Thursday, February 3, 2011

Possession (Top 100 #39)

By A.S. Byatt

When my roommate first noticed this book sitting on my desk, waiting to be read, she laughed and thought it to be some kind of mass-market paperback caliber romance novel. With a title like Possession, I don’t blame her! But in fact, Possession resides in a completely different realm of literature. It won Byatt the Booker Prize – England’s highest literary honor – in 1990 and is included in the BBC Top 100 list I’m slowly but surely working my way through*.

I think the fact that the title is so misleading is largely due to the connotations of the word ‘possession,’ which first conjures up notions of obsessive romance. While romance is an integral aspect of Possession, the novel does not limit itself to it but spans the word’s multifaceted connotations.

Possession, n. The act or state of being possessed**; the physical control or occupancy of land, property, etc, whether or not accompanied by ownership; domination, actuation, or obsession by a feeling, idea, etc.

Contemporary scholars of the Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey are united by academic intrigue when Roland discovers a letter hinting at a hitherto unknown connection between the two poets. The academic investigation that ensues not only overhauls Roland and Maud’s understandings of the poets they’ve devoted their lives to, but overhauls the lives of the academics themselves as the unveiling of the connection between the presumed devoted husband and lifelong spinster becomes increasingly high stakes and personal. As far as that pesky word ‘possession’ and it’s multifaceted connotations, Possession explores the obvious possession rendered by love, as well as the possession of historical documents and artifacts, and even the possession of historical figures by the people who study them – and vice versa.

Depending how you look at it, Possession is either the most theatrical novel about academia you’ve ever read, or the dullest and densest mystery novel you’ve ever read. 

My problem with this book is that Byatt interrupts the narrative to insert excerpts from the poets’ epic poems, drafts of their personal letters, and even blurbs from biographies and analytical essays that often went on a bit too long and were – let’s face it –just plain dry. I get why she did this, I really do. She wanted the reader to feel they were immersed in the investigation too; she wanted us to feel as though we knew the poets as intimately as Roland and Maud. But the end result was disruptive and would disengage me every time I really started to be drawn in to the story – and it was a compelling story. I just thought it went on a bit too long.

Now, metaphors and themes and foreshadowing aside, the point of writing a novel – any novel, chick lit, classic, or otherwise – is to tell a story, is it not? And thus it follows that a successful novel is one whose story draws the reader in, whereas an unsuccessful novel fails to do so, resulting in a novel which is an effort of diligence and toil to read. The question, then, becomes: Is a novel successful if it is literarily admirable without being engaging? Conversely, is it successful if it’s engaging without being particularly literarily admirable? I’ll leave you to ponder. If you come up with anything decisive, let me know.

* There's also a movie based on it, but I watched the trailer and I don't think I'll bother watching it. Partly because Aaron Eckhart bothers me, and partly because it just doesn't look good.
** Illuminating, no? I hate definitions that use a different conjugation of the word to explain the meaning of the form in question.

Books Read This Year: 10
Top 100 Progress: 39/100

No comments:

Post a Comment