Saturday, 26 June 2010

AS Byatt: Possession

Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990, and that isn't exactly a surprise. Not only is it brilliant, but it’s so  self-reflectively literary that I'm surprised they even bothered with a shortlist. When I call it a literary book I’m not getting into that silly, puzzling but curiously fascinating debate about what distinguishes ‘literary’ fiction from mainstream or genre work, but simply pointing out that Possession is about literature. It is a book about books - about interpreting, about reading, and about writing.

Also, look - a picture! After many months I have managed to acquire a cable for my mobile and actually use the ruddy camera. Yes, it's a bit of a shabby photo, but I reckon I'll get the hang of it eventually. 

Roland Michell is a minor, more or less unemployed scholar studying the works of the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, living lovelessly and habitually with his long-term girlfriend Val. In the British Library, examining a book that Ash used to own, Roland finds a letter that suggests that Ash’s apparently conventional and respectable domestic life may have been hiding something a little more spicy. True, he was a Victorian, so 'spicy' could mean some petticoated maidservant flashing a bit of ankle, but it's still a sign of another side to Ash. Investigating the letters, Roland soon links Ash to another poet, Christabel LaMotte, in what just might be a concealed love affair. Investigating LaMotte leads to an expert on her work, Maud Bailey, who becomes as caught up as Roland in the desire to find out what really happened.

In the process of investigating, as you might expect, Maud and Roland edge, ever so carefully, delicately and charmingly, towards a love of their own. It’s a pleasant difference from the usual flaming, urgent, lusting romances of much literature. There is no danger of anyone's bodice getting torn, here. As Maud and Roland both realise, they have spent so long examining love from ideological and theoretical perspectives that they no longer know how to do it themselves. Both of them use their intellects to efface themselves, and as the story draws towards a (satisfying, melancholy and triumphant) climax, they are almost, but never quite, overshadowed by the excellent supporting cast. There’s a lovely moment when all the characters appear together and are described, one by one, except Roland, who is there, but is ignored by the narrative. He’s a lovably pathetic, unheroic hero, and his discovery of what he really values and believes in is all the more enjoyable because of it. Maud, too, finds her strong theoretical opinions contradicting how she actually wants to live, and she gradually breaks down these barriers as she investigates LaMotte’s life.

Love and identity aren’t the only challenges, though, as the attempts to explore the lives of LaMotte and Ash turn into a kind of polite, literary, thoroughly murderless detective story. Other scholars take the place of villains, as Maud and Roland try to keep their discoveries to themselves, evading the clutches of the possessive, obsessive more-or-less-villain Mortimer Cropper; Roland’s dour supervior James Blackadder; and Maud’s wild, exciteable ex-lover and fellow feminist Leonora Stern. Just as much, though, history itself is the antagonist, as the two protagonists try to track down clues scattered through poems, journals and artefacts left behind by the two poets and their associates back in the nineteenth century.

Why history sucks
This side of the novel is mischievously knowing, as the characters consider the literary tropes of the activities they are engaged in – talking about moving from quest to hunt, and commenting that literary critics make natural detectives. Equally, this element of the narrative teases us, withdrawing whenever it seems to be trying to turn into a page-turning mystery. Long descriptions and sections of poetry step in, disrupting the reader’s greed for revelation (which the characters acknowledge is driving their pursuit of the history of LaMotte and Ash) and forcing us to engage with language rather than becoming obsessed with facts and truth.

For Byatt doesn’t just invent two Victorian poets: she invents their work. The chapters begin with, and occasionally consist of, extracts from their works, and they’re distinctly convincing as poems in their own right, as well as being clues about the lives of the fictional authors. This is massively ambitious, but successful: it forces us to engage with the poets as poets, rather than as the subjects of biography. We, as readers, are faced with the same challenges as the characters.

This mixture of poetry and writing about poetry gets Possession involved in a spot of bother about textualism and historicism. The biographical readings (including the feminist and psychoanalytical approaches favoured by Maud and Roland, respectively) begin by trying to use life to illuminate the poems, but end up turning the poems into ways of understanding the authors’ lives. Literature is reduced to history (take that, historians!).

Illustrating this reduction (and that it is a reduction) are three passages set in the nineteenth century, unseen by any of the modern-day characters, beyond their investigations. As well as being powerful scenes in their own right, these show that biographical interpretation is fundamentally futile: we can never know The Truth. History has an existence separate to our perceptions of it, no matter how elegantly and ingeniously we interpret it. At the beginning of the book, all readings based on historical understanding of LaMotte and Ash are wrong, but by the end, after all the revelations and discoveries, they are still missing pieces.

Roland and Maud come to realise this, and let go of their obsessive pursuit of their subjects’ lives, letting themselves think in new ways. Roland in particular realises that when it comes down to it, it is the poetry that matters, not the poets. After all the struggle and drama of the hunt for biography, he rediscovers the fascination of simply reading the work of his favourite poet.

The joy of text
This discovery of the sheer pleasure of reading is the other side of Possession's engagement with criticism. It wonderfully picks out both the joy and the anguish of studying literature:
'“His Agincourt poem and Offa on the dyke. And then Ragnarok.” He hesitated. “They were what stayed alive, when I’d been taught and examined everything else.”
Maud smiled then. “Exactly. That’s it. What could survive our education.”'
Even for me, who wouldn’t (and shouldn't) be allowed anywhere near a PhD, this rings true. To study a writer reveals their best and their worst in such detail that one way or another it changes your opinions of them. Not just that, but it can render vast swathes of literature unreadable, by altering what you demand and expect of a good book. Once you have learnt to appreciate what literature can do, it becomes harder to wade through books that don’t even try.

The novel also delves into the bright and dark of criticism. On the one hand it explains why it is worth really examining books rather than just flicking through them to while away train journeys:
'I study – literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and thgen in some sense dangerously powerful – as though we held a clue to the true nature of things.'
On the other hand, it shows how this can be taken too far, and that clinging to specific schools of criticism can leave literature:
'... all reduced like boiling jam to – human sexuality. Just as Leonora Stern makes the whole earth read as the female body – and language – all language. And all vegetation is pubic hair.'
This line also highlights that while a serious discussion of how literature works and what it can achieve, Possession is also funny. It has a warm humour that makes affectionate fun of the characters, who are just on the right side of caricature. I often find that a touch of humour makes books, and characters, vastly more human, dragging them away from being plodding discussions of ideas and dreadful events and into little scraps of life, littered with wit and merriment as well as struggle and suffering.

Oh, and it’s good, too
I’ve becomes sidetracked by my crude thoughts on literature itself, now, but this isn’t a necessary part of enjoying this book. It has depths, yes, and I’m sure there is plenty that passed me by entirely, but all that’s less important than it being a good book. No, it isn’t constantly thrilling (I don't think it will count as much of a spoiler if I reveal that there is not a single explosion), and this feels purposeful. All the different layers and modes of narrative, including fairy tales, poems, journals, letters, third-person description and probably a few others I’ve forgotten to mention, turn this into a book about indulging in words, about enjoying reading for its own sake, rather than simply as a way of propelling a reader through a series of mysteries and revelations. So it’s slow, but in a pleasant, languid, detailed way – a way that lets you spend half a page reading about sea anenomes, but that doesn't make you mind. 

Clearly not for everybody, then, but it worked for me.  

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