Minli's Reviews > Possession

Possession by A.S. Byatt
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's review
Oct 20, 11

bookshelves: adult, historical, contemporary, made-me-think
Read from September 07 to October 14, 2011

I'm waffling between three or four stars for this book. On one hand, this book took me a whopping three weeks to finish. If you know me, you know that I NEVER READ THIS SLOWLY. I've lost count the number of times I decided "this is enough for now" and turned to something else, then lost my place, skimmed a bit, and found the next engrossing passage and went from there.

Possession was a gift from a good friend of mine who said she took the local train to work in order to have more time to read it, she was that engrossed. That's quite a recommendation. While I can't say I was as 'possessed' as she was by this novel, I'm glad I read it, as it gave me a lot to think about.

Possession is about two literary scholars who discover the maybe illicit love affair of two fictional Victorian poets. Roland has devoted his entire study to Randolph Henry Ash, a poet akin to like, Robert Browning or something (my poetry ignorance is showing). Maud Bailey, on the other hand, has long studied the life and works of Christabel LaMotte (Rossetti analogue?), a distant ancestor. Roland discovers a love letter from Ash to LaMotte tucked away in a rare manuscript, finds out that no one else knows about this, but many--including the super greedy Mortimer Cropper who must!own!all!things!--would pay through the nose to get it. This zaps Roland out of his completely dull life to discover more about Ash's mystery lady, which leads him to Maud.

I think Possession has gotten so much critical praise because the people heaping praise on it are TOTAL LITERARY NERDS like Roland and Maud. I have not read this much academia porn before. I learned a few years ago that a life of research and academia is just not for me, so I found the parts about procedure, academic politics, document-grabbing, bribery and manipulation only tangentially interesting. However, I was very interested in Maud's character, even if Roland was boring, and how she had a complicated relationship with her own appearance, and what that seemed to suggest to other (male) scholars. And a few times did I read Maud's research base referred to by Ash scholars in a disdainful way, as some lesbian coterie where feminists bash Ash and have orgies. Or something, right? Because down with the patriarchy! It was sad, really, how true it still is.

The other part of this book, interspersed with the academia narrative, is Ash and LaMotte's love affair told through 'primary source documents'--poems, epics, letters, diary entries of a cousin LaMotte stayed with, and so on. It's definitely admirable--and ambitious--that Byatt was able to create all these documents so convincingly, to me anyway. I haven't really studied Victorian poetry, but it's obvious that Byatt has, and I wouldn't be surprised if she decided that, oh yes, she was going to write an epic Ragnarok poem and put it in her book, and who cares what anyone else thinks? Even if I did slog through the Ash/LaMotte letters and honestly couldn't tell you a thing in them, I applaud her.

And the secondary discussion, besides women in academia, is women living the creative life like LaMotte. I can rant for hours about how some think men excel at everything, even traditionally domestic arts like cooking and sewing (except they're called the culinary arts and apparel design if done professionally). During this time, women were encouraged to draw, paint, play an instrument, write poetry--but only to pass the time and only to entertain a prospective husband. Women who wanted to pursue a career for writing? Forget it. Possession is a musing on what that means; LaMotte has been completely disregarded by Ash scholars as fairytale pap and "women's writing." Even Ellen Ash, Ash's husband, is thought to be dull and uncreative by those same scholars.

There's a lot of food for thought in this book. Frankly, I'm more in line with Val, Roland's girlfriend, who thinks he's totally strange for engrossing himself in a dead man's work for his entire life, always dependent on grants and fellowships. I love literature, I might even love poetry, but always being at the mercy of someone else's purse is something I just don't get.

Still, Possession is not for everyone. If you majored in English, you'll probably like this book; if you're interested in feminist writers and the study of them, you'll probably like this book too. Bonus points if you appreciate primary source documents from Victorian literature.
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Reading Progress

09/14/2011 page 125
23.0% "Haven't decided what I think of it yet--I may put this on hold for a rainy day because reading this on the subway is like trying to walk through molasses. It's intriguing, but slow, and my attention span is very short these days."
10/13/2011 page 408
74.0% "Liking this much more now. There are still passages where my eyes glaze over, but am growing increasingly intrigued." 1 comment

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Will be curious about your thoughts about this.

Minli I only got 50 pages in before I had to read the Le Guin for a book club, but I'm actually really enjoying it so far. It's definitely not for everyone. but if you have a love for manuscripts, Romantic poetry, editing, academia, research -- it's basically literary porn.

message 3: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Oh, I read it! I liked it--or rather, I liked about two thirds of it, then the climactic one-third I was not so interested in (the resolution of the story within the story), and then the very end I liked again.

I very much enjoyed the way it was put together, though.

Minli Have you seen the movie? How closely does it follow? I saw it a few years ago.

message 5: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Minli wrote: "Have you seen the movie? How closely does it follow? I saw it a few years ago."

I'm afraid I haven't seen it! Maybe I'll put it on my Netflix queue.

message 6: by Catie (new)

Catie I made it about half way through this before putting it down, but I still think about Maud and her hair sometimes :) Maybe I'll finish it someday.

Minli It took weeks of concentration to finish, so I don't begrudge you for stopping. Did you make it to the long exchange of letters? I nearly gave up there, but I'm glad I kept going because the diary entries of Christabel's cousin were so funny.

message 8: by Catie (new)

Catie No, I don't think that I did!

message 9: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Catie wrote: "I made it about half way through this before putting it down, but I still think about Maud and her hair sometimes :) Maybe I'll finish it someday."

Sounds like you gave up at about the part where I began to find it slow going.

message 10: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Minli, reading your review reminded me of how, although I liked the mystery element of the book, I really got bored by Ash and LaMott's affair (it just didn't have the drama for me that it was supposed to).

I did like, at the end, Roland's discovering his own way into writing poetry. That stuck with me.

Minli I agree with you, Asaki. The parts I was definitely skipping forward to were the mystery element, aka what Maud and Roland were going to do next and if they were going to outwit Cropper!

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