Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt

Halfway into this Booker Prize-winning novel, I was recommending it to all and sundry. I couldn’t stop gushing about how effortlessly Byatt has imitated the voices of two different Victorian-era poets and their significant others, while also presenting us with flawless third-person narratives from the points of view of five different characters. I hope I’m remembering that correctly; Possession has so many different points of view sewn together in a lovely, elaborate patchwork (I don’t use that word as a pejorative), that it’s a little difficult to keep track of them all. Also, I’ve been waffling about publishing this blog post, since I feel like I haven’t done justice to the pleasure and instruction I received from this book. Actually, I know I haven’t, but you’ll forgive me, I’m sure.

The plot in summary: Two modern-day researchers unearth a previously unknown connection between two Victorian poets, the celebrated and school curriculum-prescribed Randolph Henry Ash and the relatively little know, recently anointed feminist Christabel LaMotte. The story follows the journey the two researchers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, make into the past via letters written by the two poets, diary entries of their partners, and the verses that both composed, in order to discover the depth of their connection and how it impacted their respective lives. In the process, their lives come together in an admittedly predictable way. Nevertheless, the ending is immensely satisfying, especially the lovely, heartbreaking scene described in the postscript.

I’ve read novels before that play with conventional structures and narrative styles of the form. The fancy word for these, I gather, is ‘post-modern’. Particularly memorable are Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Possession could fall under the ‘postmodern’ rubric; I admit I don’t know how these classifications work, since I’ve also read of this book being described as ‘post postmodern’. The story of Roland and Maud runs along the same actual and emotional geography as that of Ash and Christabel. While the story of the two researchers is the lens through which we read the story of the poets, the book itself is the larger framework for our view of both stories. In a twisted sort of way, what I’m trying to say is that this ‘romance’ is really about ‘romance’ the genre and not about the particular story at the heart of it, so in some sense, you wouldn’t be surprised if the characters suddenly realized that they are in a book. Byatt doesn’t actually let her characters break the fourth wall, of course, but it’s a wire-walking act. At some point, Roland does wonder whether all the searching that he and Maud are doing together is not part of a romance, and whether the end of their story would be as final and satisfying as that of any romance. It’s an idea that rebels against his postmodernist training, and yet he acknowledges that the desire for a pat ending is very human.

Roland thought, partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others. He tried to extend this apercu. Might there not, he professionally asked himself, be an element of superstitious dread in any self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot-coil that recognizes it has got out of hand? The recognizes that connections proliferate apparently at random, apparently in response to some ferocious ordering principle, which would, of course, being a good postmodernist principle, require the aleatory or the multivalent or the “free”, but structuring, but controlling, but driving, to some — to what? — end. Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. But they are both frightening and enchantingly desirable.

This ‘what-if-we-are-in-a-movie’ trickery (something we all think at least once in our lives) is a playfulness I wish I could inject into my plots when I’m writing. I suppose the thought would come to any writer of fiction, at some point or another, that what they are doing is ludicrous. It’s not a feeling that stems from any lack of self-belief or lack of conviction in the art (and craft) that we practice; rather, it stems from a sense of humour that lies dormant as we play at being creators, only to rear up at inconvenient moments to poke fun at our endeavors. A kind of disembodied voice that says to us, “So, you think you can create something out of nothing? Lets watch you do it.” At least, I’ve heard it. And I’ve frequently wanted to fall in with The Voice’s mocking tone and poke fun at myself (Of course, I dare not do such a thing since my self-confidence as a writer fluctuates so wildly, that I would rather not tamper with its delicate constitution).

Often, when I’m writing, I run out of words or ideas and then I just let my unconscious mind take over and type out any random combination of words. And I wonder, what if my characters were aware of this randomness? Unfortunately, being a lesser, unpublished writer, I never have the confidence to tell the story of my storytelling even as I’m telling the actual story. Even now, as I write it, I find it a difficult idea to wrap my head around. I suppose that is another major reason why I enjoyed this book so much. There’s just so much to learn from this book about craft and how to translate one’s love of stories into something that is more than a story. What Byatt achieves with this novel is no easy thing: she has written what is clearly a ‘Romance’, and yet, it also pokes fun at our assumptions of romance and all the theorizing that we apply when reading and studying them.

Of course, it’s not an easy book to read. I suppose a lot of people would be tempted to skip the poetry to get on with the story. I know I was. But reading these pieces is very rewarding and it illuminates aspects of the two poets’ characters that are not explicitly explored in the rest of the narrative. In a sense, I suppose, these pieces allow the two poets to tell us the story of their love and how it changed them both, in their own words.