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Possession: A Romance ()

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    The beginning of Possession, and the first choice, was most unusually for me, the title.  I thought of
    it in the British Library, watching that great Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, circumambulating
    the catalogue.  I thought: she has given all her life to his thoughts, and then I thought: she has
    mediated his thoughts to me.  And then I thought 'Does he possess her, or does she possess him?
    There could be a novel called Possession about the relations between living and dead minds.
           -A.S. Byatt (Choices: On the Writing of Possession)

A surprise awaits Roland Michell, a postdoctoral research assistant studying Randolph Henry Ash , as he opens the Victorian poet's personal copy of Giambattista Vico's Principi di una Scienza Nuova in the Reading Room of the London Library.  The book, apparently untouched since Ash's death, contains numerous marginalia and personal papers, including two drafts of letters to an unnamed woman whom the poet met at a breakfast in the 1850's.   Acting on impulse, Roland swipes the letters and embarks on a quest to determine the identity of the intended recipient and to explore the ramifications of the correspondence.  He determines that the object of Ash's interest was the fairly minor poetess Christabel La Motte and, with the help of the beautiful but icy LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey, reconstructs the relationship between the two--a relationship with ground shaking import for the understanding of both authors' works.  Meanwhile, several more esteemed and powerful academics get wind of their search and the quest turns into a race.  Along the way Roland and Maud peel back the further details of an 18th century love affair like the layers of an onion, and fall in love themselves.  Ultimately, the final revelations about the lives of the poets are unveiled in a drawing room scene straight out of a British mystery.

Byatt mixes thinly veiled references to historical figures (Ash is Robert Browning; LaMotte is Christina Rosetti), literary forms (narrative, letters & poetry), and genres (criticism, thriller, detective story, quest, etc.) to create an entrancing novel of ideas.  Reminiscent of books like Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time (see Orrin's review), Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose (whose influence she acknowledges), and Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, she shows that the life of the mind can be thrilling and that a literary mystery can be just as gripping as a noirish melodrama.

One caution: over the years, I've given this book to half a dozen people and I don't think a single one of them finished it; I'm certain none of them much liked it.  I think the reason is that you can get bogged down if you take the Victorian storyline too seriously.  It seems pretty clear that much of the stuff on arcane points of interpretation and scholarly criticism is meant to be parody, not gospel.    It's also easy to get lost in the poetry and the letters, with all their imagery and allusions; but keep in mind that they are essentially McGuffins, meant to advance the plot, not an integral part of it themselves.  Byatt was quite consciously trying to write a novel that would be fun; it should be read for enjoyment, not for talmudic effect.  At any rate, it's one of my favorite novels, and if you approach it like an arty version of the Maltese Falcon (see Orrin's review), you'll love it too.


Grade: (A+)


A.S. Byatt Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: A. S. Byatt
    -OBIT: AS Byatt, author and critic, dies aged 87: The acclaimed author of novels including Possession and The Children’s Book, has died, her publisher has confirmed (Richard Lea and Ella Creame, 17 Nov 2023, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: A. S. Byatt, author of Possession, has died at the age of 87. (Dan Sheehan, November 17, 2023, LitHub)
    -TRIBUTE: AS Byatt’s hard truths: The novelist, who died last week aged 87, clung fast to realism during a time of faddish post-structuralists. (Charlotte Stroud, 11/22/23, New Statesman)
    -TRIBUTE: A.S. Byatt and the follies of magical progressivism: The late novelist understood the dangers of ego-centred delusions (Jacob Phillips, 11/26/23, The Critic)
    -TRIBUTE: How A.S. Byatt’s northern identity and anger over climate change informed her fiction (Barbara Franchi, December 4, 2023, The Conversation)
    -ESSAY: A.S. Byatt on Iris Murdoch’s The Bell : In honor of Murdoch's 100th birthday (A. S. Byatt, July 15, 2019, LitHub)
    -INTERVIEW: Writing in terms of pleasure: In my work, writing is always so dangerous. It's very destructive. People who write books are destroyers (Interview by Sam Leith, 4/25/09, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: “Magnificent Hybrids.” David Mitchell on the Alchemy of A.S. Byatt’s Stories: "Step inside. Take your time. Savor your discoveries." (David Mitchell, November 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: There's something about Alice: With its unforgettable creatures, games with language and logic and ever-curious hero, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is not only vivid but thrillingly different from other imagined worlds. In the week Tim Burton's film is released, AS Byatt takes another trip down the rabbit hole to celebrate classics she first enjoyed as a child (AS Byatt, 2/27/10, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -A.S. Byatt (author's site)
    -Featured Author: A. S. Byatt (NY Times)
    -A.S. Byatt: An Overview (Victorian Web)
    -A.S. Byatt (Fan Site)
    -About A. S. Byatt
    -ESSAY: Morals and Metaphysics : AS Byatt pays tribute to Penelope Fitzgerald--"one of the best novelists of my lifetime."  Her work combined an English sensibility with something more metaphysical (A. S. Byatt, Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Choices: On the Writing of Possession (A.S. Byatt)
    -ESSAY: BEST STORY  Narrate Or Die: Why Scheherazade keeps on talking.  (A. S. BYATT, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST: Other Pasts, Other Places: The author of "Possession" recommends five unforgettable historical novels. (A.S. BYATT, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Of the Making of Many Lists (A. S. BYATT, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: THE DEADLY SINS/Envy; The Sin of Families and Nations (A. S. BYATT, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY:   The Back Half - Strange and charmed (A.S. Byatt, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Austerlitz by W. Sebald (AS Byatt, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez By Love Possessed (A. S. BYATT, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LOUIS XIV A Royal Life. By Olivier Bernier (A. S. Byatt, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Limestone Seas and Bloody Cobblestones: The author of "Possession" on the dark side of utopia, the chains of literary feminism and the albatross of sex (LAURA MILLER, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: Lit Chat (Salon)
    -Page for A.S. Byatt's Possession
    -ESSAY: 'The Stones I shaped endure': Dickinsonian Pastiche in A.S.Byatt's Possession  (Robert Bray, Illinois Wesleyan University)
    -ESSAY: A.S. Byatt's Possession for British and for American Readers (Helge Nowak (Regensburg)
    -ESSAY: That thinking feeling: Once considered a welterweight whose novels teemed with complicated ideas and mind-stretching words, AS Byatt has turned a corner (Marianne Brace, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: Liam Gallagher wants  to smash his brother's head in with a guitar (Dorothy Rowe, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Just Like a Woman: Why do we need a women-only prize for fiction? Women may write differently, says Lesley Chamberlain, but in great writing gender is transcended and women writers must now insist on its irrelevance (The Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Anthony Burgess as Fictional Character in Theroux and Byatt (John J. Stinson)
    -ESSAY: Way Behind Every Great Man . . . (Emily Eakin, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Imagining Imaginary Artists (Paul Mattick, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Books: What's Best and Where; Year's Worth Of Fiction That Ought To Be Read (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: "The Mermaid" (Peg Aloi)
    -DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Questions for Discussion on Possession  by A. S. Byatt
    -REVIEW: of Possession by A. S. Byatt Unearthing the Secret Lover (JAY PARINI, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Diane Johnson: The Best of Times, NY Review of Books
           Possession by A.S. Byatt
    -REVIEW: of Possession (BOOKHENGE, Pa2rick Wynne)
    -REVIEW: of Possession ( Audrey M. Clark, Rambles Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Possession ( Lee Anne Phillips, Women's Books Online: A Cooperative Book Review  Reviews of Women's Books by Women Around the World)
    -ARTICLE: What Possessed A.S. Byatt?  (MIRA STOUT, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Best Seller Breaks Rule On Crossing The Atlantic (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: A.S. Byatt wins the Booker (SUSAN HELLER ANDERSON, NY Times)
    -AWARDS: Booker Prize 1990
    -REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: En Route to the Catastrophe, NY Review of Books
           Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt
    -REVIEW: Gabriele Annan: Letting Go, NY Review of Books
       Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt
       Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
    -REVIEW : of On Histories and Stories: selected essays by  A S Byatt (Jason Cowley, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays by A S Byatt (Kathryn Hughes, Booksunlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Biographer's Tale by A. S. Byatt (Daniel Mattingly, Yale Review of Books)

    -Booker Prize
    -English Literature on the Web
    -ESSAY: Women missing from BBC artistic works of 20th century (The London Times, ALAN HAMILTON AND EMMA WILKINS)