Saturday, August 8, 2009

166. Possession – A.S. Byatt

History: Written in 1990, the novel incorporates many different styles and devices: diaries, letters and poetry, in addition to third-person narration.
Plot: Obscure scholar Roland Michell, researching in the London Library, discovers handwritten drafts of a letter by the prestigious (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, which leads him to suspect that the married Ash had a hitherto unknown romance. He feels compelled to take away the documents secretly - an unprofessional act - and begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, a modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte's family, who is drawn into helping Roland with the unfolding mystery. They become obsessed with uncovering the truth and unearth more letters and evidence of an affair between the poets, and their own personal romantic lives - neither of which are happy or even satisfactory -develop and become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte, whose story is told in parallel to theirs.
The news of this affair will make headlines and reputations in academia, and colleagues of Roland and Maud become competitors in the race to discover the truth, for all manner of motives. And the truth is this: Ash's marriage was barren and unconsummated, although he loved and remained devoted to his wife. He and LaMotte had a short, passionate affair resulting in the suicide of LaMotte's lesbian lover and the secret birth of an illegitimate child, whose existence LaMotte sought to conceal from Ash, but whom he did once meet, unknown to her. As the Great Storm of 1987 strikes England, all the interested parties come together in a dramatic scene at Ash's grave, where documents buried with Ash by his wife are believed to hold the final key to the mystery. Reading them, Maud learns that rather than being related to LaMotte's sister, as she has always believed, she is in fact directly descended from LaMotte and Ash's illegitimate daughter, who was raised by LaMotte's sister and passed off as her own child, and she is therefore heir to their correspondence. Roland, freed from obscurity and a dead-end relationship, manages to live down the potential professional suicide of the theft of the original documents, and sees an academic career open up before him. Maud, who has spent her adult life confused, frigid and untouchable, finds her human side and sees possible future happiness with Roland. And the sad story of Ash and LaMotte, separated by the mores of the day and condemned to secrecy and separation, is resolved at last through Roland and Maud.
Review: Possession is as concerned with the present day as it is with the Victorian era, pointing out the differences between the two time periods satirizing such things as modern academia and mating rituals. The most dazzling aspect of ''Possession'' is Ms. Byatt's canny invention of letters, poems and diaries from the 19th century. She quotes whole vast poems by Ash and LaMotte, several of which struck me, anyway, as highly plausible versions of Browning and Rossetti and are beautiful poems on their own. The painful and quintessentially Victorian love story of Ash and LaMotte is retold in their ''own'' words, offering an ironic counterpoint to the contemporary story of Mitchell and Bailey, who both eventually do fall into something like ''love.''
Opening Line: “The book was thick and black and covered with dust.”
Closing Line: “And on the way home, she met her brothers, and there was a rough-and-tumble, and the lovely crown was broken, and she forgot the message, which was never delivered.”
Quotes: "Ah, how can we bear it?" "Bear what?"
"This, For so short a time. How can we sleep this time away?"
"We can be quiet together, and pretend -- since it is only the beginning -- that we have all the time in the world."
Rating: Good.

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