80. Possession: A Romance between an author and literary academics

In my final year of school, I began studying literary criticism under the guidance of an ardent feminist. She was going through menopause at the time, and would, constantly and violently, dab at her head with a towel.

I adored her. But whenever we delved too far into feminist theories, I hastily attempted to change the conversation into, arguably, less crazy territories. Like psychoanalysis.

“Oh, Ilona,” she would sigh, “you still have so much to learn, I promise.”

You’re probably wondering why you’ve been privy to this fascinating insight. The answer to your unspoken question, is A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance. You see, most of my time in class was spent reading a book, followed by a significantly longer and more aggravating period of time in which I would analyse said book. Often, to the death.

A.S. Byatt, on the other hand, was cunning. She decided that she wasn’t going to have pesky academics subverting the meaning of her stories. So, she came up with a plan. A plan to end all plans. A plan for world domination.

This plan, this marvellous, marvellous plan … was to write a book made especially for analysing. A book that came pre-packaged with literary theories and plenty of in-book examples to illustrate these theories. Gasp!

A.S. Byatt

Possession was a ridiculously self-conscious book – it was rife with symbolism; teeming with paragraphs upon paragraphs of character studies that needn’t have been included, but were just to provide fodder for academic papers; and, not so much nods, as cheerleading routines, to every feminist theory that exists.

The result was that reading the book was astoundingly similar to being beaten over the head by an irate feminist.

I mean, if we had really wanted more on How Women Throughout History Were Marginalised, we would had just turned to the whimperings of Jane Eyre, amongst others.

And the bloody annoying thing was that this plan worked – Byatt won two awards for Possession. Although I’m pretty sure she should have been disqualified, for cheating.

Anyway, the plot: London in the 80’s, and Roland Mitchells, an incredibly dreary junior academic, was unhealthily obsessed with studying a Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. Upon discovering an unfinished love letter by the poet, Roland attempted to find the intended recipient Ash’s amorous charms, or lack thereof. The intended recipient was, of course, another poet herself, Christabel LaMotte. Roland teamed up with Maud Bailey, an academic obsessed with LaMotte, to uncover the super secret love affair between the poets and, as you guessed, the two academics managed to fall in love with each other.

Naww! How romantic! you would have initially said. Except then, you would have remembered that all four characters were remarkably unlikable, and would have immediately set about plotting their fitting demise at the hands of Vogon poetry (although you could only have thought of that if you had read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

I’ll give A.S. Byatt this: the plot unfolded impressively. Possession was a mixture of narrative, poetry, poetry analysis (vomit), letters, and diaries. The aim, I’m sure, would have been to encourage the reader to share in the discovery of a literary mystery. This would have been pretty exciting, and all that, except that A.S. Byatt concentrated more on creating a self-reflexive book chock full of scholarly stuff. Really, if she hadn’t been so concerned about literary analysis, then maybe I would have enjoyed Possession. Cough.

* Disclaimer: If you had never studied literary criticism or literature, then you would have, most likely, rather enjoyed the book; notwithstanding the possible side effect of  believing all academics to be creepy and weird.

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15 responses to “80. Possession: A Romance between an author and literary academics

  1. I know what you mean about reading with literary criticism in mind. I have to put it out of my mind, actively, to enjoy certain authors (Coetzee comes to mind). It can deaden pleasure, but open up ideas, so it’s a difficult balance.

    But I’m sure glad I didn’t study film; I need something to just enjoy. I guess I am also glad I didn’t study chocolate or beaches.

    • I think I actually salivated when I read the chocolate bit…
      You’re right, usually I can put it out of my mind, and often do, but Possession was discussing theories for the majority of the book. It was a bit like trying to be on a diet and working in a bakery.
      Thank you for the comment!

  2. This sounds really interesting! I like the idea of an author packing her work with premeditated analysis. But, I’ve never read an A.S. Byatt so I suppose I’ll have to wait and see if the execution is as good as the idea.

  3. I am so so glad that I am not the only person out there who didn’t enjoy this book. I have been thinking this whole time that it was just me! I found this book so forced. great ideas, and such potential for an interesting story, but it was just killed by being so over written. I am glad I am not alone.

  4. Word of advice –do not , I repeat, do not bother watching the movie (starred Gweneth Paltrow), because it would only reinforce how much you did not enjoy this book. I wondered if the book was any better than the movie…guess I can remove this book from my list, since you took the bullet for me (in a manner of speaking) :D

    Brilliant review!

  5. I guess I have to be the lone voice out there who LOVED the book and LOVED the movie even more. “Possession” to me was like the literary version of “National Treasure”. I’m always fascinated by academic attempts to find out about dead people’s secret lives. :)

  6. Pingback: 100 Books To Read … Or die trying « The Friande

  7. I have this on my TBR list. It’s a doorstopper of a book and I’ve read enough fat novels to figure out that most often it’s quality not quantity that makes a read a good read. Thus I’ve avoided it was the longest time.

    I also have the terrible affliction of analysing a narrative as I go along. I can never really read a book straight as it’s meant to be. Literary criticism always gets in the way. Seems like this one’s right up my alley.

  8. Your reviews are very good. I’ve always felt like not having read Possession made me unequipped to talk about literature. So, I never read it. I always keep a copy on the shelf. Take it off the shelf. Look at the book, sigh, put the book back on the shelf. I hope to try and read it one day.

    • Thanks for the feedback! As for Possession, after reading it, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have read in order to talk about literature. For me, it only rehashed ideas and presented them in a not-so-pretty packaging.
      Let me know if you read it, though, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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