So this summer I’ve been enjoying a lot of summer reading. Granted, 2/3 of it is in the form of Virginia black letter law and federal common law (don’t even try to convince me that it doesn’t exist — it does) but a much more enjoyable third has been random other books, ranging from those in the high school canon to young adult to booker Prize winners. Eventually, I hope to fit in a post about all of them.
Myst most recent read was Possession by A.S. Byatt. It was not my first experience with a Byatt novel — I read A Children’s Book last year (also highly recommended, and on my list to recap!). Possession, though is in a league of its own.
The book jacket reads: “Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire — from spiritualist seances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany — what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.”
What the jacket does’t say is what the book is really about: poetry, and scholarship, and ownership of private and public lives.
A more accurate summary of the book would be that it follows two separate plots, not intertwined as in the far inferior movie, but wholly separate: the story of Robert Ash, a relatively renowned Victorian poet, and the much lesser-known Christina laMotte, who in the world of this novel was a lesbian poet who, though influential for Women’s Studies, was much less so in the real landscape of literature. It is no surprise to say that theirs is a love story. On the other end is a race by a bevy of scholars to uncover Ash and LaMotte’s affair via recently discovered love letters — there’s a British women’s studies scholar who cares for LaMotte and her foil in the scholar interested in Ash: there is a long-standing feud between an American and a Scottish scholar over the actual physical possessions of the early authors, an American woman who wants nothing more than to just read the damn things, and then there is one, almost forgotten woman who has spent her life studying the wife of Robert Ash.
This is the true passion in the book — that of these individuals for long-dead writers, all of whom were rather intensely private in their time. Yet now, a century after their passing, their letters and journals are being studied by modern scholars in an attempt to understand the meaning behind their work. In a way, this mentality reduces the production of literature — as though one must always put personal experience and emotion into every written piece. It is the same, derivative way that people study Shakespeare’s Dark Lady — and I only wonder whether it matters, to the work itself, whether she was a man or a woman, whether Shakespeare was common or noble. The work stands alone.
It is this scholarly battle that permeates the book, and that makes it so fascinating for English majors and lovers of words alike. It’s not a good book for those who read for story, but it was a great one for those who love language, and the history of words.
The entire book is juxtaposition of before and after: only each character, each time, and each place has a different “before” and a different “after.” Part of the book is the joy in finding these juxtapositions, littered throughout in little nuggatory mmoments. “An hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real. . .” or perhaps “it was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin. . .”