By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

A Mystery, a Satire, a Novel, a Romance: Possession by A.S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt's Possession blends many genres and styles together in het Booker Prize-winning novel. I wish I had written it - or featured in it.

Do you ever feel jealous of the characters in your favourite books? I do. Sometimes, things happen in books that I just wish would happen to me. This was certainly the case when I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession. In fact, while reading it, I wasn’t only jealous of the characters in it, but of the author, too. Want to know why? Read on!

Possession is about scholar Roland Michell, who finds a letter by the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Digging through every kind of source material available, he finds out that Ash had a relationship with the minor poet Christabel LaMotte. Using the help of Maud Bailey, an academic who is specialised in LaMotte’s poetry, Roland slowly unravels the mystery, while the pair also struggle with their personal affairs as well as keeping predatory academics away from a discovery that would shake the academic world to its core.

While reading Possession, I kept wishing I was an academic, too. Whenever I come home after a long day of teaching, completely drained and unable to do anything but eat dinner, watch some tv, and, if I’m lucky, read for half an hour before falling asleep, I dream of a different life. It never is. Roland and Maud, however, spend their days browsing through library files, and travelling to places that ‘their’ poets might have visited a hundred years earlier. While reading, I kept feeling like this was the life I was supposed to lead.

Oh, to be an academic! Reading, writing, analysing, discovering… It sounds perfect to me. I don’t care it mostly involves sitting lonely at a desk, staring at pages, begging them to reveal their secrets but never hearing a response. I loved Roland and Maud’s story, and their journey towards finding out the truth and towards each other, but I was jealous of them, too. I kept wishing I could have their lives, not my own, where a day’s biggest challenge is making my students finally understand the difference between the past simple and present perfect. I know that not every single academic’s life is like this (instead, some of them lead their lives teaching, too; but even that makes me jealous, for grammar is not on their curriculum…). I also know that some academics live terribly uneventful lives, and that they are often regarded as boring people.

Come to think of it, many people also consider writers quite dull, too. They imagine them typing their latest novels, hunched over desks they hardly ever leave. I, however, am jealous of writers in much the same way as I am jealous of academics – and, after reading Possession, especially of A. S. Byatt. That’s because both Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte are fictional characters. While both poets were based on historical figures, they never existed. However, many of their poems and letters are printed in Possession, as well as fictional biographies and essays about them. This means that Byatt didn’t only write a novel, but also included many other genres in it; she gave each poet a distinct voice, made up their whole genealogy, and interpreted their fictional works from multiple points of view and using different literary theories. I wish I could write something like Possession, but I know I never could. Instead, I can only enjoy reading it.

I didn’t just read Possession, however; I kept analysing it, too. It’s not just a love story about two people who realise that they are chasing another love story, but it is also historical metafiction, a critique of Victorian literature, and a comment on people who only write biographies in order to show the world how clever they are themselves. A cynic could argue that Byatt is author who wrote this book because of that exact same reason.

Byatt is clearly a scholar and a writer, and Possession can be read as an insight into the world of academia. One of the things that really stood out to me was the apparent hierarchy that’s present in both the literary and academic world. For instance, Ash was considered a brilliant poet, while LaMotte was largely forgotten because she was never considered a proper artist, probably because she was a woman. Likewise, Roland isn’t quite taken seriously at first, because he has not really made a name for himself as a scholar. I should have know the literary and academic world are just as attached to rank and status as any other part of society. Turns out being a scholar isn’t always as fun as I always thought it was.

Reading, however, never disappoints. I love reading because it makes me think, and because it makes me feel. Sometimes, whenever I’m tired (whenever my students still don’t know how grammar works, for instance), I prefer to read something that makes me feel – because there’s no space in my brain for much thinking. There are times I need to put my brain to work. And sometimes, I read books that require my full intellectual capacity, while also triggering my emotions.

Possession is one such book. It made me think, and it made me feel. I wanted to be its author, and I wanted to be its main characters. But I’m still jealous of them.

What did you think of Possession? Are you ever jealous of fictional characters? What’s your favourite academic novel? Do you prefer reading emotional books, or intellectual ones? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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