Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Great Ventriloquist: "Possession" by A.S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt has a new novel, The Children's Book, out in the U.K. (it will be published in the U.S. in October, I believe) and reading the reviews of it got me so anticipatory that the only thing to do was to reread Possession.

I remember I was halfway through Possession when I arrived on campus for my freshman year of college. I'd picked it up because I'd heard it was what Arcadia would be if it were a novel instead of a play, and I love love love Arcadia. Possession turned out to be a terrifically apt choice for my going-off-to-college book--and not only because it's the best book I know of for making libraries and research and scholarship seem sexy and exciting. More than that, as fate would have it, my freshman-year faculty advisor was a professor of English who specializes in mythology, fairy tales, and nineteenth-century British poetry. She reminds me of Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter, all draped tunics and amethyst jewelry and iron-gray hair, and says the most delightfully idiosyncratic things in her intimate whispery little voice. In short, she could be a character in Possession, and I was pleased that I could tell her so. (I meant it as a compliment, and fortunately she took it as one--even though the two American characters in Possession are quite obnoxious, aren't they?)

Rereading Possession, I think I found the academic satire more amusing than I did the first time, now that I'd actually spent four years on a liberal arts campus encountering the types of people and reading the types of literary criticism that Byatt parodies. Perhaps as a function of being more grown-up, I also had less difficulty with the poetry (even though I didn't actively study much poetry in college). During these intervening years, I also read Byatt's Frederica Potter Quartet and turned into a total fan--and now I can see repeated themes and motifs between the Quartet and Possession.

The Quartet might just be Byatt's most important work, and there is a lot of terrific stuff in it, but it can also be overwhelming--a huge cast of characters, multiple and weirdly intersecting plotlines, some baggy or boggy patches. Possession is overwhelming too, but for different reasons: it overwhelms with its passion and its precision. The plot is perfectly calibrated. It uses the old-fashioned forms of Romance and Quest and Pursuit, critiquing them in a postmodern way while exploiting their old-fashioned ability to get you emotionally invested in the story. Because the plot is so involving, I can sort of understand why they thought it was a good idea to make a movie out of it--but this is really a story that can only exist in its original medium. Half the fun of Possession is how it tells the story through written documents--letters and diaries and poems--not only through narration.

One of the (fictitious) Victorian poets in Possession, Randolph Henry Ash, is known for writing dramatic monologues--the way that Robert Browning did in real life. Therefore, Ash's biography is titled The Great Ventriloquist. But the joke is that Byatt, in Possession, is ventriloquizing to an even greater degree than Ash did--producing pastiches of all kinds. She writes in the voices of two very different Victorian poets, three very different Victorian female diarists, several contemporary academics and scholars. Not only that, but she writes pretty good dialogue for her modern characters; you can hear the differences in their voices, from spiteful Val to tremulous Beatrice Nest. (I don't think Mortimer Cropper sounds convincingly American, however.)

So, while I hate to evaluate a novel as though I were merely running down a checklist of the elements of fiction, I must say that Possession is a winner on every count. Plot? Check. Dialogue? Check. Characterization? Check. (Some of the characterizations are very broad, but they're amusing, and Byatt is especially wonderful at making the Victorian characters come to life.) Imagery? Check: the patterns of images and symbols are amazingly dense, and memorable. The atmosphere of the book--its green-and-golden quality--stuck with me even more than the events of the plot did! Significance? Check: as I said, this is a great novel for making you excited about the written word, and for exploring the personalities of cerebral, scholarly types. The complex philosophical passages about language, etc., fortunately arise out of the story and the (overeducated) characters, and fit into the overall scheme. Add in some bonus points because this is a story that would only work as a novel, and some more because it rewards rereading and contemplation, and you've got yourself a towering accomplishment. Though there will probably always be novels about literary sleuths, Possession seems to me like the apotheosis of the form; it is difficult to imagine anyone* working this terrain better than Byatt does.

*Unless indeed it is Stoppard, in Arcadia. But at any rate, that's a play, not a novel. And that's a post for another day.

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