5.0 out of 5 stars A Reader's Novel
I took out Possession twice from the library. I couldn't finish it the first time... it was so DENSE. (A very common reaction, I've since learned, when reading Possession.) But after you get over a particular section involving very long-winded letters between two Victorian poets, the story goes reeling and I ended up in tears near the end... I can still quote from the...
Published on April 27 2002 by sea_myth
1.0 out of 5 stars Potentially Interesting Story Gets Stifled
I must admit, I couldn't get past page 50 of this behemoth Booker Prize winner... and thank God! Because nothing I heard during my book group's subsequent discussion of it led me to believe I would have liked the remaining 500 pages. Byatt constructs a somewhat imaginative romance hidden within the poems of two obscure Victorian writers. All very nicely done I suppose,...
Published on Feb. 5 2001 by A. Ross
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Reader's Novel,
I took out Possession twice from the library. I couldn't finish it the first time... it was so DENSE. (A very common reaction, I've since learned, when reading Possession.) But after you get over a particular section involving very long-winded letters between two Victorian poets, the story goes reeling and I ended up in tears near the end... I can still quote from the letter Christabel LaMotte wrote to Ash, a letter that never reached him.
Hell. Who DOESN'T want to have loved somebody that much?
I don't think many critics have mentioned this, but to me, the supporting characters really MAKE the book. I was touched by Byatt's knowing yet sympathetic portrayal of Ellen Ash, who very secretly wished to be a poet but became the lantern bearer for one instead, or of Dr. Beatrice Nest, a mild literary scholar working on "womanly work" when she really wants to sink her teeth into what truly makes her tick, the painter Blanche Glover and her descriptions of light and the depiction of force (the complete text of her suicide note is given at one point)... there's a very, very moving passage around the end of the book where Ellen sifts through the remains of Ash's things and decides what to do with Christabel's letter.
For the aspiring writers out there, there's an important passage on words around the end where Roland suddenly discover's he's a poet and the poems "fall like rain." I know everyone hates the poems but they are really worth reading and thinking about; if you like Emily Dickinson you'll love Christabel's poems. I hope Byatt has the full text of "Ask and Embla" somewhere.
The best thing about Possession is that it understands people who think literature MEANS something beyond being a lovely way to kill time. It understands those quiet but passionate people you see browsing in bookstores, who write reviews on Amazon.com, who, at a used bookstore, find joy in finding an out-of-print-book they've been DYING to read for years. It's a book that understands YOU.
5.0 out of 5 stars Reconciling Past and Present: Possession, by A.S. Byatt,
"The book was thick and black and covered with dust." It is not a coincidence that the first two words of this remarkable novel are, "the book." Possession is a book about books, about the study and love of literature and the intricate obsession with the lives of literary figures shared by academics, historians, and the randomly curious public. It tells the story of a quiet literary scholar, Roland Michell, who finds a lost letter from the great Victorian poet, R.H. Ash, to another famous poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte. As he is an Ash scholar, Roland takes the letter to a LaMotte scholar named Maude Bailey, and together they begin a search to uncover the relationship between the two. It is a discovery that will have repercussions in the academic world and in their own lives. If you tend to lose yourself in second-hand bookstores, are ravenously curious about the lives of the authors whose works you read, or simply love a great romantic mystery, you will love this book, which won the Booker prize, England's highest literary award.
A.S. Byatt is herself a formidable scholar of literature who left a teaching career at London College in 1983 to write full-time. One day while in the British Museum Library, she spotted a well-known Coleridge scholar. It occurred to Byatt that much of what she knew about the Romantic poet had been filtered through the mind of that scholar. She mused about the effect that such a single-minded pursuit must have on a person. "I thought," she said, "it's almost like a case of demonic possession, and I wondered - has she eaten up his life or has he eaten up hers?" She had an idea to write a book about two famous authors and two scholars who study their lives.
Byatt created two fictional poets, loosely based on Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti, named Randolph Henry Ash, and Christabel LaMotte. The marvel of the novel is that Byatt creates not just the poets, but also their poetry. Calling on her extensive knowledge of Victorian literature, she intersperses the narrative with their poetry, prose, tales, and even literary criticism about the works of these fictional characters. It is, to use an over-taxed phrase, a tour de force. The poems are beautiful in their own right. I confess that my first time through this novel I went to my Norton Anthology of English Literature and looked for R.H. Ash. I was frankly amazed that the author could switch from style to style and write such beautiful verse. The third time through the book, I was struck by the way the poetry also illuminates the narrative.
Roland Michell and Maude Bailey, our two protagonists, feel most uncomfortable in a modern setting and turn to the past for answers. As they connect to the lives of the poets through their letters, they find strength within themselves to live meaningful lives. Byatt's genius for metaphor connects the two couples over and over. Notice the use of color: greens for the feminine and grays and blacks for the masculine characters. Cropper wears Ash's watch, Maude wears LaMotte's brooch. Symbols of confinement and release are paired: the glass coffin and the library cubicle, the green Beetle and the serpent Melusine, the short-lived Eden of Yorkshire and Roland's forbidden garden. As the story builds toward its climax, the images pile up, as it were, until everything and everyone meets in one place, in one very cinematic scene, to uncover the truth. Yet, even with all the romantic drama, Byatt never loses contact with books, with the fact that it is through reading and writing that human beings make contact with their finer selves.
Those who write biography or study history know that every life has a story, but also that we can never tell the story exactly as it was. There is no final truth in history, but only interpretation and recreation. We read the journals of our ancestors and wonder what was not said that would have been most enlightening, as we try to extract a vision of their reality from the clues left to us. Roland and Maude, after years of studying these poets, have a deeply personal regard for them and a desire to protect their privacy. When Roland discovers a correspondence between the poets, he knows that a media sensation will ensue in which every personal detail of their lives will be open to exposure. He resents this, yet is drawn by curiosity about them to investigate further, which eventually causes everything to come to light. In a highly readable series of events, Byatt takes us deeper and deeper into these lives, switching from past to present and back to the past. Finally, after all is revealed, Byatt shares one more crucial detail with the reader that is never revealed to the other characters. It is her way of letting us know at the end that the full story of any other life will always be, to some extent, a mystery.
1.0 out of 5 stars Potentially Interesting Story Gets Stifled,
I must admit, I couldn't get past page 50 of this behemoth Booker Prize winner... and thank God! Because nothing I heard during my book group's subsequent discussion of it led me to believe I would have liked the remaining 500 pages. Byatt constructs a somewhat imaginative romance hidden within the poems of two obscure Victorian writers. All very nicely done I suppose, but it was putting me to sleep... Somewhere in the dreadful poems, faux letters, and overwritten prose, there is probably a decent story, however I saw little evidence of it, or of any characters to care about. I doubt I'll be spending any more of my precious time on earth in Byatt's tedious academic settings.
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning. Superb. Passionate. Engaging.,
Possession is not only the incredibly apt title but also the way I feel about this book. While reading it I hesitated to tell my friends about the wonderful new book that had me so enthralled. I felt as though I was with Maud and Roland while they tromped over Europe. I became as possessive about the letters as the fictitious characters themselves. The book became my three day obsession.
I have read every other review about it and I won't lie and say that the prose wasn't stilted at times. It was. The story is certainly easily transparent and I had guessed the ending of the book 175 pages before it happened.
But all of that is superfluous. I have not read a book comparable to this one in regards to pure creativity for quite some time. I admired the ingenuity of Ms. Byatt with every turn of the page. She not only created believable characters, but she created a literary history that spanned nearly two hundred years. From nothing Ms. Byatt created distinctively different poetry in the voice of two, fictitious, Victorian poets. She also created love letters between the two. She created fictitious literary analyses of the fictitious poetry. For that feat alone, I admire her and this book.
And I would read it all over again, twenty times, for the simple post script which, I feel, summed up the book better than anything I could've ever imagined.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A finely crafted masterpiece from a tapestry of subgenres,
By A Customer
This review is from: Possession (Audio Cassette)
A S Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel, "Possession", isn't just the literary sourcebook for the current movie of the same name. It is SERIOUS LITERATURE for SERIOUS READERS, so Movie Tie-In fans expecting a compactly written synopsis of the film are well advised to stay away. But if you're a literature aficionado, and wading knee deep in long flowery poems, obscure verses, beautifully but wordily written letters and journal entries isn't a problem or better still, your cup of tea, there's much in "Possession" that will delight and enthrall you.
Subtitled "A Romance", "Possession" is more than the coupling of an ancient with a contemporary love story, though the movie adaptation may have you believe that. Victorian poet Randolph Ash didn't just have a dirty weekend with fairy poetess Christabel LaMotte. Their secret liason did however result in an awkward outcome that should not surprise readers. In Byatt's hands, their love affair is cloaked in mystery and cerebral splendour and though it may be hard to fathom the foundation of their mutual attraction, its credibility doesn't suffer because the affair isn't played out in real time but reconstructed and deduced from fragments of evidence from the past. It's like examining a black and white print through frosted glass. As for the coupling of modern day academics Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, those who have read the novel but not seen the film may be surprised that their relationship has been characterised as a romance. That to me is surely the crudest way of depicting Maud's and Roland's journey of self discovery as they collaborate in their research into the murky past of Ash & LaMotte and then join up in their undertaking to secure ownership of the invaluable evidence they have uncovered.
The flowing poems and verses may be the novel's styling, the romance its subject, but "Possession" is above all a thriller and a breathtakingly exhilarating one at that. No violence, bloodletting or shootouts, only treachery of the kind practised by learned men of letters. They're all so civilised yet undeniably vicious in their scheming and stalking of one another, it's like having one's throat slit by paper. So fine and fatal. Byatt's enactment of the final scene at the graveyard, where she calls upon the elements to unleash their destructive power, is a dramatic coup de grace that would translate perfectly on screen.
A S Byatt is a difficult novelist. Not surprisingly, "Possession" - her grand opus - doesn't make easy reading but a more finely crafted entity drawing upon a tapestry of subgenres you will not find. Truly a modern masterpiece. It'll be a tragedy if younger readers remember it as the book that inspired the film. Don't let that happen. Go read the real thing !
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Tripe and Punishment,
This is one of the most tedious books I have ever read, from the painstaking reproduction of turgid Victorian poetry to the unbelievably bad and predictable Scooby-Doo ending (A-ha! I knew it was the Professor under the mask all along!) Hundreds of pages of writing, and yet the characters remain caricatures throughout (what do they like? do they have interesting opinions about anything? what do they do when they aren't squabbling with each other?) I cannot recall one compelling sentence in the entire book. It's like trying to chew dust.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,
This review is from: Possession (Paperback)
POSSESSION has been on my shelf since 1991. I read it because it won the 1990 Booker Prize, and once under its spell, I've never wanted to let it go. A.S. Byatt -- sister of award winning novelist Margaret Drabble -- tells a complex story within a story, moving back and forth between modern-day scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, and the fictional Victorian poets who are the subjects of their research.
Victorian literature can seem like a dry and rocky road, but Byatt foreshadows and advances her story with the poetry, letters and journals of the Victorian pair, whose love affair is revealed as the research progresses. From simple lyric poems ("They say that women change: 'tis so: but you / Are ever-constant in your changefulness ...") to complex narrative poems and stories, they are well integrated with the story, though sometimes lengthy. The Victorian scene comes to life most successfully, and it's astonishing how fluently Byatt moves not just from present to past, but among the many different literary forms of the two Victorians.
The story within a story, or more specifically the unraveling of a mystery from the past, is a popular device. It's been used in Josephine Tey's DAUGHTER OF TIME, THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins, THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco; and more recently, THE DANTE CLUB and THE POE SHADOW by Matthew Pearl, THE RULE OF FOUR by Caldwell and Thomason, even Dan Brown's blockbuster THE DA VINCI CODE. Byatt weaves her two stories together beautifully: POSSESSION may be the standard by which to judge this type of book, as both stories are richly developed and rooted in the idiom of their time. The Victorian imagery reveals the love affair between the poets, and eventually between Roland and Maud, with its typical mix of emotion and restraint. The modern story satirizes the British academic scene.
POSSESSION may not be the easiest book I ever read, but it's among the most rewarding. If you haven't read it in the many years since it was first published, then I recommend it to you.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A heavy but worthy read...,
Possession is probably the most difficult but unique book I have ever read. A.S. Byatt is obviously very talented and much deserving of the Booker Prize. Possession is truly a tour-de-force of many facets, although the writing style and complexity of the story may be a bit much for some.
Roland Michell, an academic and researcher of the 19th century poet, Randolph Henry Ash, has stumbled across something that could change the very foundation of his research: two drafts of a letter that Ash sent to a mysterious woman, who later is found to be another poet, Christabel LaMotte. Roland enlists the help of the LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey, to fit the puzzle pieces together. The fact that Ash is married and LaMotte a supposed lesbian and feminist makes this journey of discovery one that will change the face of history as they've known it. And as their research takes them further along, the mystery and suspense builds, letter by letter, until the fascinating climax at the novel's end.
This book, regardless of its stunning display of talent, will not be for everyone. It took me on a roller coaster ride throughout with its high and low points as my interest in the story waxed and waned. Interspersed with poetry, diary entries, letters, and passages from books makes Possession a very unique and creative novel; however, these things which make it unique also has the capacity to tear it down -- some of the poetry could have been left out, and the letters, albeit important to the story, were at times laborous.
Possession is a literature buff's dream novel. Reader's who enjoy 19th century British literature and can actually understand poetry of that century will get more out of this novel than I did. Throughout my reading, my rating hovered between 3 and 4 stars, but decided to round up simply for the fact that Possession is truly a novel of dynamic proportions. It'll just take me a second read-around to understand it better.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It Proves that Critics Should Stay Critics,
After a failed attempt to read Possession ten years ago, I finally managed to trudge through it for the sake of my monthly book club. Apparently, not much has changed for me in ten years because I hated the book then, and I hate the book now. I say "hate" because I cannot stand to see a potentially great storyline overwhelmed by useless (and completely boring) details.
The poetry is horrible. The characters are flat. The diaries are completely unnecessary, with exception of a few sentences here and there of importance. Everyone I talk to claims to have skimmed or skipped over the superfluous parts of the book. I'm sorry, but anything I have to skim or skip for the sake of finding the plot or characterizations isn't a novel, it's homework. (And rather than finding that "challenging," I just find it annoying...a challenging read does not have to be tedious.)
I think what bothers me the most is that A.S. Byatt believed she had the creative talent to pull this off. I was thoroughly unconvinced that the poetry in the book was created by "great" poets worthy of the adoration and examination given by the modern-day characters in the book. Perhaps that is part of the satire, but if it is, it is not compelling enough to keep me interested.
The book has no flow to it and actually reads like a critic wrote it. It is dry and egotistical. I felt like I was back in undergraduate English classes being forced to read the arrogant interpretations of great literature by critics--only in this case, the great literature is missing.
Similar to religious zealots who believe there is only one way to interpret the bible, critics believe that they are somehow able to crawl into the minds of great writers so they have the definitive understanding of their works. While opinions and research are necessary to promote debate, if one believes a critic's interpretation to be fact, the literature suffers. Byatt seems to want to make fun of this, but she fails.
Honestly, I wish Byatt would recognize her limits and let a good writer handle her stories. Possession would be a much more compelling read without the weight of the useless junk Byatt forces the reader to skip.
But, to borrow from Dennis Miller....This is just my opinion, I could be wrong.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars poetry,
The poetry here is a terrible chore-- The imagined letters a horrible bore-- This woman's writing is awfully clumsy-- She uses cliches like a matronly mummsy-- Infelicitous phrases, as common as hookers-- I wonder and wonder how she won that Bookers-- and yet, and yet, its quite a good story-- as brilliant and lovely as some Morninglory-- so let me just tell ya in a voice that's stentorian yer probably better off reading some REAL Victorian!
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Possession by A.S. Byatt (Paperback - July 27 1992)
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