Recommended Reading: Possession, by A.S. Byatt

I was about six when this novel first appeared, but otherwise, I’d be berating myself for taking so long to read it.

The plot, in brief: two contemporary (late-’80s) literary scholars try to work out the relationship between two nineteenth-century poets (both invented by Byatt) they study, using letters, stories, poems, and diaries as evidence.

At 550+ pages, Possession is an investment in reading time, but well worth it. The pace of revelations is steady and exciting, and fits the book’s subtitle: A Romance. By this Byatt means, of course, not the plodding soft-core jumbles of paragraphs you might find in a drugstore, but the old genre-specific versions of Romance: the late medieval chivalric tales of Chretien de Troyes, the later prose romances of Sidney and Aphra Behn, the Gothic re-imagining of romance in novels like Jane Eyre. All of the connotations come together in this dense, beautiful novel.

Byatt’s range of vocabulary alone is stunning; in one fifty-page chapter, comprised of letters between Ash and LaMotte, I found twenty or thirty words and foreign phrases that I needed to look up in a dictionary (examples: menhir, congeries, tergiversation).

I was floored by Byatt’s polyphony, by the sheer weight of the references and subtle allusions. I know I’m picking up most of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century allusions since I spent five years in grad school working on that period, but at the same time, I’m know I must be missing many, many nineteenth-century references. The styling of the two poets’ voices is just incredible; it made me want to go back and read all of Emily Dickinson and Browning.

Byatt’s range of vocabulary alone is stunning; in one fifty-page chapter, comprised of letters between Ash and LaMotte, I found twenty or thirty words and foreign phrases that I needed to look up in a dictionary (examples: menhir, congeries, tergiversation).

[By the way: if you’re an academic (or former academic, or on-hiatus academic), you’ll delight in Byatt’s wickedly funny and sometimes achingly sad portraits of professorial types.]

Possession would bear repeated re-readings, but I’m going to try to hold off until I have more of my to-read books off the shelf. Let me know what you think if you’ve read it!

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2 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Possession, by A.S. Byatt

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reading: Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

  2. Pingback: Unusual Words, A.S. Byatt Edition | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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