Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Possession by AS Byatt

It is done. I have finally finished Possession. It has taken some willpower to get through it - just like The Children's Book did. I shan't be inclined to pick up a Byatt again willingly!

In Possession, we follow two academic authorities on two nineteenth century poets (Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte) as they uncover evidence that links the two poets and search to find more pieces of the puzzle.

The book is full of potential, but seems to be too ambitious, or rather, too sprawling. It isn't the length I mind - I read Lord of the Rings on an almost annual basis, and I steamed through Wolf Hall. It's more that the story seems so fragmented. There's a page about thirty from the end in which one of Byatt's characters outlines the through-line of the narrative to other characters, which serves to highlight just how meandering a story Possession is (in the way that it deviates from this through line). But it isn't this somewhat short-sighted approach that I find really irksome.

The real problem is the tone - Byatt writes much of Possession as though it is an academic paper. Granted, academics are, to an extent, the subject matter, but it feels like Byatt actually wants to write the papers that explore liminaity, gender politics, and so on. The novel seems like a vehicle for covertly expounding some theories and playing with some very academic notions, but it isn't engaging. Moreover, it is at odds with the story, which is more fantasy than reality - something Byatt seems to excuse by calling it a romance. The strange, neat, happy ending 'adventure' of the story jars with the sophistication of the intellectual discourse - give me either, and I can judge it and be satiated - give me both, and I'll just be irritated.

Having now forced myself through two of her novels, I think I can safely say that Byatt isn't for me. Instead of heart, her novels have a sledgehammer of an intellect.


  1. I have paused mid-way through the book. I would pick it up later in the year. I didn't want to spend so much time reading only this novel.

    Your observations are spot on.

  2. I felt the same way about this book. I enjoyed parts of it, but at the end it felt like a term paper. It drives me nuts when authors research a subject (in this case the two poets) and feel the need to make sure you know how much research they did.

  3. Nana - it certainly is time consuming! Good luck with your return to it.

    Avid Reader - I think what's really peculiar about the 'research' is that the two poets, and their work, are fictional, so in a sense, the information that Byatt presents is what she has created rather than found out. Of course, the broader thematic research is undoubtedly sound, but you are right about it feeling like a paper.

  4. Yup, I agree with all of the above. I kind of felt like Byatt was just showing off most of the time. And while it was all very clever, there was just too much. Halfway through I just started skipping all the poems. One chapter is a poem that goes for ten pages. Skip.

    I too had forced myself through The Children's book (which I prefer to Possession) and I too will not be reading another Byatt book in a hurry.