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Possession
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2002
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 !
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2007
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.
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"Possession" is far above and beyond the kind of books usually labelled "romance." It's lushly written, with exquisite characters, great poetry and interweavings of legend and myth. It's almost chastely erotic, mysterious and dripping over with Victorian-era romance. It's hard not to be drawn in.

A young scholar, Roland, stumbles accidently on an old letter from acclaimed poet Randolph Ash. He soon has reason to believe that the letter was to Christabel La Monte, a lesser-known "fairy" poet -- except Ash was happily married, and La Monte was single all her life. Roland and the chilly fellow scholar Maud investigate caches of hidden letters, poems, and diaries by the lovers, wife, friends and relatives.

In the past, the cordial letters of Christabel and Randolph blossomed into love and passion. They vanished for a short, blissful time together. But what happened to Christabel and Randolph's love, and why did Christabel leave England, while her companion Blanche committed suicide? And how do these events somehow involve Roland and Maude's own growing attachment?

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and in "Possession" it's a valuable historical tool. When words are hidden or read, it can change perceptions and even lives. Byatt's own words are wonderfully lush, dreamy and vivid. Given the rather formal language and writing, it almost seems like a nineteenth-century novel, as if Byatt got so swept up in the characters that she started writing like them.

Byatt has an excellent eye for the language of the era. The letters, poetry and fiction of Christabel and Randolph have a very authentic feel. Especially since Byatt manages to change tones for different people's writing (Christabel's poetry was a bit reminiscent of Emily Dickenson's). The only problem is when the book veers into long tangents; Byatt seems to get a little off-track there. But most of the time, the richness of Breton legend adds depth and mystery to an already beautiful novel. The sunken city of Is, the legend of Melusina, and many others are here.

Byatt gives us an amazing look at the ill-fated lovers, Christabel and Randolph; you can feel their passion and love. They aren't just attracted to each other, but drawn together in the mind and spirit. The supporting characters, such as the artist Blanche and devoted, wistful Ellen Ash, are equally well-drawn; you can't dislike any of them. Roland and Maud seem a little anemic by comparison, but they are still compelling characters, caught up in a love affair from over a hundred years ago.

After taking the recommendation of a good friend, I found that "Possession" is the kind of genuine, heartwrenching romance that you don't see much of -- meetings of minds, genuine passion and love. It's a beautiful thing, and something to be deeply treasured.
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"Possession" is far above and beyond the kind of books usually labelled "romance." It's lushly written, with exquisite characters, great poetry and interweavings of legend and myth. It's almost chastely erotic, mysterious and dripping over with Victorian-era romance. It's hard not to be drawn in.

A young scholar, Roland, stumbles accidently on an old letter from acclaimed poet Randolph Ash. He soon has reason to believe that the letter was to Christabel La Monte, a lesser-known "fairy" poet -- except Ash was happily married, and La Monte was single all her life. Roland and the chilly fellow scholar Maud investigate caches of hidden letters, poems, and diaries by the lovers, wife, friends and relatives.

In the past, the cordial letters of Christabel and Randolph blossomed into love and passion. They vanished for a short, blissful time together. But what happened to Christabel and Randolph's love, and why did Christabel leave England, while her companion Blanche committed suicide? And how do these events somehow involve Roland and Maude's own growing attachment?

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and in "Possession" it's a valuable historical tool. When words are hidden or read, it can change perceptions and even lives. Byatt's own words are wonderfully lush, dreamy and vivid. Given the rather formal language and writing, it almost seems like a nineteenth-century novel, as if Byatt got so swept up in the characters that she started writing like them.

Byatt has an excellent eye for the language of the era. The letters, poetry and fiction of Christabel and Randolph have a very authentic feel. Especially since Byatt manages to change tones for different people's writing (Christabel's poetry was a bit reminiscent of Emily Dickenson's). The only problem is when the book veers into long tangents; Byatt seems to get a little off-track there. But most of the time, the richness of Breton legend adds depth and mystery to an already beautiful novel. The sunken city of Is, the legend of Melusina, and many others are here.

Byatt gives us an amazing look at the ill-fated lovers, Christabel and Randolph; you can feel their passion and love. They aren't just attracted to each other, but drawn together in the mind and spirit. The supporting characters, such as the artist Blanche and devoted, wistful Ellen Ash, are equally well-drawn; you can't dislike any of them. Roland and Maud seem a little anemic by comparison, but they are still compelling characters, caught up in a love affair from over a hundred years ago.

After taking the recommendation of a good friend, I found that "Possession" is the kind of genuine, heartwrenching romance that you don't see much of -- meetings of minds, genuine passion and love. It's a beautiful thing, and something to be deeply treasured.
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on June 16, 2003
A.S. Byatt is a master and this is her master work. She is not only a brilliant storyteller and a crafter of beautiful prose but she is also a professional scholar, so she knows what it's like to spend countless hours in dusty archives in search of enlightenment or even truth. This book is an academic fantasy, flawlessly recreating the obsession one feels when on the trail of a great research topic, the ecstasy of finding the one magnificent piece of evidence that suddenly makes years of effort worthwhile, as well as the almost blind passion with which many scholars imbue their subjects with their personal point of view--and the paradigm shifts that must occur when that view is challenged.
But this book is no mere academic mystery tale. Byatt wins my heart by consistently drawing characters who are intellectually gifted yet emotionally flawed and not always certain of their place in their chosen--unreservedly critical--profession. In Possession, her researchers are not only intellectual but human and vulnerable, struggling to unearth an emotional life that equals their intellectual one.
Not for everyone, but for people who require a smart read in addition to a great story, this one is a classic.
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on April 27, 2002
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.
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on March 24, 2002
This was a wonderful read! Set in England, the story opens as Roland Michell,(a part-time research asst.) sits in his favourite spot in the London library archives, preparing to research Randolph Henry Ash's (a renowned and respected poet from the past) personal copy of Vico. Stuffed within the pages, he discovers personal letters of correspondence between Ash and an unidentified woman. Who had obviously attended a breakfast gathering of intellectuals, of which Ash was also a guest at. Who was this woman of mystery that had captured Ash's attention? Roland had asked himself that very question, and the adventure begins...I won't tell you anymore, I suggest you read it for yourself to see the mystery unfold. I can say that the Post-script brought peace, joy, smiles and tears to me! You won't be disappointed, I promise.
This book is wonderfully written, A.S. Byatt's descriptiveness in this novel is brillient, vibrant and vivid! Her love and use of words is truly captivating. But keep your dictionary close at hand, you'll have a nice list to research through out this book.
You'll find two separate love relationships develope and unfold within this book, one from the past, and one in the present. Which is the only flaw that was found, as I constantly craved romantic involvement with the contempory couple, but was mostly fed romance from the past. Understanding also that the past romance was the main theme here, I still yearned for the present.
Between the pages of each chapter, you'll discover complex and amazing poetry, written by Byatt herself. Revealing to us all the extraodinary talents of this very accomplished author. I will definitly be reading more of her works in the future.
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on March 3, 2002
How does one begin to describe a book as gorgeous as "Possession?" Are there really words to describe the words?
"Possession" is definitely a romance but it is so much more than that. It is also a satire, an exploration, a diary, a critical essay a heady plunge into Victoriana and even a detective story of sorts.
The characters are all gems. Wonderful creations. Roland Michell, one notes almost immediately, is an academic to the very core. Although Roland may seem a bit of a bore in the very beginning of the story, once he steals the letters he so desperately wants, he becomes more of a flesh-and-blood character, more human, more fallible. Just as boring (in the beginning) as is Roland, so is Maud. These are two characters who are meant for each other, who only change when under each other's influence. While academic rivalry may be what sets the plot of this book in motion, it is love that becomes its driving force.
Much of the book is spent in the company of the fictitious Victorian writers, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte and they are fascinating characters, indeed. Most of the chapters begin with a fictitious work by either Ash or LaMotte. Byatt has caught the spirit of both of these characters so well, that one could almost swear that Ash and LaMotte were real...and that they really wrote. Ash is the more open and terse writer; LaMotte the more given to patterns of rhythm and rhyme. Yet both writers are truly Victorians. Although many feel that Ash and LaMotte represented Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti, I felt that LaMotte was definitely Dickensian and Ash, very much Coleridge.
Byatt, one of the world's outstanding writers, has lavished such care and attention on "Possession" that each page, each paragraph, each poem, each letter, contains material that both soothes and stimulates the mind of the reader.
Although Byatt's writing may seem simple and straightforward enough, it is really exceedingly rich in both detail and allusion. In fact, there is so much literary detail and there are so many allusions in "Possession" that I think many readers might miss a few with a first reading. The readers who skip the letters and the poems are definitely making a huge mistake, for they form an integral part of the story; the book could not exist without them. The letters also give the reader (and Roland and Maud) a great deal of information about both Randolph and Christabel and allow the parallel relationships to come into being. And, if the reader gives them only half a chance, he or she will come to see that the letters and poems and fairy tales are rich and rewarding in and of themselves. It is no accident that both Christabel and Maud are identified with fairy tale characters who live in towers (Christabel with Melusina and Maud with Rapunzel).
Don't let the subject matter of the book put you off. Yes, failed romantic love has been done many times before and so have parallel relationships, but never quite in this way. Never so beautifully, never in such a way that touches the heart.
The only criticism I have of this book is that Byatt sometimes gave in to the lure of realism and let her characters speak in such a way as to almost tinge this book's exquisitely beautiful aura. Sure, in real life, people throwing a tirade don't take care to keep their language beautiful, but "Possession" isn't real life and we know it. That is a part of its lure and I only wish Byatt had felt the same. Expletives, in this book at least, do detract from the overall romantic and beautiful tone and from the otherwise equisiteness of Byatt's writing.
When it comes down to the final analysis, however, the above is simpy a quibble and "Possession" is a tremendous achievement. The characters are real and believable. We love them, we (sometimes) hate them, we pity them, we root for them. The 19th century seems as real as yesterday and Ash and LaMotte seem to have certainly existed, contrary to the very fact that we know they did not. The parallel relationships are braided and intertwined so carefully and beautifully that they can't help but capture both our heart and our soul.
"Possession" is a poetic, beautiful, exquisite novel that intricately weaves both the light and the dark aspects of love. It is a sumptuous feast of a book that is meant to be luxuriated in and ultimately, loved.
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on February 4, 2002
"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.
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on January 26, 2002
How does one even began to write a halfway objective review of a book with which one has, quite literally, fallen in love? I guess by accepting one of the underlying themes of the novel: that the world we live and love in is a mysterious place and that for all the verbal magic of which we humans are capable (as evinced in this novel!) we fall short of being able to pin down Reality. As Randolph Ash, one of the two Victorian era characters puts it on page 306, "He thought of his hopes and expectations and the absence of language for most of them."
What I find more than a tad disconcerting about almost all the other reviews (with a few greatly appreciated exceptions!) is that the readers want plot, characters, and page-turning reading.-That is, they want diversion and entertainment-Thus they are none-too-suprisingly less than filled with rapture over a book whose fundamental theme, it seems to me, is the nature of the love and language that makes us conscious, sentient human beings.
Yes, there is a plot. But the 20th century characters seem so thin, two-dimensional and untextured in comparison to the Nineteenth century artists on whom they are fixated that this hardly seems to be what this book is all about. What it IS about is the love between Ash and LaMotte and the nature of love in general. The tenuity of the 20th century characters and their relationships seems to be purposeful in order to contrast them with their Nineteenth Century subjects.
"...the life of the past persisting in us, is the business of every thinking man and woman." This is a quote by Ash, in the Nineteenth Century. The only two twentieth century characters who truly make internalizing the past their business are obviously Roland and Maud.
OK. I won't go on to a long dissertation. But I will say that I was amazed that none of the editorial or customer reviews (I read ALL of them) so much as mentioned Proust, the themes of whose work this work most closely parallels. And I will also say to those few reviewers who seemed to appreciate the deeper implications of this novel, to give Proust a gander. I will also state that for me that the gauntlet the book throws down for the reader is proffered by Ash on p.185 "-the only life I am sure of is the life of the imagination."
But you have to have been enchanted by the magical realm the characters have let flow from their souls into their poetry and letters, filling half or more of the book (which so many of the reviewers admit to have skipped) to appreciate the mystery with which Byatt confronts us: What, after all, is REAL? Is the brief physical relationship between Ash and LaMotte more REAL than their poetry and visionary experiences which fill these pages?
It seems to me you have to have at least asked yourself these questions to understand the choice Roland makes at the end.
To conclude, this book is for those who are truly Romantic and possess a sense of wonder at themselves and the constantly changing universe they inhabit and who ask themselves from time to time "Who am I?" "Where am I?" "What is Love?" To those readers who have that sense of wonder and in whom this novel struck a resounding chord, I recommend Proust as a follow-up. Yes, his Remembrance of Things Past is 3,000 pages long. But you don't have to read all of it at one sitting!
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