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Possession: A Romance… (A.S. Byatt)
August 6, 2009, 22:33
Filed under: Book Reviews

Possession: A Romance
(New York, Random House, 1991, 576 pp., paperback, 15.95)

No, no, no, no, and NO. A very well-meaning friend gave me this book, and being a sucker for covers, I thought that it might be a somewhat interesting airport read. It’s the multi-layered tale of two couples entwined in the search for meaning in the morass of cultural redefinition. They’re lost and misunderstood, until they find each other.

Roland Michell is the cute-and-nerdy English grad student wheezing his days away in the London Library trying to be faithful and not bastardize his topic of research, Romantic (Coleridge-era) poet Randolph Henry Ash. He embarks on a search for addressee of a draft of a mysterious letter left in one of Ash’s books, leading him to Maud Bailey, a Gender Studies professor. Birds of a feather. Turns out Ash and Christabel LaMotte (another poet)’s souls bonded the moment they locked eyes they began an impassioned correspondence replete with drafts of poems for each other to review. Bits of letters, poems, stories, weave their way into the double narrative as they search. I personally liked the fairy tales written by LaMotte. I don’t think I minded it up until when Maud and Roland discover Ash and LaMotte’s letters. Because then, the horrible polemic begins.

There is a clear dichotomy of good guys and bad guys in this literary world. All the people who get tenure or published (curse them) are busy doing one of the following: making references to Lacan and “quoting Freud at me at six in the morning with nothing on,” jet-setting across the country paying disgusting amounts of money for crumby bits of hair while stealing priceless artifacts (not to mention this slimeball is always called “the typical American”), selling out to the corporate world, or best of all, wallowing in male and female sexuality until there’s nothing but “sucking human orifices and knotted human body-hair.”

Okay. First of all, do the people HAVE to be personifications of the literary theory that Byatt is trying to represent here? Literary theory is NOT the end of the world nor the entire measure of a person. It seems like Byatt has been scarred by the world of academia somehow, so she has a bitter and stereotypical approach to all things scholarship.

Second, the premise is way overly ambitious. Pretentious Overachieving Theory? She would be head of department at Oxbridge pronto. The poems are insufferably long and annoyingly relevant. The letters give me an asphyxiating headache with all their stops and starts. Does Byatt have to write literary criticism, of poems that she wrote posing as these characters, posing as the characters?

While all this villainy is going on, poor Mr. Michell and Miss Maud are trying their best to remain pure and not sell out to the masses, you know. Good for them. Gah. I think I might have enjoyed this book were it not for the unbearable literary theory coursing through it like poison in the veins. Why did she have to include passages like this?

“Maud looked into the weary rumpled face. Maud thought of Leonora (the feminist)’s ferocity, of Fergus (the Freudian)’s wicked playfulness, of the whole tenor and endeavour of twentieth-century literary scholarship, of a bed like dirty egg-white.”

Um. No.
or this, good old Roland’s impassioned stand.

“Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects – all the time — and I suppose one studies — I study — literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful — as though we held a clue to the true nature of things? I mean, all those gloves, a minute ago… and it all reduced like boiling jam to — human sexuality. Just as Leonora Stern makes the whole earth read as the female body — and language– all language…”

Bah. Well, my mother’s friend meant very well when she gave me this book, knowing that I’m an English major. But please, let me not read anything like this again.

Conclusion: New theories and speculative digging for knowledge are for pansies. Follow your heart and you will surely find happiness and good karma (upon the assumption that good karma means having an illegitimate child and being a poet).

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[…] forum On A.S. Byatt. October 10, 2009, 16:20 Filed under: Thoughts As if my previous review of her book ‘Possession’ wasn’t enough to make me hate her, A.S. Byatt has to go […]

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