Possession: A Romance was released in 1990 and I finally got around to reading it last week. If you have not read it, it is worth noting that this piece will feature spoilers of detail – in general, the core plot of a romance generally can be distilled down to “two people eventually fall in love” and most of the rest is window dressing.
The book has won a bunch of awards, is highly popular, features in lists of books to read and currently (ie Dec 2014) has an rating of 3.86 from Goodreads.com and 4 on Amazon.co.uk. In short, quite a lot of people like this book. For the record, Goodreads has it rated by well over 40,000 members; Amazon has it reviewed by a few over 90 people. It might, at some point, be interesting, from a datascience point of view, to compare Goodreads and Amazon ratings.
Many years ago in a French literature class, a lecturer recounted an encounter she had had with a major Irish playwright subsequent to some honorary award he had received but in which, she thought, the speech outlining why he was to get this award had listed a couple of his major works in the wrong order. She asked him whether in fact, the sequence of production had not been the other way around for two particular plays of his. His response was “Whatever you say.” From this, she took away the salutary idea that maybe literary critics and academics spent a lot of time looking for meaning and significances that just didn’t exist. I have wondered about this for years; that a cohort of people spend a lot of time looking for things which just aren’t there.
I am pretty sure the average academic whose life work is focused on doing this might find that idea to swallow. This brings us to Possession: A Romance by AS Byatt. I did not like it. I was not impressed by it.
For the tl;dr version of why, I felt it was a contrived plot featuring unenticing characters with a vaguely ridiculous closeout.
Books are a method of mind travel; the most engagement you will get from a book is by wishing yourself to be a character on the pages, or to be with a character on the pages. I have a suspicion that this explains the extraordinary success of some books and failures of others. Who would not have wanted to go to Hogwarts? I wanted to be on the Dawn Treader. I wanted to be on the Brendan. I wanted to travel back in time on many occasions. I wonder if much of the joy about Possession comes from people who want to find a mystery letter in a long bound tome in the British Library and can overlook the fact that basically, at the outset of the novel, the character who does is a loser. That the book may be an icon of day dreaming for the literati, a fantasy which could happen to them as they peruse the minutiae of some not frequently read author to whom they have devoted their lives and on whom they feed.
It is entirely possible that my view of this is coloured by not agreeing with the assumption that a couple of literary experts, choose any of the characters in this book as they are all profoundly guilty of this have the right to invade the privacy of someone long dead. Of reading the love letters he wrote and received. Of editing them. For this reason, although I read it as a teenager, I have never felt comfortable with the publication of Anne Frank’s diary either. When people write with some expectation of privacy, even if they are dead, it strikes me as profoundly lacking in respect to break past that expectation and poke around in their mind.
Given that much of Possession focuses on the desperate and rather unedifying search for a set of love letters, and closes with the justification that someone long dead meant people to find a particular final letter, purely on the grounds that they buried it with the recipient rather than burning it, I found it hard to identify with any of the characters. They all struck me as rather self-absorbed and lacking in respect for the characters they exploited for financial gain.
Also, in my view, when someone buries something with a coffin, it might well be with the expectation that “I personally cannot destroy this myself as I have some personal anxieties about so doing, so I will bury it with him when he dies and so he shall have it, albeit without having read it, and I shall not feel guilty of destroying a letter which was not meant for me. Plus, helpfully, as it is buried with a coffin, it will almost certainly never come to light again because frankly, no one would dig up a grave…”
But no. Definitely, she must have meant for Maud, a woman who was born years later, whose existence she could not necessarily have conjectured to find the letter. This is odd since frankly, whatever else you could say about Maud, she doesn’t come across as the sort of person who would stand over a grave with a shovel to get at some mystery box.
I would like to say I hated them all, but frankly, that overdoes it. Mainly, I identified them as the kind of people I would avoid at a dinner party. In any case, only four characters appeared to be built as characters, namely the two primary characters (the ones who ultimately we are rooting for to wind up together, and the two who are long dead, whose private lives is being raked over by a bunch of people for financial and professional gain who would be too snobby to do the same for The Sun for living celebrities).
Too many of the characters were introduced purely to drive plot along; the person who located the diary of another writer in France which revealed that the woman poet at the core of this mess was clearly pregnant at that time. A cardboard cut out who existed purely as a device to tell Maud and Roland that Christabel had had a baby. It did not appear to occur to any of the modern experts that if someone goes missing for the guts of a year in the 19th century and she is female and they have suspected, now at least, that she had an affair with a married man, that she may have been pregnant.
Roland’s boss exists solely to provide us with a good reason as to why Roland is a loser without a job of any reasonable earning potential (Roland has seen his standard reference for him and it is not particularly exciting) and then morphs into a device by which the letter which Roland found and removed from the library at the outset of this mess is returned without repercussions, and a device by which we are given to believe that after a number of years of inadequacy, in the end, Roland is sufficiently hot stuff that universities in three countries are desperate for his services.
Another Ash scholar, who is depicted as generally creepy and personifies all that is horrific in this personal need to take ownership of the lives of dead people for professional and financial gain is purely a device by which we might believe that all of a sudden, a lot of people have figured out that Ash may have had an affair. An ex-lover of Maud is a device to drive the plot into a race between the creepier of the Ash scholars and Roland and Maud.
All of these characters come across as having the substance of a sheet of white paper. Seriously, I could not imagine anything more depressing that sitting down to dinner with any of them.
Ah but the book is beautifully written is a common refrain. What of it? The plot is mundane: Roland and Maud are thrown together, he’s a loser and she’s written off as a feminist with the implication on the part of other characters that her work and the work of women like her is of less value in literary appreciation. 500 pages later, they wind up in bed together. This is predictable from the outset; the problem is ultimately you wind up just not caring. Roland’s girlfriend exists purely as a plot device to add greyness to the losershipness of Roland’s life, and to provide links to other plot devices in terms of legal advice. When most of the characters in a novel come across as mere machines, it really doesn’t matter how beautiful the language is if there is nothing of real substance beneath it. Pride and Prejudice may be the most hackneyed and widely read romance of all time, and the reason for that is each of the characters is very deftly assembled in such a way as they come across, for the most part as human beings.
The closure, a scene of one of Ash’s descendants (another character with 1 dimension) and the creepy academic who is pretty much a badguy caricature at Ash’s grave digging for this box which Ash’s wife had buried with him in the 1987 UK storm, came across as fundamentally unbelievable and at odds with the depiction of the two main characters, and the other cardboard cut outs which were bit part players in the plot of Roland finds a letter. Ultimately, the main plus point is that it was over.
I wanted to enjoy this. I really did want to believe that it would be a rich a reading as it is painted to be. But the characters themselves did not come across as massively attractive to know, the plot was contrived. The flashbacks to the poor misfortunates whose lives were now the stuff of academic fluff were unengaging if reasonably accurately drawn. The beauty of the language was depressingly isolated. At no point did I really want to stay in this story, travel in this story, be in this story. In that respect, the book was deeply disappointing. I am not a fellow traveller of the academics in this book, and the world created is not one I care to visit.