Book Reviews
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At least half of this book is comprehensible – Possession by A. S. Byatt

Possession by A. S. Byatt

Unless you have a doctorate in literature or you are a Victorian poet. Maybe some creative writing majors can fully understand the novel, every page of it, and this kind of understanding is not without whole bulks of effort, and this is most truthful for the regular reader, which happens to be me, in this case.

If you really want to know, I almost gave up on this book. I dreaded reading the parts about the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. I wanted to caterwaul within the confines of my then claustrophobic room because I cannot process a stanza of Victorian poetry. It is that frustrating.

But wait, who are these poets? You haven’t heard of them? Of course, you haven’t, unless you live in a parallel universe. These poets are created by the author herself. And she wrote the works, at least some of them, of these two. Impressive, huh? It’s like being three, four writers squeezed inside a single body. And yes, I also have an urge to say that this is one huge intimidating read.

I began this writing task at the suggestion of my cousin, the poet, Christabel LaMotte, who said something that struck me most forcibly. “A writer only becomes a true writer by practising his craft, by experimenting constantly with language, as a great artist may experience with clay or oils until the medium becomes second nature, to be moulded however the artist may desire.” She said too, when I told her of my great desire to write, and the great absence in my daily existence of things of interest, events or passions, which might form the subject matter of poetry or fiction, that it was an essential discipline to write down whatever there was in my life to be noticed, however usual or dull it might seem to me. This daily recording, she said, would have two virtues. It would make my style flexible and my observation exact for when the time came—as it must in all lives—when something momentous should cry out—she said “cry out”—to be told. And it would make me see that nothing was in fact dull in itself, nothing was without its own proper interest. Look, she said, at your own rainy orchard, your own terrible coastline, with the eyes of a stranger, with my eyes, and you will see that they are full of magic and sad but of beautifully various colour. Consider the old pots and the simple strong platters in your kitchen with the eyes of a new Ver Meer come to make harmony of them with a little sunlight and shade. A writer cannot do this, but consider what a writer can do—always supposing the craft is sufficient.

That is one of the more readable parts of the novel. But it is not always that way. In fact, there is a bit about Romance, yes, that’s capitalized, at the beginning that I didn’t get and didn’t bother to digest. I ignored it; sometimes, these prefaces and prologues do not really contribute to your understanding of the novel.

The first chapter is about a literary scholar named Roland who finds a slip of paper stuck between the pages of a Randolph Henry Ash book that he is reviewing for his dissertation. Or thesis. The paper is a draft addressed to a “Madam,” asking her for dinner. Something like that.

And that little draft sends us into a literary mystery-slash-thriller. Roland and Maud, our protagonists, set out to restructure and rewrite the biographies of the poets. But no, this is not your ordinary clue-finding novel. Just to brace yourself if you intend to read this, which I hope you would, Chapter 11, which is more or less near the end of the first quarter of the book, is eight pages of undulating Victorian poetry. It goes like this:

The more the Many were revealed to me
The more I pressed my hunt to find the One—
Prima Materia, Nature’s shifting shape
Still constant in her metamorphoses.

And there are more of such chapters, like about that “proem” The Fairy Melusine, which is supposed to be LaMotte’s magnum opus, and it goes without saying that it does not read like a fairy tale. During such chapters, I groan, but I read on. I don’t know where I drew the will and strength to make an effort. I tried my best to understand these chapters, and all the snippets of poetry here and there, and I think there’s a little success because I can still recall the image of that Fairy Melusine, which I wouldn’t describe for you.

Another factor is one of my bookish friends giving me hopes, which were not in vain, that I’ll find something beautiful in the end. He even suggested that I skip all the poetry, which he did and which I am not inclined to do because I prefer to read every word in my book, thank you very much.

And I would not want to fail to mention the letters and journals of certain characters in the novel. Really, this is like an anthology. Reading these made me feel the real letters were in my hands. Beautifully written, I admit, but in a language that I’ll never hear in everyday conversations, even with my most intellectual friends. Of course, these are from poets, what can you expect?

Overall, I decided that I would hate this novel. I just need the justification of having finished the novel. But what happened? Why am I even hoping of influencing at least one person to read this novel?

4 star - really liked itI was ecstatic when I felt that the remaining number of pages left is dwindling. I got myself a liter of beer. Red Horse, anyone? Yes, I read the last couple of chapters with beer circulating in my veins. It’s not advisable. Anticipate a jackhammering headache if you want to try it. And if you try it with this novel, expect the floodgates of tears to unlatch.

I utterly hated Christabel LaMotte! That snooty, large-toothed, pale, unclassy woman! If it weren’t for her poetic chutzpah, I doubt that Randolph Henry Ash would ever go to bed with her. The nerve of this woman to jeopardize the marriage of a respected aristocratic poet!

But in the end, I changed my mind on a lot of things. I felt that I could not really hate this novel despite the difficulties. Even if I say so, I wouldn’t be able to hide the lurking delight. Besides, I really felt for Christabel. All the hatred melted in that last letter. How could she endure protecting a truth that cannot become a known truth? And save the people she loves by what, exiling herself? I always thought what a selfish little bitch Christabel is, but ultimately, she is the only selfless character in the novel.

And perhaps the only one to have truly known how love’s flames can set temptation’s wings on fire.



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