Friday Fave: Possession, by A. S. Byatt


“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.”

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a perfect treasure-box of a novel. I keep a shelf of books in my room of those works that have changed my life, changed how I look at the world: Possession is one that I take with me when I travel, like a literary comfort blanket. Dark Hour of Noon was the first of those; unless I count Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark and Sheila Finch’s The Garden of the Shaped for introducing me to fantasy and sci-fi, Possession was second, and possibly the most significant. I had always known I wanted to study English at university–what else does a person do when reading is as important a part of her life as eating and breathing?–but when I finished Possession I knew I wanted to make a career in the literary world beyond being a writer, be it as an academic, in publishing, book-binding, something. It also instilled in me a life-long habit of hunting through second-hand bookshops looking for lost treasures.

I discovered the novel via one of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror yearbooks with the gorgeous Thomas Canty covers, among the list of novels worth reading at the back. I’ve always found this a bit odd, even at my first reading; it is not a fantasy novel, although it does incorporate a few short fable-like stories and a lot of discussion of mythology on the part of the main characters. I looked for it at my local bookshop because I liked the title, and because it had won the Booker Prize; I didn’t know what the Booker Prize was (I was fourteen, and had only a hazy idea of what the Internet was at that point), but it sounded interesting. When I found it, I fell in love with the cover alone, and it remains one of the most perfect choices in terms of using a preexisting painting to illustrate a book, in my estimation.

I had been reading adult novels for years at this point and by no means did this end my love of sci-fi and fantasy (or comic books, which I had also discovered a few months before), but this changed my taste; I stopped reading the small, cheaply bound paperbacks, quickly coming to the conclusion that most literary fiction worth reading came in the larger-sized paperbacks with better quality paper and fancier covers. I discovered The English Patient and E. M. Forster shortly afterwards, and remained convinced well into my twenties that being published by Vintage was almost a guarantee that a novel was good. I continue to hope that someone will make a mini-series out of it–the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow was a good film, but was pretty loose in its telling of the story, and a great deal had to be cut out. A version starring Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai and directed by Suzanne Bier would probably be close to perfect, although I know this will never happen.

The intersections of the two parallel stories told in Possession have so many layers to them that in over twenty years of re-reading this novel it’s never become “predictable”–I know the story, but can’t memorize the intricate turns of the narrative because each reading highlights some different aspect, or in the months since my previous reading I’ll have learned something new that reveals a different significance to some scene or reference which I never noticed before. It is an investigation of all the different meanings the concept of possession can have, from the physical to the legal to the paranormal. It is a mildly satirical portrait of academia, and the impact of feminist theory on traditional literary criticism; it is an explication of what feminism and feminist theory represents, and why it is necessary; it is a literary detective story; it is an homage to the mythology and its influence on culture and the imagination; it is an exploration of the different ways sexuality shapes our lives and the consequences of denying it–personally and culturally. It is two (literally and figuratively) related love stories, one Victorian and one contemporary, one doomed and one founded on hope. At its core, it is itself a love letter to art and literature, to how a work of art is born as an expression of one’s own identity and goes on to shape the identities of others. It is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and if you haven’t read it already, you’re missing out.

“An odd phrase, ‘by heart,’…as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.”


Friday Fave: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

This is one of those albums for which I’ve started avoiding looking at the year it was released, because it makes me feel old. (It turns 22 this year. Probably gets played on those oldies stations that I also avoid listening to because a friend told me a few years ago that Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is officially an oldie now and how can that be &*%^$ possible?)

I discovered the single “Possession” on a flight from Atlanta to Miami when I was 15: It was on a list of maybe eight tracks the airline had compiled of rock and pop music on the in-flight “radio” station. I listened to that channel for the entire flight, sitting through the other entirely forgettable songs just to hear “Possession” maybe three times. I got the album as soon as it came out, and I have never stopped listening.

I still listen to a lot of the music I loved when I was a teenager, but most of it is still dear to me out of a sense of nostalgia: I am not the person I was when I fell in love with those songs, and in a lot of cases my taste has changed to the extent that some of it now sounds shallow and hackneyed–the lyrics capture a glimmer of how I felt at the time, but the songs aren’t strikingly inventive in any way. Fumbling towards Ecstasy is one of the exceptions. Every song on it is still as compelling to me as they were the day I brought the album home, particularly “Possession,” “Ice,” and the titular “Fumbling toward Ecstasy.”

While there’s plenty to be said about originality and inventiveness in popular music, a large part of what I’ve always valued in rock and other short-form songs is the use of lyrics–without the imagery and expression, the greater part of the artistry in rock stems from using existing melodies and rhythms in new ways. She captures something of Romanticism in its original literary sense, and a lot of the imagery she uses in her songs subverts and questions the representations of women ingrained in our culture, particularly those of Christian iconography. Most of the songs on her first four albums aren’t about love at all, and those that are are not about winning the guy but about struggling to keep one’s sense of personal identity from being subsumed by obsession, about questioning whether love and passion are the same thing, about whether overwhelming physical passion is ever a truly healthy thing.

A lot of television and film reviews these days discuss the idea of the male gaze, and how more and more directors are creating love scenes and other interactions on screen to present such exchanges from the woman’s perspective, and to appeal to the tastes of female viewers. This is something that McLachlan does in her music that few other musicians were doing at the time–she uses the female perspective in ways that weren’t often heard on popular radio stations back in 1994. Most pop love songs sung from the woman’s perspective even now are limited to celebrating a particular ideal man, questioning what a man wants from a woman, or occasionally rejecting that in favour of another man (or preferring being alone). Before Sarah McLachlan and her support of women artists via the Lilith Fair, there wasn’t a lot of pop music making it onto the charts that asked not just was this man or that man worth it, would he treat you well, but what do you really want in a lover and a partner? (Regardless of that partner’s gender.) She also cast the woman in a relationship in the role of the protector and the provider–and, in “Possession”, as the stalker. (Everyone always brings up “Every Breath You Take” as the quintessential example of a really creepy song being misunderstood as a glorious love song, but when you look at the lyrics of “Possession”, which were in fact inspired by things that two stalkers wrote to McLachlan in the early years of her career. It isn’t as airily romantic as her voice implies; the words are more evocative of paranoid delusion than they are of sane, if melodramatic, love.)

She wasn’t alone–there was Aimee Mann, the Indigo Girls, P. J. Harvey, Melissa Etheridge, Salt n’ Pepa, and a few others active at the same time–but she was a rarity, and she has used her fame to promote other women in music and music education in general. This album is still the best of McLachlan’s work and, together with its bookends Solace and Surfacing, still sounds vital and a little different from anything else around.