“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.”