Dragging Out A Life: Review of “Possession” by A.S. Byatt

There was such a peace in deciding to bring our old blue, unloved blanket to a coffee shop for reading and hot beverages only. Just the giant book that asks for finishing, the teal knitted blanket, and a to-go cup of hot caramel cider. I can’t remember the last time I left notepads or blank printer pages for ideation at home. Nothing swirled in my head but the plot of Les Mis and necessary silence. The blanket felt luxurious and genuine.

The beach in L.A. sent my manic thoughts fleeing, as well. I was able to finish my other book for the year, Possession and compose a review for fun and remembrance. With autumn’s simplicity and paring down in preparation for winter, these words are offered for sharing and comfort. Let me know how the book spoke to you if you read it!

I recall being flattered by a well-read friend, advising that I might enjoy A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession for the poetry. I gleam at the thought of being connected with poetry. So I dove into it, excited by verse opening chapters, library descriptions, and likable Roland Michell. The plot felt snug introducing major characters like Professor Blackadder, Randolph Henry Ash, and Ash’s important work The Garden of Proserpina. Roland’s girlfriend Val offers palpable drama, but not enough to distract from his thieving secret correspondence between Ash and a mystery woman. As a wannabe librarian, I’ve fantasized over discovering scholarship-changing material, then quietly stealing it. Rapt attention.

Roland finds Maud Bailey, a cold and lovely feminist scholar who studies the poet Ash has possibly written to: Christabel LaMotte. Byatt then cleverly manuevers their joint research and developing companionship, seamlessly stitches in “The Glass Coffin” by Ash (a very enjoyable tale of an unattainable princess), and the visit to Sir George Bailey (owner of letters between the two Victorian poets) and his wife at their blissfully secluded estate. Byatt is talented with description:

“They went in behind Sir George, who waved his huge cone of light around the dark, cramped, circular space, illuminating a semi-circular bay window, a roof carved with veined arches and mock-medieval ivy-leaves, felt-textured with dust, a box-bed with curtains still hanging, showing a dull red under their pall of particles, a fantastically carved black wooden desk, covered with beading and scrolls, and bunches of grapes and pomegranates and lilies, something that might have been either a low chair or a prie-dieu [a piece of furniture used for kneeling in prayer], heaps of cloth, an old trunk, two band boxes, a sudden row of staring tiny white faces, one, two, three, propped against a pillow. Roland drew his breath in minor shock; Maud said, ‘Oh, the dolls‘– and Sir George brought his light back from a blank mirror entwined with gilded roses and focused it on the three rigid figures, semi-recumbent under a dusty counterpane, in a substantial if miniature fourposter bed.” (Byatt, 91)

The secrecy Roland and Maud share feels larger in this dark, mysterious mansion and we have the added bonus of a full-on literary detective story. Their exploration of family dolls and more letters is an enchanting scene, peppered by intelligent and flowing dialogue. This couple displays a down-to-earth brilliance, one that’s often hard to achieve in writing.
By now readers have detected the epistolary flirtation in Ash and LaMotte. Byatt then uses this opportunity to introduce Professor Cropper, personality-opposite of Roland. The latter is captivated by Ash’s work and humble in his studies, the former a pompous critic rolling in family money. Yet Cropper’s appreciation of and obsession with objects resonates, particularly for those who love these literature-based scavenger hunts. The “objets de vertu” (historical object, which doesn’t really translate in French and is tamer than intended in English) and “beautiful and strange things collected” lie in his hoped-for autobiographical draft, a humorous sketch. In terms of advancing story the professor asks Beatrice Nest, another researcher, to meet for lunch. Roland visits briefly before to prolong his own mounting interests in Ash and LaMotte, check messages, and endure an encounter with Val. That Byatt can create believable and rich poems beside fast-paced prose is also a feat.

Admittedly, I was a distracted reader from the quietly lustful end of Maud and Roland’s stay at the Bailey estate into the heady letters of our Victorian poets. Excellent language, but I dabbled in other works and lost momentum halfway through. I recommend taking less than a month to begin and finish. I gained more steam when Maud and Roland fled in more secrecy to Brittany, discovering letters from a cousin (Sabine) of Christabel LaMotte’s. The highlight of this passage is Sabine’s description of her village’s Toussaint celebration, a Halloween-type storytellling month when ghosts and memories collide. Okay, Ms. Byatt, I’m back. I’m rewarded by more pages of rapid, well-documented action.
Provoking questions pop up all over this work: When do the living dishonor the dead with their quest for information? What makes poetry desired? What creates desire? Can our origins ever let us escape such desire? There are signs pointing to various answers, usually hidden in lyrical metaphor and it’s fun to infiltrate. For example, the fictional LaMotte pens:

“Men may be martyred
Any where
In desert, cathedral
Or Public Square.
In no Rush of Action
This is our doom
To Drag a Long Life out
In a Dark Room…”

She longs for revelation past death, uses her words to highlight gender differences, is driven by curiosity, and won’t stop producing art even when she’s buried. This happens in spite of her living most of her life as a recluse. That her work shows that is testament to the author’s cunning.

The crowning jewel of everything shines in the following:

“There are readings–of the same text–that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are–believe it–impersonal readings–where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark–readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.” (Byatt, 511)

Another Russian-nesting-doll scene, a place where Byatt’s writing has finally become my knowledge, strikes to the heart. Continued evolution of characters’, a circled plot, and a beautiful butterfly-effect postscript that reads like a dark fairy-tale ensue. Along with Roland, I’m ready for poems and the Creator of them to fall like rain.

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About violetprose

Writing pulls me out of myself and into a world of color. It soothes, encourages, and inspires, among other perfections. I use it to love, work, and play. I hope it becomes a legacy.
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