Possession: A Romance

Posted by on Thursday, October 21st, 2010

I picked this for 12 books in 12 months because I’ve started it at least once or twice before and abandoned it each time, so it seemed to fit right into the spirit of the project.  I’m so glad I read it, though I can see why I hadn’t stuck with it previously.  I opted for the audiobook version of this book as well.  It’s beautifully read, and I need to give some thought to a Booksforears review.  The book is very dense and incredibly detailed, and as I listened, I wavered between loving the layered detail and thinking Byatt should have edited out more and simplified the book.

Possession follows a frustrated English Literature graduate student working on the (fictional) poet Randolph Henry Ash, who discovers some heretofore lost drafts of a letter to a woman.  Roland, the student, becomes obsessed with tracking down the unnamed addressee and discovering the nature of his relationship to the woman Ash addressed.  He meets Maud Bailey, a young professor and expert on the under-appreciated (and also fictional) poet Christabel LaMotte.  The two contemporary academics studiously pick through letters and poems and search for lost or unknown correspondence, and end up uncovering wonderful connections between the historical writers and developing an interesting relationship of their own.

What’s fascinating about this book is how layered it is, and how much attention it pays to topics that are very dear to my heart.  It delves into Breton and Scandinavian mythology, poetry, feminist theory, embroidery and knitting (though only touches of those, sadly), the nature of love, the nature of poetry, the nature of translation and retellings of myths (my nerdy heart sings!) . . . it’s so rich.  One could argue that it’s too rich.  Byatt gives us stories within stories within stories within stories.  We get Ash and LaMotte’s letters to each other, wherein they discuss mythology and poetry.  We get their original works, which are of course actually Byatt’s original works.  We get so very much detail about the vagaries of modern academia, and the fights between feminist academics and “traditionalists.”  It’s all just so very entwined.

Byatt was so brave to write this meta-romance.  I honestly don’t know how she pulled it off.  The greatest danger in works like this is that the supposed masterworks the characters are studying need to be excellent enough for the characters’ interest in them to seem just.  Byatt does manage that, for the most part.  As a writer and quasi-academic (frustrated academic? failed academic? stalled academic?  whatever I am.)  I felt Byatt’s role so keenly.  She wrote those pieces in a way that seemed so familiar to me.  It’s odd to be a writer who works in a form and genre that is essentially lost to most readers.   This book turned out to be such a fantastic outlet for many forms of the author’s creativity.  I think I love it.  I certainly love many aspects of it.

Filed in 12 books in 12 months,Books,Celtic | 4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Possession: A Romance”

  1. --Debon 22 Oct 2010 at 8:29 pm 1

    I KNEW you would love this book. I was so happy when I saw this on your list. I love this book. I’ve read it several times and am always entranced and delighted. (Though I admit that sometimes I skip over some of the epic poetry.)

    Oddly, though, I’ve never been able to get through ANY of the author’s other books–and I’ve tried!

  2. Bullwinkleon 23 Oct 2010 at 9:14 am 2

    Oh dear. That review does not make me want to read this book – and it is on my list. Darn.

    I think I’ve started it and put it down – for not being able to stay with the many layers. I’m not in a place where this would work – except you mention the audio version. Have you gone back to look at the print version? Is it readable now? (Did you post audio deets somewhere?)

  3. bibliotecariaon 01 Nov 2010 at 5:14 pm 3

    I liked that book when I first read it, quite a few years ago. I think I need to go back and read it again. I’ll probably appreciate it more a second time around. Oddly, though, I’ve never read anything by that author since. I should try her again.

  4. […] enthralling work of fiction, and while it could have used a tighter edit, Lanea mostly loved it [review].  A more accessibly layered work might be The Various, which Anj also loved […]

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