Friday Faves: AS Byatt’s Possession

…In which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and why it’s so special to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer Lynne Leonhardt:

GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT

Memorable books are a bit like memorable meals. It’s difficult to isolate them from the social, political and personal context in which they were consumed. Whether you enjoyed a book often depends on where you were, what you were doing and what was going on around you; in general, what food for thought your impoverished soul was hungering for at the time.

Reread a book ten, twenty or thirty years later and you might not feel quite the same about it. Both your literary and your culinary tastes change as you journey through life. That’s because everything changes, including you, the reader, your situation and understanding of the world.

Take for instance, A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A ROMANCE, which I read two decades ago, not long after it was published. This demanding novel was one of my undergrad texts, which no doubt accounts for the all the cryptic scrawling and under-linings throughout.

While this complex and multifaceted work is steeped in mystery, its title cannot be more explicit. Essentially this is a ‘romance’ about the nature of ‘possession’ in its many different forms. These appear to fall loosely under three categories: spiritual, material and sexual possession. As to which over-rides the other is not so very clear. There is a kind of smoke and mirrors effect of the story-within-a-story structuring of the novel that only adds to ambiguity.

Running hand-in-hand with the contemporary romance of academic sleuths, Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, is the historical romance between two Pre-Rafaelite poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, who coincidentally happen to be their mutual topic of research. The gradual unraveling of the poets’ clandestine relationship is for the two academics a secret held close to their hearts, one that neither wishes to compromise. What further complicates the dynamics between Maud and Roland and intensifies their quest is the growing intrigue of who owns what and whom.

Driving back in the dark, Roland and Maud communicated in brief businesslike bursts, their imaginations hugely busy elsewhere…

‘I don’t know why I feel so possessive about the damned things. They’re not mine.’

‘It’s because we found them. And because – because they’re private.’

Through her imagined literary texts and characters, Byatt mocks and shocks, satirizing the mores and manners of academia.

Back in the early 1990s, she seemed to be mocking me too, poor, time-starved mother and undergraduate student that I was. There I was telling myself that scholastic pursuit was such an honourable thing as I tiptoed through hallowed halls on my way to lectures and tutorials. I had always naively assumed that academics were above any kind of rivalry or skullduggery, least of all the purloining of love letters from the depths of a dusty archive. Well, this book was an education in itself, aside from being a lesson in debunking stereotypes.

Up until then I had probably never read anything so brilliantly contrived and captivating. What strikes me even now is how seductively and sardonically Byatt plays with her central theme, ‘possession’, and its willing playmate, ‘obsession’, frequently likening the consummate bliss found in words and food, to pleasures of the flesh.

Of course, we know perfectly well this is more than just a little fanciful, and yet we take it all with relish, our imaginations succumbing to all the sensory appeal of Byatt’s vivid and delightful imagery.

There is also the way she simultaneously reveals and withholds vital clues, teasing with endless red herrings so as to divert and tantalize, sucking the reader deeper into the world of Possession.

The fictitious poet, Randolph Ash, explains to his lover, Christobel, his own pleasure of reading as being something very basic, almost instinctual:

I cannot bear not to know the end of a tale. I will read the most trivial things – once commenced – only out of a feverish greed to be able to swallow the ending – sweet or sour – and to be done with what I need never have embarked on. Are you in my case? Or are you a more discriminating reader? Do you lay aside the unprofitable?

Like Ash, we all have our own little obsessions. Curiously, they are never anywhere near as interesting as other people’s. Yet as Byatt demonstrates, if theirs are such a great source of fascination – the desire, the desperation, the maniacal hunger that both propels people forward and potentially tips them over the edge – we the observer, the reader, inevitably become implicit and party to obsession by succumbing to this fascination.

Two decades later and I have to ask myself: would I read this book again just to find out if it’s an all-time favourite? The short answer is ‘no’. It’s my policy never to read a book more than once. To do so, I always maintain, would be to read it differently and risk feelings of loss and disappointment. I have already ‘swallowed the ending’ of this tale. The lack of suspense and element of surprise would take much away from narrative satisfaction. As to the novel’s relevance today, my world and I have, quite simply, journeyed on, which in turn changes everything.

Even so, the more I read here and there from an isolated page, the more I ponder and find new resonance. While I would never normally call myself an obsessive reader by any stretch of the imagination, I understand the nature of ‘possession’ more literally now and what it is like to be ‘possessed’ by the power of my own imagination.

Besides the relatively brief experience of reading a book, there lies the writing of one too: the waking up in the middle of the night with the flash of an idea, the feverish impulse to get up and write it down and that craving to go on and on and on, week after week, month after month, sometimes year after year. Call me a glutton for punishment if you like, but oh, how I yearn for the return of that kind of ‘obsession’, and the ultimate satisfaction of seeing my name on yet another book.

Lynne Leonhardt was brought up on an orchard in Donnybrook in the South West of Western Australia. As a young adult she worked overseas travelling extensively. It was not till later in life, while bringing up four children and studying music and English literature part-time at the University of Western Australia, that Lynne resurrected her long-lost desire to write. She went on to do a PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University for which she earned the Dean’s prize in 2008.

Her debut novel, Finding Jasper, published by Margaret River Press in 2012, was long listed for the 2013 Dobbie Award.

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Friday Faves  AS Byatt s Possession   ANNABEL SMITH

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