The Books: “Possession: A Romance” (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

possession.jpgPossession – by A.S. Byatt. I know I’ve written here before what that book meant to me (and continues to mean to me – I just re-read it … again!!). I read it in December of 92 – which means nothing to anyone but me, but I was in a specific place in my life when this book became necessary. Not just a good book … but a helpful guide – a lantern in the darkness. It didn’t solve any problems but it sure as hell put into words – and beautiful words – so many of my own wordless struggles, my too-frightening-to-talk-about fears … my heartache, which I had a lot at that time. And every single time I have read the book since then – in different stages of my life – I’ve seen different things, gotten different things … As a matter of fact, just recently – I had a bit of a crack-up, and was out o’ commission for maybe 3 days – not a huge crack-up, but definitely a teeny one – and I immediately turned to Possession again. I knew the passage I needed. It helped. In a weird way, it really did. It’s one of those miraculous books that seems to grow with you, the devoted reader. I continue to be amazed by the breadth and depth of AS Byatt’s skill. I linked to a piece once where Byatt talked about the writing of this book – Here it is – and there’s a fantastic discussion in the comments about the book itself (I have awesome readers. Yay!) I guess the fact that I would place Possession on such a list as this one says it all. I write in that post:

As my life changes, as I grow older … the book appears to take on deeper meanings – I fluctuate between sympathy for Roland, for Christabel, for Val, for poor Ellen Ash, for Maud … depending on my mood, or where I am at in my life. Also, and this is a deeper comment: This is a book about intellectuals having love affairs. The cerebral mixed with the primal. This is something that strikes a very intense chord in me … a problem that has come up in my life repeatedly, because of who I am, and because of my emotional makeup – a fiery mix of brains and passion. Tough for anybody to handle. How will it work? How will I find my way, find peace? My intellectual side is rigid, hard-working, and can be very inflexible. I will not “tone it down” to make others feel comfortable around me. I’ve been asked (outright, and also subliminally) to “tone it down” and the price (for me) is too great. It’s too much of a betrayal. And yet I do not lack feelings, I am not cold … Maud’s struggle in the book with “letting her hair down”, her resistance to love, her fear of having her boundaries melded with somebody else’s, is my eternal struggle. I have never ever read a better prolonged study of the issues a woman like myself has when she falls in love. It’s very specific. There isn’t anything generic about a love affair – and yet most books do not tackle it from Byatt’s angle. Not only did I love the story, but I felt validated and vindicated by it. It’s something I go to again and again, sometimes searchingly, sometimes just with the knowledge that I will be able to lose myself in it … and sometimes with trepidation. The truths revealed in this book are only live-able to me when I am in a good head-space, and dealing with myself openly. If I’m trying to “hide” (in the same way that Maud hides) – then the book rebukes me. I can’t think of too many other books that maintain such a vibrant presence in my life.

I always get kind of nervous when, during this daily book excerpt thing I do, I approach a book which has been truly meaningful to me – like the Emily books – many others.

Byatt is at the top of her game here. She’s at the top of anyone’s game, frankly. She has written extensively about how she wanted to create almost a Victorian melodrama – the scene at the grave at the very end has all of the “props” – thrashing trees, driving rain, flickering lanterns, dirt – and yet we also have the gleam and bustle of modern-day London, and the postmodern world of academia – (her labeling the book “A Romance” is indicative of what she is trying to do … it’s a bit of a distancing technique). Two modern-day literature scholars – one a feminist, a women’s studies professor – and one, a kind of aimless and yet passionate graduate student – end up tripping over a cache of letters between two Victorian poets – Randolph Ash and Christabel laMotte – love letters – and it was never before known that these two even knew each other. As a matter of fact, there is a bit of hostility in the LaMotte camp towards Randolph Ash – he’s seen as a “soft-core misogynist” – LaMotte was a lesbian, apparently – she lived with a woman for many years – and all of the LaMotte scholarship since then has slowly and yet inevitably been erected around the sexual politics of the situation. Her work MEANS something to lesbians … it validates THEIR life in the modern-day world. And now … to discover … that she actually had a tormented love affair with … Randolph Ash?? Randolph Ash is apparently a sort of Tennyson-esque poet – he is part of the edifice of British culture. He was celebrated in his day (the same way Tennyson was) – and he lived an exemplary life, married, never unfaithful (as far as scholarship knows) – he was also a man of his time – inquiring, curious, controversial in some of his beliefs (about religion, for example) … LaMotte is seen as a minor poet, and the Ash folks kind of pooh-pooh her. She didn’t publish as much – a book of fairy tales, a limited edition of an epic about a fairy … she didn’t make her mark in the same way that Ash did. Byatt’s depiction of modern-day scholarship is spot ON. She includes “excerpts” from scholarly papers and books which show the absolute opacity of lit-crit writing … and makes the point that life will always be between the lines. There are things a biographer can NEVER know (the whole section about Ellen Ash at her husband’s death bed is a perfect example) … and Roland and Maud (the two modern-day scholars) have to go through quite a lot to, first of all, understand each other … and second of all, to understand Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Both of them are so-called EXPERTS in their field. There is nothing about Christabel that Maud doesn’t know.

And so the discovery of this huge correspondence rocks their world. They know they are sitting on a gold-mine. This will change the face of scholarship. Other forces become involved. Ash scholars, LaMotte scholars … all of them start closing in … everyone wants a piece of this new discovery.

Imagine if it was discovered that Tennyson and Emily Dickinson actually had a passionate and unrequited love affair. THAT’S the kind of bombshell we’re talking about here. It would change everything.

Byatt’s a genius. She acts as a sort of medium here. We get to read Randolph Ash’s poetry. And also LaMotte’s. And as the book goes on … we start to see how they influenced one another. It was a meeting of the minds, man.

The book has everything. It’s a detective story. At the end, it basically becomes a melodrama. It’s a whodunit. It’s a romance. The romance, for me, is startlingly effective. I burst into tears at the last sentence of the book. BURST into tears. Noooooooooooo!!!! was my main response.

It works.

Here’s an excerpt. Now … let me just say something about Byatt’s writing. There is something here (and you’ll see it in the excerpt) where she pulls back her lens a bit … to comment on the action. It’s not like we, the reader, are completely IN Maud and Roland’s world … no. She pulls back from THEM as well. (This goes back to her title of the book: Possession: A Romance) Even though we are peering back through time at the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte – trying to figure out what happened … we are not QUITE in the present-moment completely either. Byatt is really making the whole point of the book in this section. In the movie (which I liked – I’ll write about that at some other time – I was nervous about it, because of my feelings for the book – but I was very pleased with the result. Not 100% pleased, but almost so). Anyway, in the movie – they added a scene – which is kind of a compilation of many different scenes (including, sort of, the excerpt below). Maud and Roland lie in bed, they are in Yorkshire, trying to track down the Victorian poets … and they have a prickly professional relationship. Yet they’re warming up to each other. No romance yet. They lie in bed (they were given one room) … and it’s not awkward, they’re just lying there, with books around them … talking about their search, and about Ash and LaMotte. It starts to get personal. Roland asks Maud why she always wears her hair back (this is also in the book). They start to talk about it. And it segues into a talk about love and relationships. Is Roland seeing someone? How about Maud? They talk. At one point, Roland says something about his desire to stay free and independent, or whatever … and Gwyneth glances at him, grins, and says, “Aren’t we so modern.” She’s not saying it in a bitchy way. It’s perfect, the way she says it. (And it’s not in the book. But the FEELING of that moment is in the book – and in this excerpt today. But the movie puts it into language. Wonderful adaptation). The point here is that … Ash and LaMotte conducted their romance in what may be seen as a simpler time. They didn’t have to contend with gender politics, sexual politics, labeling – at least not the way we do in our “modern” era – the “isms” of modern day life. The hyphenated classifications of every human being. When Ash and LaMotte say the word “love” they actually mean something different than a modern person. Roland and Maud are discovering that. Are they falling “in love”? But … what does that mean now? What have we lost, in being so modern? Gwyneth’s little kind grin in that scene where she teases, “Aren’t we so modern” says it all.

The funny thing is, and this is Byatt’s kind of trickiness in this book (a trickiness that works): below, Roland starts to think about plots, and … what if THEIR plot, in the modern-day was mirroring the plot of the Victorian poets. But then … what WAS the plot? How could they know the plot if they don’t know the ending? Byatt goes on to talk about the mistrust of “love” in the modern generation – and so … beautifully … by calling the book Possession: A Romance … and by having Roland worry about what plot he is in … and by explaining that he and Maud do not trust romantic love … the title of the book answers Roland’s question. He may not like that answer, he may be afraid of it … but it’s right there, plain as the nose on his face.

Here’s the excerpt.

Excerpt from Possession: A Romance – by A.S. Byatt. I

Things had changed between them nevertheless. They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love, “in love”, romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. They were theoretically knowing: they knew about phallocracy and penisneid, punctuation, puncturing and penetration, about pollymorphous and polysemous perversity, orality, good and bad breasts, clitoral tumescence, vesicle persecution, the fluids, the solids, the metaphors for these, the systems of desire and damage, infantile greed and oppression and transgression, the iconography of the cervix and the imagery of the expanding and contracting Body, desired, attacked, consumed, feared.

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Neither was sure how much, or what, all this meant to the other.

Neither dared ask.

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6 Responses to The Books: “Possession: A Romance” (A.S. Byatt)

  1. Blu says:

    Just watched the movie again about two weeks ago. I can’t lie: this former All-American wrestler and sometimes stupidly macho boy is a sucker for a good love story. And I just really fell for this one.

    It took a second viewing for me to realize that the woman who plays Christabel also played Elizabeth in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. I think she’s a wonderful actress – not that I know one lick about acting; I just know what I like – and, if I am allowed to post such drivel, I think she’s so freakin’ hot. That hair just drives me nuts! :-) (The guy who played Ash did a very good job in another Austen film: Emma. Gwyneth was good in that but I thought he stole the show. He was just so damn calm, cool, and collected – and perfectly indignant when the occassion called for it. There are two lines I love from that film: (1) where he talks about one of the characters having an “indifferent education.” Such a civil snob. (2)When in the same scene, he gives Emma and upper-class version of a verbal beat down, saying – again with righteous indignation – “Badly done, Emma. Badly done.” And, of course, she bursts into tears because she loves and respects him so much…and cuz she’s kind of a spoiled little brat with a good heart who knows she screwed up.)

    I obviously must read the book. Thanks for the hearfelt review.

  2. red says:

    Jeremy Northam! HOT VICTORIAN POET.

    Talk about hot. Also he was in one of my favorite movies ever: Happy, Texas. He did the two-step with William Macy. That alone is enough for me to love him forever. And ever.

    He was terrific in Possession – PERFECT casting. The scene after they’ve made love and he sits there and he’s all choked up. It’s perfect. It’s actually reverse from what it is in the book – they make love and she’s the one who starts weeping and says, “How can we bear it?” or something like that. But I liked that they reversed it for the movie.

    And actually – Jennifer Ehle’s hotness (and yes, she is hot!! I do not deny it!!) was one of my main problems with the film. In the book she is definitively NOT hot. She is a small harsh-looking sparrow-like woman, with a snippety sharp face – not at all luscious or feminine or gorgeous. I thought the casting was a bit of a copout. I thought they should have cast someone like Samantha Morton. Someone not so … hot, basically.

    That’s based on my true regard for the book, though. If you’ve read a book you feel “possessive” (pun intended) toward it.

    However, the casting did not at all ruin the movie. I thought she did a lovely job – especially in the scene where they first meet – and she says something to him like, “I am surprised you would find anything I have to say interesting since, judging from your poems you have so little regard for my sex.” He is shocked, embarrassed – and says (god, he’s good) “You cut me, madam.” And she smiles up at him, but there’s something ferocious there too – and says, “I only meant to scratch.”


  3. red says:

    Oh and Blu – Jeremy Northam is also wonderful in a movie called The Winslow Boy. Directed by David Mamet.

    have you seen it??

    That reminds me that I really need to own that movie. I love it!

  4. Blu says:

    Yes, I did see that film and enjoyed it. I love those types of movies (as you can probably tell.) Do they have a name? I always tell people that I like “period” movies. (They can be drama or romance or comedy. Why is it that they always seem so, ummmm, British?) Do you know if there is a listing of the best of these type of films?

    p.s. Totally off-subject, but I noticed that you like Cary Grant. That’s so funny cuz I’ve been on a Cary Grant kick. Just watched Houseboat this past weekend and am going to watch Only Angels Have Wings this week. (I actually didn’t like Houseboat all that much – just OK. But Sophia Loren made up for any deficiencies ;)

  5. red says:

    Only Angels Have Wings – yay!!! One of my alltime faves.

  6. Sarah says:

    What do you think is the idea of love that Byatt has/ wanted to send us?

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