Nenia Campbell's Reviews > Possession

Possession by A.S. Byatt
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Mar 06, 14

bookshelves: litry-fiction
Read from September 12 to 13, 2011

possession [puh-zesh-uhn]
1. the act or fact of possessing.
2. the state of being possessed.
3. ownership.
4. Law - actual holding or occupancy, either with or without rights of ownership.
5. a thing possessed: He packed all his possessions into one trunk.

One of my favorite pastimes is figuring out the mystery behind a book's ambiguous title. Sometimes this mystery is revealed right away, which isn't any fun because I like it when a book keeps me guessing, but other times it isn't revealed until the end -- and I like that best because it forces you to analyze a book beyond the surface layer, to search for deeper meaning. Possession, the book, encapsulates all five of these definitions. It is definitely a book about possessing -- people, ideas, love, and valuable treasures; it is a book about being possessed -- again, by love, or other people, or by all-consuming passion, rage, or mystery; it is about ownership of these things; it is about the legal ramifications of ownership -- and how these rules can become a thorny briar patch that separates you from what you want or desire when this ownership is contested; and it is also about the actual possession of all these objects, traits, and ideas. Pretty fascinating, no? I thought so, too, but I didn't really get what Byatt had done until the end.

This is definitely a romance, though far more substantial than most romances out there. It is also a book clearly written by an intellectual, about intellectuals, for intellectuals. The main characters are all academics seeking to unravel the mysteries concerning a previously overlooked relationship and correspondence between Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash. Unfortunately, the ownership of these letters, journals, and poems are scattered about and heavily contested, and the two researchers, Maud and Roland, as well as the nefarious Professor Cropper, often stoop to illicit means in order to gain access to this knowledge. There are references to poetry, especially John Donne (who I am a huge fan of, more than Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, who I also love), passages of poetry and fairytales created specially for the book.

The world building is sensational -- I was convinced that I was reading about genuine, historical characters. I can't fathom the sheer amount of research that must have gone into this book -- not just about the times, but also other poets and writers living at that era, particularly females, who had few rights and were not easily published. Sometimes, I feel like Byatt was enjoying her world too much because some of the passages, particularly the endless chapter consisting of Ash's and LaMotte's letters to each other, and the tedious poetry, struck me as particularly self-congratulating. But if I could write as well as Byatt, I'd probably be self-congratulatory, too. That fairytale in the beginning completely roped me in. I found myself sympathizing with these characters, who would rather lose themselves in research and fantasy, letting themselves become possessed by it, rather than deal with the needs and wants of the people around him. This escapism was prominent in both poet and researcher, and I found the parallels between past and present particularly well done. I loved how LaMotte/Ash mirrored Bailey/Michell. In that sense, it's almost as if the poet's history of tragic love possessed the researchers so fascinated by them.

And poets ARE fascinating! We learned in my creativity class that poets are the most likely of professional artists to develop psychological problems. I think there's something about those hardcore poets that's almost borderline hedonistic. Like, as long as they're enjoying the fruits of life and feeling pleasure, their actions are perfectly okay (regardless of how horrid) because it's Art. I also feel that poets only really have one foot in reality; if you spend your whole life thinking in metaphor, it's bound to cast a shadow of psychosis over your life, creating an almost quixotic inability to distinguish fantasy from reality at times. Sometimes, reading those passages about LaMotte and Ash was like reading the diary of two teenagers basking in their "star-crossed" love, enjoying the "us against the world" feeling from being in a relationship nobody approves of. They did strike me as particularly immature, pretentious, and yet very charming. I can forgive all that, though, because it's so fun to analyze Christabel and Randolph. The aching sadness of their ill-fated romance really struck me; it's so hard to make a relationship like this sympathetic, but Byatt succeeded very well. I felt sorry for them, because it really did seem like they were soulmates, prevented from being together by circumstances out of there control.

One thing I didn't like, though, was the cover. I read the movie edition one and the characters looked absolutely nothing the way I pictured them! Roland is so obviously Matthew Broderick, and Maud is Nicole Kidman through and through (though Gwyneth Paltrow is hardly a bad choice). As for the poets, I imagined R.H. as Alan Rickman and Christabel as Kiera Knightley. Odd, perhaps, but Ash was older than Christabel, who I swear had to be based off the Brontes and Emily Dickinson because a) the poetry was just so Emily and b) the whole entire time I was reading this, I kept having flashbacks to Wuthering Heights -- a book that epitomizes, perhaps, selfishness and possession in love and romance. Except it's significantly easier to like Ash than it is to like Heathcliff (who quite honestly struck me as a psychotic Mr. Darcy).
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