Thursday, February 4, 2010

Possession: A Romance

I've always been a fan of stories about stories. Metafiction and postmodernism are great friends of mine. No better example of this is the winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, Possession by A. S. Byatt. This ingenious novel also features on the TIME Magazine list that I posted about a couple days ago. So what of this postmodern Victorian novel? Does it deserve the praise that's been heaped upon it? Let's take a look.

Possession is the story of two academics studying the love affair between their respective areas of scholarship, specifically two Victorian poets that seem completely unrelated until the discovery of a series of love letters. It is also the story of the love that grows between both scholars while researching this new development, and it is also the story of the rival scholars.

This is an extremely complex and rich novel made up of regular narration, letters, poems, epigrams, excerpts from books, and everything else. It's like this novel is an old dusty box of documents and the reader gets to sift through all the history. 

It's subtitled "A Romance" for a reason. Possession is at its heart, a Romance as in a type of story, not as in a love story, ie a Romance and a Novel used to be Victorian terms for types of story. There's all the cliched elements of Victorian novels such as a Will at the last moment that changes everything, grave robbers, a chase, love affairs and detailed histories. The plot that the scholars are engaged in resembles a Victorian plot, even though they're studying a Victorian love affair. 

This refraction is focused through the title. Possession refers to the possession of the letters, possession of the story of the love affair, possession of the poets themselves, possession as in "possessed by something" and possession as in the arcane euphemism for sex. On and on, this theme is hammered home. Since it's a postmodern novel, the scholars even comment on the "determinism" at the heart of the plot.

The use of epigrams is inspired as well. Taking a note from George Eliot's Middlemarch, Byatt prefaces each chapter with a bit of poetry from the two fictional Victorian poets. Each epigram focuses indirectly on the following bit of narrative. It's quite clever.

However, now we arrive at my major problem with the novel. There's a reason why I don't read Victorian romances. Frankly, they're tedious. The prose is gilded and overwrought I find. With Possession, the reader is treated to pages upon pages of seemingly-authentic Victorian letters... which I found to be extremely dry. The aforementioned epigrams? Sometimes they last pages. I just don't find Victorian poetry to be that interesting. 

This is mostly an issue of taste, rather than of quality. Byatt's verse is good, I guess, but I'm not a critic of poetry. Her simulations of the Victorian style of journal, letter or what-have-you is fairly seamless. Again, I just found it to be dry.


I would say that the poetry, letters, etc takes up about 35 percent of the novel. The other 65 percent? Gorgeous supple prose that's engaging and essentially a literary detective novel but with a cast of scholars.


I really liked most of this book, but by the end I was tired the obvious uses of the word and concept "possession" - sometimes it was in the form of a groan-inducing pun. 


All of my criticisms aren't substantial enough for me to outright dismiss the novel. As an exercise in postmodernism and Victorianism, I found it to be excellent, if a little dry. The scholars and poets were well-drawn and the dialogue to be spot on. Overall, Possession is a great novel and I would definitely seek out more of Byatt's work.

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