February 3, 2014

Possession by A.S. Byatt: Thoughts

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When Trish started a casual readalong of Possession, I thought, "Why not?" I had it on my shelves for ages, I liked the other books by Byatt I read, and people who loved it LOVED it. What could go wrong?

Here's the story. Roland, a basement dweller of the British Museum who does grunt work for his boss Blackadder, discovers a couple of letters by a famous (fake) Victorian poet named Randolph H Ash to an unknown lady. Roland suspects that this lady friend might be important, as Ash was a married poet and wasn't known to have any lovers. After digging around, he has a hunch that the lady maybe a feminist poet, Christabel LaMotte (also fake).

Roland doesn't have a lot going for him. He works in a dank hole of a room that smells of cat piss. He goes home to his apartment that also smells of cat piss to get the cold shoulder from his girlfriend Val. Val and Roland live in a misery-loves-company situation that neither one has the balls to leave. It's depressing as hell.

Roland
Roland uncharacteristically decides not to report his findings to his boss and instead goes out on his own to find out more about this mystery lady poet. Christabel has fans, mostly feminist fans, and scholars researching her up the wazoo. For decades, it was assumed that Christabel was wifing her roommate Blanche Glover. Roland is about to turn that theory upside down. He seeks out the closest and bestest scholar of the lot, Maud Bailey.

Maud is unimpressed by Roland. She's not impressed by much, actually. She has the hardship of being extremely attractive, rich, and intelligent. What a burden. One time, this other scholar and former lover Fergus told her she had nice hair. It was so upsetting, she now wears it under a scarf. She doesn't like men, although she doesn't like women either, or being touched, or thought about, or anything. 

Maud
Roland shows Maud the letters and she thinks there might be something to it. Together they read Blanche Glover's journal which mentions Christabel had a gentleman stalker. Could it be Randolph Ash? They both take a trip to a Christabel's relation of some sort's estate, where she once lived. Sir George, who happens to be a cousin of Maud's, and hates everyone (naturally) especially scholars, lets them rifle through his house after Roland saves his wife from possible death. (Yeah, I don't know how we got here either.) There they find more letters, STEEEEEAAAAAAMY love letters (nope, not steamy, just poetity-poetity stuff about myths and nature and zzzzzzzzz....). They are beside themselves!!!! It's so exciting! Not so fast though, Sir George isn't keen on them having the letters and only lets them make copies.

http://imgur.com/gallery/MOMe7
Sir George

If this was a Dan Brown novel, this would be the part where Roland and Maud would be locked in dungeons by albino priests but instead they read a lot of letters, and biographies, and journals, and long ass poems. They read between the lines of everything ever written by or about the poets, glomming onto anything that hints at the idea that these two were hooking up on the down low. 

Meanwhile, all the other Ash/LaMotte scholars (so, like, 5 people), get a whiff of what Roland and Maud are up to and they want in. Sir George himself learns about how much the letters might be worth and he wants a cut. It's such a madcap caper! (No, it isn't.) 

Possession is not an easy book. The characters are so angsty and the academic stuff is way over my head. I admit to skimming through the letters and poems, etc. I just couldn't concentrate. I appreciate what Byatt did here. She created a whole complicated backstory for these poets, including pages and pages of poetry, fake biographies, fake footnotes for God's sake! This was a huge undertaking. However, I'm not that into poetry, especially long Victorian poetry, and even less thrilled by biographies for fake poets. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just not my jam. 

What I kept telling myself.

Once I got past the academic stuff, which left about 150 pages, I was good. A Big Secret is revealed. Some of the secondary characters shake the dust off themselves and get involved which forces Roland and Maud to move this plot along a little. If not for their involvement, these two would have just kept strolling through Yorkshire and France glancing awkwardly at one another while not thinking about all the sex they're not having. 

In the end, I was happy to have read Possession. I feel like I sort of accomplished something, if I ignore all my skipping of the poems.* The ending is bittersweet and I almost got choked up (almost). 

So, if you love long poems and academic blah-blah-blah, you'll LOVE Possession. If you don't, well, you'll just feel smarter for reading it. It won the Booker Prize, you know. 

*I know someone is going to say, "But the poems are important!" to which I say, "Sorry, not to me."

17 comments :

  1. I failed with this. One day I will concentrate on it and get further!

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  2. You totally accomplished something. I could not do it. Could not. And even though I did the academia thing, there is something less-than-stellar about reading fake scholarship. Real scholarship is boring enough 88.6% of the time, but scholarship of the fictionalized variety is just a fucking drag. Sorry. It's true.

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    1. lol! A lot of it was unnecessary, in my opinion. It felt like to was page filler.

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  3. Well, there are 2 reviews for this in my Reader today and neither is great so I think I'll skip it.

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  4. I tried to listen to this on audio, but just got too bogged down. Not sure if I will pick it up in print.

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  5. I think the poems aren't important! I agree with you! And I thought so even the first time I read Possession, when I aggressively loved it and couldn't put it down. You are not alone!

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    1. I'm glad someone who loved it thinks so too.

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  6. Uhg this book. I swear it sucked life out through my eyeballs.

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  7. I remember liking this book a lot, but i was at the height of loving academic blah-blah at that point. Was there a movie made of this? I wonder how it translated to the screen.

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    1. Yes, there is. I didn't see it but read that there were a lot of changes. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Maud which seems about right.

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  8. I do love poems and the academic stuff, though I made a decision a long time ago that I didn't love it near enough to make it my actual life. So reading about it IS my jam! Since then I don't have to actually live it. (Thank god.)

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    1. People who love that stuff seem to really like this book. I could be the book for you!

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  9. I did a really lousy job with this readalong, huh? I think you might be the only one who actually finished it (besides me and those folks doing the TuesBookChat). This one was just way too much work and I'm not sure it was redeemed in the last 150 pages. I don't know--I go back and forth which is why I haven't written about it yet. Some parts I loved and some I dreaded. Congrats on persevering!

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