A.S. Byatt has briefly been a target of mine for her criticism of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, so I thought it was a good idea to read one of Byatt’s novels to get a better idea of her views on literature. Possession made TIME‘s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels published since the magazine’s inception – another list I’m working my way through – so I made that my first stop on the Byatt train. It’s a good novel from a lot of perspectives, and a fairly deep one from a thematic viewpoint, but I saw a few major flaws in its construction and one major problem to the reader.
Possession revolves around the discovery by a milquetoast poetry researcher/grad student type of two unfinished letters by the great (fictional) English poet Randolph Henry Ash to a previously unknown correspondent, the minor (also fictional) poet Christabel Lamotte, who has become a cult hero to those who study literature from a hardcore feminist/lesbian point of view. That researcher, Roland Michell, and another researcher whom he contacts for help, the sort-of feminist Maud Bailey, begin to follow the trail of letters like a pattern of clues to unravel what exactly the relationship was between Lamotte and Ash, while their attempts at secrecy attract attention from several competing researchers who want to find the answer and/or any related documents for their own purposes. Through the correspondence of the two poets, and some further correspondence from Ash’s wife and Lamotte’s female companion (it’s not clear whether we could call them lovers in any modern sense of the word), we gain windows into discussions of the nature of love, poetry, literature, religion, and the afterlife.
And if that doesn’t sound like a thrilling plot, you’re right. Possession‘s major problem, to steal a phrase from Michell and Bailey themselves, is that it lacks “narrative greed.” The characters are driven forward by an almost primal desire to learn what happens next in the story of Ash and Lamotte, but it rang hollow for me. These characters have invested much of their adult lives in learning about one of the two poets, giving them a sense of urgency that it would be impossible for the reader, who has never heard of either poet because Byatt invented them both, to acquire. Add to this the fact that the plot’s denouement ultimately hinges on a quirk of English copyright law and there’s not enough narrative greed to keep me rolling through 555 pages without having to push myself forward at times.
Compounding the problem with the plot was the lack of a single compelling character. Michell is a dull, meek man, whose emotions all seem variations on the color gray, and who is completely tone-deaf to the feelings of the woman with whom he lives (Val) and is sort of seeing. Bailey is sort of prissy, emotionally restrained, often curt, and tinged with a sadness that is never explained. Ash, Lamotte, the various “villains” (including the American researcher Mortimer Cropper, a ridiculously two-dimensional character who almost seems inserted to provide one person against whom the reader can root), all are thin, and the various people with whom we’re expected to connect emotionally are unsympathetic. In fact, the most likable character of all is Euan, a lawyer who ends up playing roles in two plot threads and who has a sense of humor and a set of bollocks that would make him a good protagonist for his own novel.
I give Byatt credit for ingenuity, including the creation of miniature catalogues of material from Ash and Lamotte, with several entire poems, excerpts of epic poems, and a short story by the fictional writers appearing in the book. Unfortunately, those were exceedingly boring, and when I came across the occasional chapter that comprised only verse written by one of the characters, I skipped to the next batch of regular prose. Possession felt more to me like an achievement, a demonstration of cleverness and of ways of using different styles of narration (mixing poetry, omniscient narration, and the epistolary novel) to weave concurrent plot lines together into a cohesive whole. It just would have been a lot better if she’d done anything to make me give a damn about what was going on in the book.