), and the strangely conflicting obsession with supernatural haunting (which Byatt also ties in in a very well-researched and historical manner)—all this to generate a convincing poetic style and voice for Ash. Without a doubt, she knows her fables and myths to such an extent that they seem almost to infect the novel. You begin to recognize the motifs of the overt myths in the shadowy undercurrents of the entire novel, in places you simply hadn’t noticed them before. Take, for example, the Melusina myth; at first you think, okay, okay, I get it. A woman-monster is feared for her power; likewise, Christabel Lamotte’s poetic voice is silenced because she’s employing poetry—a male-dominated world—as an outlet for her particular identity (feminine, sexual, and authoritative). Lamotte writes a poem about Melusina—all right, I get it. Then out of nowhere, you realize that Maud Bailey, over a century later, is not only doing that same sort of ‘frightening’ female self-authorship, but has become a forbidden spectacle for Roland, and suddenly, you can trace the images and the hints all the way back to the beginning of the novel. I realize this sleuthing sounds geeky, but think about who’s writing this for a moment. I am an unabashed book nerd/slut/obsessive.

Likewise, the theme of the ‘academic mystery’ probably appealed to me because it felt like gazing into a crystal ball; everything’s still a little murky, but ‘signs point to yes’ that the novel was reflecting (at least in some distorted way) my future back at me. It won’t be for everyone, I know. It’s thrilling for me to watch at Roland and Maud seek out hidden letters and discover secret hair-locks behind doll collections, and so forth, all in the name of scholarship!—because that’s kind of/sort of what I want to do for the rest of my life. But that, and Byatt’s ever-present and self-conscious erudition are potentially grating for the reader with little patience for vulgar displays of the Ivory Tower. The primary setting is academe, the novel is peopled with scholars—the only escape you’ll find from that is within the magic-and-mystery-laced flashes into Lamotte and Ash’s ‘lifetime.’ And then, if you’re not big on Victoriana or Celtic myth and superstition, you’ll be trapped once again. I guess what I mean to say is that I’m a bit shocked to hear so many people gush over the novel (and not just the two from that class I mentioned), because it seems the kind of book directed at a very, very particular audience—and the kind of book that can easily break a reader’s last nerve.

I suppose the ‘affair of sorts’ I mentioned between Roland and Maud, too, drew my interest in. Evoked in contrast to the almost burning passion of Christabel Lamotte and R.H. Ash, Maud and Roland’s attraction to one another was all the more fascinating—because, through them, Byatt captures the truly icy quality that seems so peculiar to modern romance. Their intellectual barricades against one another, and their desire sublimated through a chaste yearning for solitude and quiet seem somehow to reflect a more pervasive question in the so-termed post-modern era: are we too self-aware for romantic love? When Roland wonders whether he can verify any of his thoughts or feelings—because he has taken up the pomo flag for the idea of an incoherent Self—I think about my own alliance with post-modernism and my inextricable connection to the Age of the Internet. I’m blogging a review of a book that was tactile, that had a texture in my hands—in the process of writing this, I still feel the keys beneath my fingers, but the words are no longer anything but creations on a detached screen. I don’t mean to get wildly philosophical, because these are old and frequently clichĂ© questions, but nonetheless, Byatt captures one of the greatest predicaments of the modern age—what does it mean to assert an identity in an age where identity is almost wholly unstable? And how can we justify thinking or feeling anything if we can’t subscribe to some sort of stable order of understanding? Interesting that the book even preceded the sort of spiral into the internet, because it seems the questions have become more pertinent in the last decade than when the book was originally published. There’s a nostalgia in Roland and Maud’s mutual attraction for, I guess we would say, a ‘simpler’ age—a time in which they could put faith into their emotions and their ‘love.’ Likewise, the book’s evocation of fables and superstitions and Wuthering Heights-esque moorlands and cliffs gives the nostalgia that seeps through a more definable quality.

I’m getting off track, and this has become college-paper length. As I said, there are bits of the novel that felt like chores—Ash’s poetry, Cropper’s narrative—not to mention the fact that I was two-hundred pages into the novel before it became a ‘can’t-put-down’ kind of read. At first I was disappointed with the conclusion’s tidy precision, but as I think more about it now, I realize it actually wasn’t as neat as I originally thought. It was no Austenian dash to knot up the frayed ends, that’s for damn sure. No, as I think about it, the tidiness of wrapping up the plot points seems almost to play into the construction of the Victorian novel, where that sort of reassurance was expected, indeed almost required, of the novel; Byatt’s wrapping-up is a sort of defiance of ‘factual’ ambiguity, again bringing up the nostalgia for the past that we’ve spoken of already. But the ideas of the novel remain in limbo—again, questions of the unstable identity arise, as do fears about the state of modern romance; perhaps most importantly (and one of the more obvious inquiries of the novel), what is the meaning of possession? How does one possess another person, or an idea, a text—or even oneself? Byatt gives us no assurance on that point, and of course (I won’t spoil here), the very last three pages throw us for a bend as to even our understanding of those aforementioned and ‘resolved’ plot points. A hundred new questions materialize, and poof! Thar’ goes the last page; we’re left to ask ourselves about the possibilities involved in…well, again, I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, if you had the patience for this review, you’ll likely have a much more tolerant patience for Possession. It’s a dense read; it’s metafictional to an almost tiresome degree; Byatt teases, but never satisfies—but it’s well worth your parched tongue by the end.

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