This book takes the term 'literary fiction' to a whole new level. Its main characters are present-day literary scholars whose subjects of study are Victorian-era literary poets, all caught in a complicated web of inter-connections. It's all very bookish.
Possession -- the title reverberates through the story, as our heroes Maud and Roland get caught up in, possessed by, a literary mystery that promises to rewrite all previous scholarship in their field. Exciting, eh!
Their field is the critical analysis of the work of poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Haven't heard of them? That's because they're fictional -- Byatt has invented them, along with great tracts of their poetry, letters, and diaries.
Roland and Maud hunt down clues, re-interpret texts, and follow in the footsteps of their long-dead subjects. As they fall deeper into the spell cast by this mystery -- a secret romance -- they find their own lives changing in unexpected ways.
This transformation -- metamorphosis, a theme running through the entire book -- gives weight to the scholarly claim that the lives and work of poets from centuries past still have power or impact on our lives today. The more Roland and Maud discover about Ash and LaMotte, the more they uncover their own, hidden selves.
Sounds terribly gripping, I know. But what I mean is -- Byatt does a magnificent job of breathing life into her Victorian poets and infusing their work with love and passion. And showing us how our heroes' search affects them deeply.
Both Roland and Maud, before their adventure began, had been only half-living, immersed in their work, cold and alone in Maud's case and thwarted and entombed in Roland's case.
The scholarly life is portrayed here with a heavy dose of irony. Byatt lets us laugh at the academics' futile enterprises -- the gloomy underground cavern that houses the 'Ash factory', the unscrupulous American bounty-hunter/scholar with the fat chequebook, the sex-obsessed feminist scholars that interpret everything as a metaphor for the body.
Take this description of the inner sanctum of the Ash corridor in the basement of the British Museum:
Blackadder sat amongst the apparent chaos and actual order of his great edition, sifting a drift of small paper slips in a valley between cliffs of furred-edged index cards and bulging mottled files. Behind him flitted his clerical assistant, pale Paola, her long colourless hair bound in a rubber band, her huge glasses moth-like, her finger tips dusty grey pads. In an inner room, beyond the typewriter cubicle, was a small cavern constructed of filing cabinets, inhabited by Dr Beatrice Nest, almost bricked in by the boxes containing the diary and correspondence of Ellen Ash. (27)
Coming from this dusty, sterile, lightless environment, Roland and Maud find themselves bewilderingly caught up in a search for something beyond the textual -- a love infused both with dizzying intellect and pulsing life-blood. Something REAL, something eternal.
Of course, the living pulse that the scholars trace in the two poets' lives serves to reinvigorate their poetic work. Suddenly Ash's famous love-poem 'Ask to Embla' is no longer addressed to a metaphorical lover but a living, breathing one.
What I especially like about Byatt's approach is that nothing is tossed out, nothing is meaningless. Even though we are shown a satirical portrait of literary scholarship (picture Dr Beatrice Nest huddled in her basement cavern for twenty-five years, creating nothing but boxes of cross-references), we eventually see that there is something there. They were on the right track all the time, minus a few key clues. None of their work is futile, in the end.
Wouldn't that be nice!
This was a delicious literary mystery of the best kind, one where we follow along on the trail of discovery and are invited to examine the primary documents for clues ourselves. And yet we are given more than Roland and Maud can ever have -- a few glimpses into the past, unrecorded on any document. I was suprised Byatt took us there directly; I had assumed that the letters and poems would be all.
Finally, I have to admit (sheepishly) that at times I found the long poems and letters tough going. Forty pages of letters, or ten pages of a diary, or an eight-page narrative poem. I really had to fight off the temptation to skip through them and get back to 'the story'. But I'm glad I didn't, because they added depth to the experience.
Just be warned. They're long, and the type is small. In the end, though, it's definitely worth it.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My original review is posted here.