Byatt, A. S. Possession.

NY: Random House, 1990.

One sort of novel is the straightforward narrative that deviates hardly at all from a single course, that charges ahead from beginning to end. Another sort, though, is more like a faceted mirror-ball hanging above a dance floor, reflecting the light of its characters and language and plot in all directions, and constantly moving, constantly metamorphosing before the reader’s eyes. This volume — which won every award on offer and has become an undisputed modern classic — is very much the latter sort of book. It’s a “romance” in the Arthurian sense. Also, TARDIS-like, it seems much larger once you’re inside it than it appeared from the outside.

It all starts with Dr. Roland Michell, a mostly impoverished literary scholar and apprentice expert on Randolph Henry Ash, the great (fictitious) Victorian poet, who stumbles across the drafts of some letters written a century and a half ago and tucked inside a book now in the possession of the London Library. The letters suggest a relationship between Ash and some unknown woman and, Roland understands instantly, they would be of intense interest to Ash scholars everywhere. So, quite unable to help himself, he spirits them away, back to the basement flat, redolent of the landlady’s cats, that he shares with the long-suffering Val. Roland is led into contact with Dr. Maud Bailey of Lincoln, specialist in women’s studies, in whose possession are many of the original writings of her collateral ancestress, Cristabel LaMotte, a contemporary of Ash’s — and perhaps a good deal more. After a bit of Freudian negotiation, the two young academics go to visit Sir George Bailey, an estranged relation of Maud’s and current resident of the house where Cristabel died, and there they make a second exciting literary discovery. And at that point the plot begins shifting into higher semiotic gear. What exactly was the relationship between Ash and LaMotte? What happened during the period in 1859 which coincides with a long-noticed gap in Ash’s biography, and which goes unmentioned in Mrs. Ellen Ash’s journal? What were the true circumstances of and motives for the suicide of Blanche Glover, who had shared Cristabel’s small home? There are a number of mysteries here, but the story isn’t as bald as all that. Nor is the narrative ever dry. Byatt shares the Victorian habit of piling layers upon layers, providing the reader with multi-page selections of poetry and tales by both Ash and LaMotte, each in its own distinctive voice. She gives us a Breton cousin’s writing journal which quotes LaMotte, who tells stories, which themselves retell local myth, which someone else ruminates on, and deeper and deeper we go. And, yes, this compulsively readable book requires that you pay close attention, but that isn’t a burden because you will become as anxious to know the details of the lives of Ash and LaMotte as Roland and Maud — who, of course, become equally possessed of each other as they pursue their investigations, in London and Lincoln and Yorkshire and Brittany. And that’s not even to mention Dr. Mortimer Cropper of New Mexico, possessed of a large checkbook and determined that every item R.H. Ash every touched should be acquired by the academic archive he administers. Or Dr. Beatrice Nest, who has spent the many decades of her professional life attempting to edit Ellen Ash’s papers and journals, and who may even finish them one day. Or Prof. Blackadder, Roland’s employer and the leading explicator of Ash’s work, who has his own hidden facets (hidden even from himself). Or the larger-than-life Dr. Leonora Stern of Tallahassee, semi-lesbian feminist and rival of Cropper’s, and a much nicer and more supportive person than one might at first think. Byatt weaves time-traveling nets of metaphor-filled language as she gleefully parodies the world of post-modern literary deconstruction (of which she herself is a noted practitioner) and builds the professional and personal parallels between Ash/LaMotte and Roland/Maud. And perhaps even Blackadder/Stern. And minor comments early in the story will become major clues later on. But then, “literary critics are natural detectives.” And the title of the book will be constantly in your mind as you read.

There are books I read and enjoy but never find it necessary to open again, and there books (a very few, relatively) which I come back to every five or ten years to rediscover what the author has to say and to enjoy the sheer beauty of the way she says it. The author’s own literary scholarship is as impressive as the carefully controlled zigs and zags in her style. This is my third journey through Possession and it undoubtedly will not be my last.

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