Wednesday, March 22, 2006


I've been reading Possession again.

This is the only novel I've ever got to the end of only to turn straight back to the beginning without a break and read the whole thing again. Since then I've read it at least once a year since it was published, which means I must have read it at least seventeen times.

Why did I take it down again at this particular point? It's been a rough old few weeks chez Pavlov, though nowhere near as rough as it has been on my younger sister and my oldest friend, both of whom are still in the deeply painful post-operative stages of a hand reconstruction and a knee replacement respectively. It's early in life, in both cases, for osteoarthritis to have done so much damage -- and I'm next; I can feel it in my, um, well, you know.

So for me it's been a few weeks of trying to provide practical and moral support for people I love who are incapacitated, in acute pain, and in some anxiety about their futures -- while at the same time frantically catching up on work I should have done in either January, February, or the first two weeks of March, weeks that were actually spent doing big-picture work stuff while I got further and further behind with the smaller tasks, and, shamefully, losing track of what I said I would do for whom when, which of course has created brand-new problems.

So in order to be able to ignore all this stuff for at least half an hour a day, the last half-hour before the light goes out, I took down my paperback Possession once more. I don't dare read the hardback copy again, for fear it should fall to bits. The paperback one has old creases where I've folded down corners now on every single one of its yellowing pages, where I've marked my place or a passage I wanted to keep or quote, some time over the last sixteen years.

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways.

I love the way it wears its academic depth and breadth lightly and yet without apology, and incorporates it so effortlessly into character and narrative.

I love the way it treats ideas as real, almost physical entities that exist along a contiunuum with bodies and objects in the physical world.

I love the way it plays with 19th century conventions and character, as well as with 19th century poetic modes, and the way it incorporates understanding of something the wonderful Greg Dening once said (and that link, though it doesn't contain the quotation, is a must-read for anyone working on writing a thesis, essay, article or anything else, really) about history and the writing of historical fiction about eras when the whole cast of mind and structure of belief of human beings was more unimaginably different than we are able to grasp: 'The past is not just us dressed up in funny clothes and speaking funny speak.'

I love its geographical scope, and the passion for landscape and in-placeness with which Byatt infuses every city and landscape about which she writes -- here including Brittany, New Mexico, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, the London that she seems to love as much and know as well as Virginia Woolf herself -- even a mythological place, the drowned city of Is.

I love the wit and humour of it, which nobody ever seems to have mentioned, but which often resides -- as with someone like, say, Henry James -- within the sentence structure itself. Byatt can laugh at academe while at the same time being passionately tied to its practices and ideals; Maud wrestling with her paper on metaphor is a very funny but also excruciating scene to everyone who's ever tried to do the same. It's also funny in its character drawing, of Leonora Stern (at her worst a parody, at her best a massively impressive character), or of Beatrice Nest, of whom much the same thing could be said, or of Fergus Wolf, who is in a way the opposite to these ladies -- superficially glittery and impressive but without much real substance, either moral or otherwise. Which leads me on to the fact that ...

I love the way the hero is a hero mainly because he is a really nice man, a character with great sweetness of, erm, character. Roland's impulses are persistently and instinctively, unthinkingly kind-hearted. I also love the way he is rewarded for this by his epiphanic discovery that he's a poet. 'He had time to feel the strangeness of before and after; an hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real.'

I love the plot. Mystery, quest, chase, race and romance, brilliantly braided together.

I love Byatt's world view, which is that ideas, people and passions -- pretty much in that order -- are all important and real and infinitely detailed and complex. I love her passion for microscopic detail and the way detail matters, whether it's in the feeling between people in a moment in time, the working-out of an idea for a conference paper, or the way a jet brooch is constructed and what that says about the times in which it was made:

'Roland had never closely approached Maud's brooch, which depicted indeed a little mermaid sitting on a rock, her glossy black shoulders twisted towards the surface, modestly obviating any need to carve her little breasts. Her hair snaked down her back, and her tail snaked down the rock. The whole was enclosed in what he had taken to be twigs and now saw, through the old woman's eyes, to be branching coral.'

And most of all, I love the way she loves reading:

'Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark ... Roland read as though the words were living creatures or stones of fire. He saw the tree, the fruit, the fountain, the woman, the grass, the serpent, single and multifarious in form ... and he heard the language moving around, weaving its own patterns, beyond the reach of any single human.'


R H said...



cristy said...

Well you have certainly convinced me. Another book to add to my 'must read' list. Thank you.

Mary Bennet said...

What a wonderful book! My copy of 'Possession' disintegrated after being read by about 10 people who all adored it. I would stop people in the street I saw carrying it and ask where they were up to.
A.S. Byatt has written some really dull books eg 'The Game', 'Babel Tower', 'The Biographer's Tale' but for this book and perhaps 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye' she should be included on some world heritage list for writers or something.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Agreed about The Biographer's Tale, which I thought didn't work. The Game is an early novel and you can sort of see her working on her craft (and working her negative feelings about her sister out of her system!). I liked Babel Tower but gather a lot of other people didn't -- but my favourite book in that tetralogy is still the first one, The Virgin in the Garden. And the most recent one, The Little Black Book of Stories, is a masterpiece.

Hi Cristy :-) .... I looked at your list, and I would defnintely go with Anna Karenina before War and Peace.

Lucy Tartan said...

Mary Bennet....what a thoughtful, accomplished and well-read young lady you appear to be ;)

Sorry Pavlov to hear you've had all that + more to deal with recently, and thank you all the more for writing this post. (I just sent you an email but Blogger appears to be behaving itself now.) I'm feeling a bit out of sorts about lots of things and reading this really cheered me up.

The part about historical fiction and the strangeness of the past is great. The lovely thing in Possession is that Byatt doesn't let the foreignness become something that's just dark and cold and distant - "thwarted" - she knows about the fertility and the generativeness of the unknown past too, like the egg you wrote about a while ago.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yep, comms wires crossing so there's a gmail back atcha. I'm glad you enjoyed this post because I really, really enjoyed writing it. Like, it wasn't work.

MIss Mary, shouldn't you be getting back to your piano practice? Or perhaps not.

elsewhere said...

I loved _Possession_ when I read it way back in 1991 or whenever it was. It was one of those novels you could sink right into. Loved the intertwined narratives, loved Maud & Roland, Ash & Christobel (hope I've remembered the names correctly). However, I must admit I did skim-read or skip a lot of the Victorian poetry imitations (which seemed pretty good but...), tho this might be because I avoided C19th poetry like the plague in my BA, because I can't stand it (with some exceptions).

Kate said...

I read another Byatt book that I can't recall the name of and it bored me (sorry everyone), and then sadly I saw the horrible movie and I'd kind of shuffled 'Possesion' into the realm of "why bother?" But on your recommendation I'll give it a go. I wish I was well read but I'm patchily read. I spent most of my teen years drowning in masses of ordinary sci-fi and fantasy and so I've only really had my 20s to explore literature. I wasted so much time on really ordinary books! Sigh.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'Sink right into' is exactly the sensation I longed for and knew that the book would give me. It transported me instantly away from the world of theses to be examined, books to be reviewed and classes to be prepared -- although considering what it is actually about, I know that is bizarre. Point is, they were someone else's theses, books, classes.

A lot of people didn't like the poetry but I loved it, I guess partly because I taught 19thC stuff for so long so could see immediately what the models were and how she was playing with them, especially the Dickinsonesque Christabel poems (interestingly an American model not an English one, despite the Rossetti overtones -- this novel is among other things a wonderful transatlantic study). The things I resisted for a long time were Christabel's folktales, but I have come to really like them as well.

Vic poetry is worth going back to and trying again. 'Ring out, wild bells.'

Pavlov's Cat said...

Kate, your comment crossed or I would have made that last one even longer than it already was ... Yep, those were two really bad starts. But even the initially boring Byatt books get less boring as one approaches decrepitude oneself and gradually gets a larger sense of her own time and place, I think.

And the movie of Possession looked like such disgraceful, superficial, horrid awful worst-kind-of-irony-bypassed-American crap and bilge even just from the stuff in the press that I avoided it completely, knowing I would run out screaming in the first five minutes and go looking for that brash baby-boy director with a machete.

David and Margaret, look out!

Lucy Tartan said...

There is only one place in my thesis where I talk about When Adaptation Goes Bad, and the movie I vent upon is Possession. Worst movie ever.

Fyodor said...

Kate, I strongly urge you to read the book. The film was made by people (no one person can take all the opprobrium for that depth and breadth of shame) who literally IGNORED the book.

Pretty much what the younger Miss Bennet (aren't you a little young to be out?) said: I have not been able to enjoy any of Byatt's other books, but I loved Possession.

PC, I want to (gently) tackle you on your description of Roland. You describe him as instinctively kind-hearted, for which he is rewarded with epiphanic genius.

However, my take is that his character is sketched initially as an anti-hero, with that emasculated passivity typical of junior male academics and, in particular, Englishmen. The contrast with the rapacious decisiveness of Wolf and (the American) Cropper is almost painfully obvious. "Kind" doesn't describe his character, I think, so much as "exploited". His kindness is neither apparent nor distinctive.

Roland's character development is thus ENTIRELY dependent on action and independence (e.g. stealing the notes from the book, chucking the shrewish girlfriend, going off on his quest/adventure, yadda yadda), thereby shedding this passivity.

While this can be seen as a recapture of his masculinity (which is important in the context of Maud), it's as important in the recapture of his sense of self. That is, Roland's transition from passive observer (literary academic) to active artist (poet) requires a change in his character, an assertion of self through action. This is not a reward for something he IS, but a reward for something he DOES.

More prosaically, he gets a life, then the girl.

On a final note (apologies for the long comment), I think Byatt does an exceptionally good job of writing a more complex male character in Roland, with only occasional slips on the feminine side.

Lucy Tartan said...

He is kind, Fyodor. Remember when he helps Joan Bailey get her wheelchair unstuck?

Lucy Tartan said...

And I think he's one of the few people who actually listens to Beatrice and doesn't habitually try to undermine her.

Fyodor said...

I'm not saying he's cruel or unkind, Laura. In fact, I think he's quite decent, but unsticking a wheelchair isn't extraordinarily kind. And I think the example kinda proves my point - I don't see his kindness as his defining feature, particularly in the context of the character's role or story arc.

If his happy ending is a reward, what do we say "earned" him that reward? I don't think it's his small acts of kindness. It's his willingness to take risks and act for himself (though not entirely in a selfish manner), begun literally and symbolically when he steals the notes from the book. Not a kind act, but it is the crucial first step in his metamorphosis.

Put it a different way: if he had remained kind, but not broken out of his rut, he would still be kind, but not win Maud or his genius. Kindness is an attribute of his character, but not the one that drives the story.

Yes, he is a worthy hero, but then aren't they all? Of more interest, to me at least, is the character's complexity and development.

Lucy Tartan said...

The book is in my office and I'm not (which is bad, because this is really making me want to read it again), but as I remember, he went out of his way to go investigate whether the person distantly seen on the hill needed assistance, while Maud didn't want to interfere. And he got himself very dirty, and he also did it in such a way that Joan was not humiliated.

And it was that generous act of his which got the two of them allowed into the Ogre's Castle.

It's called Possession: A Romance for a reason. I don't think everything in the book is meant to be read naturalistically. Roland's like the open-hearted humble hero - a tailor? - in Christabel's tale about the princess in the glass coffin.

I also interpret his unwillingness to be Fergus's rival in the departmental rat-race as anything but emasculated passivity.

Did you know that the American publishers made Byatt change the early descriptions of Roland to make him more 'manly'?

Fyodor said...

There are plenty of moments where Roland's innate decency help him along, but these are auxiliary to the principal plot line begun when Roland takes an uncharacteristic (as is made clear in the book) risk by stealing the notes and sustained when he actively (for him, at least) pursues Maud, on both a professional and romantic level. The first act is the catalyst for the subsequent plotting, but it is his uncharacteristically aggressive and adventurous interplay with Maud that is the meat of the story.

I say uncharacteristically because this is a man we are convinced at the very start of the book is highly passive and unable to break free of a destructive relationship with a woman who dominates him.

On his decision not to compete with Fergus, it is made very clear that it is a competition he would lose, so Roland's complaisance is absolutely passive, and emasculating. Roland recovers his masculinity through his consequent struggles, winning the fair maiden and finding his own voice. He doesn't do it by avoiding the departmental rat race. The rat race and Wolfe become irrelevant because he moves on as a person.

This is not for a moment to degrade the romantic content of the story. In fact, I think it enhances it, as romance requires struggle and courage on the part of the hero: "faint heart never won fair lady". The hero's open heart and humility make him an attractive person, but they're not what makes him heroic.

I'm not averse by any means to romantic fiction, and that's as big a confession as you'll extract from me ;-)

"Did you know that the American publishers made Byatt change the early descriptions of Roland to make him more 'manly'?"

I did not know that, and I am not surprised. There are several moments in the book - mostly in his interactions with Maud - where I cringed inwardly at Byatt's effeminate characterisation of Roland. I'm not sure how to put it, but there was a certain want of ferocity in Roland's feeling that really should have been hinted at, in the least. Even bookish men are still men.

Of course, the moofy fuckwits went totally overboard and made him an American, played by a guy who looks like a quarterback. That, alone, killed the movie for me.

Pavlov's Cat said...

My God. I go out, Roland-like, to visit a sick friend and look what happens while my back is turned.

Righto then:

*orders thoughts*
*takes deep breath*
*girds loins* (not a pretty sight, I can tell you)


Okay, all good points. Let me go for the central one which is, as so often, about constructions of masculinity and femininity.

I think Possession is very subversive in this respect. Roland and Maud are balanced equals in many things, not least their symmetrical positioning on the gender spectrum. Roland is lacking in about as many traditionally 'masculine' qualities (he's often passive and always gentle; he's small) as Maud is in traditionally 'feminine' ones (she's continually referred to as chilly and cold, not any kind of nurturing personality; she's physically imposing and intimidating). I think one of the things this novel does is stealthily deconstruct these stereotypes, not least by changing the way the characters themselves see each other as they get to know each other better. The fact that Roland is a man and Maud is a woman becomes more and more beside the point as the tale unfolds. (Except of course for the fallin' in lerve part. I like the way even this aspect gets complicated by the issue of Leonora's sexuality, to say nothing of Beatrice's, Blackadder's and (gulp) Cropper's.)

The hinge of this thread now that I've read it carefully seems to be a slightly careless overstatement of mine in the original post. When I said Roland was being 'rewarded' for his kind-heartedness, it was a little bit tongue in cheek, as one who paraphrases a fairytale with a moral -- but I was also referring specifically to the point Laura makes about the way they get into the Dark Tower or the Castle Perilous, otherwise Seal Court, as a direct result of Roland's rescue of Lady Bailey.

When I talk about Roland's kind-heartedness I am thinking of more than the initial wheelchair rescue, though that does mark him early as a genuinely and disinterestedly altrusitic person. He is appalled by the idea of hurting Val. He dislikes and rejects the notion that he is expected to be drawn into a departmental dick-waving contest (and oh, how many of those have I been a reluctant witness to in my time) with Fergus Wolf. (UPDATE: I don't agree with Fyodor about his reasons. He likes Fergus and resents being expected to compete with him.) He's patient with Beatrice. He makes excuses for Cropper's worst behaviour. His first thought when he arrives at the conspiratorial meeting at Beatrice's house is to talk to Val about arranging to look after someone else's cats. The closest we ever see him to getting really angry is when he thinks nobody is taking the idea of financial provision for Lady Bailey's new wheelchair seriously enough.

I do agree absolutely about is the shedding of the passivity, but I don't think of this as gendered and I do think Byatt is actively out to undermine the notion that it is. And the breathtaking -- nay, Cropper-like -- swiping of the letters happens in the first few pages, so he clearly isn't completely passive even from the outset.

UPDATE: Oh bugger, now you've rendered at least some of that redundant, Fyodor, though not other bits. Here's a point I really do think you might be sort of missing: Maud doesn't WANT a 'manly' man. She absolutely one hundred per cent does not want to be dominated or otherwise crowded and pushed. Look at her nausea (the whipped-egg-white bed) at the very thought of Fergus. She responds to Roland because he is the exactly the same sort of person that she is: they're equals. They both want to be in white beds by themselves. (Mostly).

I fear the focus on Roland here is making me complicit with what seems to be Fyodor's view that the book is a story about Roland and the things that happen to him. Actually, my girly collective and polyphonic view is that it is a superbly constructed and panoramic ensemble piece. The screenplay of a successful film adaptation would surely have to resemble, say, The Big Chill rather than, say, The French Lieutenant's Woman -- which I did think was a good then-and-now movie-of-the-book. (The more I think, the more I think ... Yes, imagine the younger Streep and Irons in those roles ... Sigh ...)

I think Fyodor's reading of Val is unnecessarily harsh. Val's problem is that (like Beatrice) she has clung to girly helpmate stereotypes and suffered for it. She is resentful and sad rather than shrewish, and she comes good (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way) once she takes up with Euan -- as with Roland and Maud, their personalities complement each other.

Speaking of which, I still haven't said anything about one of my favourite parts of this book, which is the alliance between Leonora and Blackadder.

Fyodor, there are a few 'academic' short stories of Byatt's that you might like, if you liked Possession -- one in The Matisse Stories called 'The Chinese Lobster' and two in Little Black Book of Stories -- 'Body Art' and 'Raw Material'.

And Kate -- don't worry -- Laura and Elsewhere and I, and it seems Fyodor, are just literature nerds. You're the normal one.

Jennifer said...

I've only read it the once, so can't participate in the deconstruction, but I wanted to add my vote. I loved loved loved that book, and you've reminded me that I should read it again - it's been long enough that it will be like reading it for the first time, and I'll be able to luxuriate in the writing.

ThirdCat said...

Kate, sci-fi and fantasy beats bodice rippers and Flowers in the Attic. Although I did mix them with my mother's copies of Patrick White and Doris Lessing. Oh, and that Chronicles of Whatshisname - the leper (technically, I think that's fantasy).

Anyway, I also greatly enjoyed Possession and am putting it to the top of my list of things I must re-read. Will return to this thread with interest in about three months.

Hil said...

Hi :-)
Thanks for such a lovely reminder of what a great book Possession is. I couldn't agree more.

Fyodor said...

Excellent, PC! I'll follow up when I have more time, but I agree with a lot of what you say/write, particularly on the subversive gendering.

Oh, the pleasures of blogs!

Lucy Tartan said...

All I can remember reading when I was a teenager is Weir of Hermiston, over and over and over, and loads and loads of Agatha Christie novels :)

Fyodor said...

Ms. Pavlova,

On Val, I agree with your more nuanced take. I'd add that it's a positive development in Roland's character that his own view of Val is softened by his later acknowledgement of his role in their doomed relationship. As you suggest, they are not complementary. More cynically, it's also convenient for the plotting at the beginning that the hero be unhappy with his current amour before finding himself a new one, and Val's happiness at the conclusion ties up one of the moral loose ends resulting from Roland and Maud's romance. Everybody's happy.

I liked the way you describe Byatt's subversion of gender roles. It's certainly one of the aspects of the novel I found interesting. Roland and Maud are recognisably male and female, but not stereotypically so. As you say, they are true equals, which is unusual in romantic stories. I think it takes great skill and imagination to imbue characters with so much complexity. As I mentioned previously, I think Byatt does particularly well with Roland - I doubt many male writers could have accomplished the same with Maud.

One other point I wanted to raise is the evocative use of names, and their subversion. Roland and Maud are both uncommon names, and reminiscent of a more ancient, romantic era. I found it deeply amusing that the small bookish hero of the story should be named after the hero of Roncesvalles and a paladin of Charlemagne. He is then contrasted with the earthier and more masculine Fergus Wolfe, a more forceful and aggressive-sounding name.

The moment I saw the name Maud Bailey in print I suspected her character to be destined for Roland. The name Maud is old-fashioned to the point of archaism, and her surname, Bailey, means the outer, enclosing, wall of a castle. This becomes even more interesting when you consider that a motte (as in Christabel la Motte) is the raised earthworks used to fortify a tower, often seen in conjunction with a bailey (e.g. in a motte & bailey castle). I have a tendency to overthink such associations, but they seemed too convenient to be coincidental.

On the dramatis personae, I don't agree that Possession is an ensemble piece - the central narrative of Roland & Maud is too powerful, and drives the rest of the characters. I would agree, however, that like any good story the ancillary characters are extraordinarily well fleshed out, and interesting in their own right. On Roland and Maud, I also want to clarify that I think Maud's character is as important as Roland's, particularly as Possession is largely about herstory [sorry, couldn't resist]. If I've focused on Roland it's only because that was my point of entry into the discussion.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, of course the lovers are the central characters really (though I would add the 19thC poets -- four main characters rather than two -- as I think that is a parallel plot rather than a sub-plot.) I think what I really meant was that I would love to see a movie that plays up the ensemble aspect, which is built into the quite cinematic structure of Byatt's narrative: from scene to scene, different characters interacting, in an almost infinite number of combinations, as in a well-made ensemble play.

Not only are you right about the names -- a literature-soaked writer like Byatt isn't going to pass up the opporunity to add layers of allusion and suggestion via naming -- but there is so much more to them even than you say that I have decided to do a whole new post on them, since people seem to like talking about this book. Later, when this impossible week has been got through.

Fyodor said...

Excellent idea.

Just to pick on your preference for an ensemblish (ensemblant?) take on the story, the film was particularly bad at pacing, ditching whole scenes containing much of the detail and nuance that you (and I) like so much. By necessity, this meant rendering many of the supporting cast in two-dimensional detail, if that. I'm beginning to think a 100-120 minute film wouldn't do it justice.

Maybe the BBC will do a proper mini-series one day. I think the story - and dialogue, in particular - needs greater exposition than a feature-length movie can deliver.

cristy said...

"I would defnintely go with Anna Karenina before War and Peace."

Yes, I can certainly agree with that advice. I actually started Anna Kerenina when on an island in Thailand, but it was one of those borrow but do not take away loans so I never got to finish it. For some reason I find it incredibly difficult to tackle a book once I have put it down for a length of time, so this is the big hurdle for me with Anna Karenina.

I raised your love of Possession with my husband who told me that he hated the book. After much questioning, it turned out that it was the poetry that annoyed him and he ended up agreeing to give it a second chance. Not that he would need to read it for me to do so... this was more about us proposing it for our book club.

Anonymous said...

Everything that I could possibly want to say on this has been said much better than I could, you lot being trained and all, but I want to add one extremely deep idea.

That leper thing was vile. Third Cat is right.

- barista

degustibus said...

crass me, I liked the book AND the movie.

Pavlov's Cat said...

That probably just means you're more open-minded than the rest of us and prepared to judge the movie on its own merits, rather than as an adaptation of a much-loved novel.

My standards in this regard are nothing short of warped. I really, really hated The Hours -- movie and book -- because of the mockery I thought they both made of the vast complexities involved in the life, work and personality of Virginia Woolf. How to portray a woman who was one of the great beauties of her age? Why, put a putty nose on Our Nic, of course. Gag. Barf.

And I thought the movie had wonderful performances from (in this order) Stephen Dillane, Toni Collette, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris and Clare Danes. And I still hated it.