Byatt, A.S.: Possession

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is kind of ridiculously important to me. I first read it when I was 13 and imprinted upon it, re-reading it multiple times over the next few years, hand-copying quotes into a paper journal, that kind of thing. But the last time I re-read it was in 1998, and so when I discovered recently that it finally had an e-book edition, I decided the time was ripe for a re-read: it had looked different the last time, when I was newly in love, and I thought it would likely look different now, when I’m married and have two kids.

And indeed it does, though I’m pleased to say that by and large it holds up very well. The American characters were never particularly real to me, and they don’t improve upon re-reading: I don’t know what my mental image of Cropper’s looks is, but whenever the narrator describes him I get a visceral jolt of “not like that”; and I have discovered a new and intense loathing of Leonora, which the narrator and indeed the rest of the characters seem not to share.

I’ve also always had a difficulty in maintaining momentum through the abrupt distancing that happens about halfway through (starting with chapter 16, for those of you with the text to hand; I’m going to discuss this more in a spoiler post). I was virtuous and read all the poems, but I would suggest to a first-time reader that unless you particularly enjoy the poetry, the long poems that get a chapter to themselves may reasonably be skipped.

Two other non-spoilers things I can say. I’m not sure I’d registered the narrator before, omniscient yet an individual, who nevertheless scrupulously avoids using “I,” to the best of my recollection (there’s at least one “we,” meaning “you the reader and I the narrator”). Perhaps as a part with that, the narrative strikes me as resolutely non-judgmental, which was something I was interested in this time around.

Possession has always been an odd duck on my lists of favorite or important books, because I very rarely read literary fiction (I think it was the mention of the fairy tales in the post-Booker Prize reviews that got me to pick it up). But even though those lists are extremely out of date, Possession stays on them, because (almost) all the characters feel very real to me, and because I appreciate its exploration of what I will clumsily describe as intellectual engagement and its relationship to autonomy and physical connections. (I assume the comparison to Gaudy Night is old hat by this point.)

Finally, I should note that the text of the e-book edition appears to have been meticulously converted and proofed, though I disagree with some of the layout choices.

A spoiler post follows, in which I gossip shamelessly.

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