Sunday, October 05, 2014

Romance from a Bygone Era

by A.S. Byatt

“They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed. One night they fell asleep, side by side... He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.” ― A.S. Byatt, Possession

Possession: A Romance is a 1990 bestselling novel by British writer A. S. Byatt that also won the 1990 Booker Prize. The novel explores the postmodern concerns of similar novels, which are often categorized as historiographic meta fiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and meta fiction. In this specific case one of the main themes, struck in the epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, is that this novel is a romance in its attempt to "connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us".

The romance follows two modern-day academics as they research the paper trail around the previously unknown love life between famous fictional poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Possession is set both in the present day and the Victorian era, pointing out the differences between the two time periods, and satirizing such things as modern academia and mating rituals. The structure of the novel incorporates many different styles, including fictional diary entries, letters and poetry, and uses these styles and other devices to explore the postmodern concerns of the authority of textual narratives. The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artifacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects. 

The romance concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (whose life and work are loosely based on those of the English poet Robert Browning, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose work is more consonant with the themes expressed by Ash, as well as Tennyson's having been poet-laureate to Queen Victoria) and Christabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti (although LaMotte is presented as much less well-known poet than was Rosetti) as learned by present-day academics Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, they work to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's history before it is discovered by rival colleagues. Byatt provides extensive letters, poetry and diaries by major characters in addition to the narrative, illuminating the work with poetry attributed to the fictional Ash and LaMotte.  I enjoyed the many references to literary and philosophical sources and themes that the author interpolates within the narrative.  One favorite theme of mine is reading which is explored near the end of the novel:

"It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex.  Novels . . . do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading.  There are obvious reasons for this, the most obvious being the regressive nature of the pleasure, a mise-en-abime even, where words draw attention to power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum, thus making the imaginative experience something papery and dry, narcissistic and yet disagreeably distanced, without the immediacy of sexual moisture or the scented garnet glow of good burgundy.  And yet, natures such as Roland's are at their most alert and heady when reading is violently yet steadily alive." (pp 510-11)

Written in response to John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman the novel explores the postmodern concerns of that and other similar novels, which are often categorized as historiographic meta fiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and meta fiction. Byatt wrote elsewhere that "Fowles has said that the nineteenth–century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first–person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the text." 
This is only one of the many ways that Byatt keeps the novel (romance) interesting for the reader. The combination of mystery, romance, and literary references made this an engaging and delightful book that become progressively more interesting as I read toward its unexpectedly exciting denouement.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I usually really like these stories that include meta - fiction involving literature.

I like the fact that the Victorian poets are fictional. I am thinking that many authors would have written a fictional story around real historical figures. I tend to not like it when writers do that.