marginalia || Possession, by A.S. Byatt

For months he had been possessed by the imagination of her. She had been distant and closed away, a princess in a tower, and his imagination’s work had been all to make her present, all of her and the mystery, the whiteness of her, which was part of her extreme magnetism, and the green look of those piercing or occluded eyes. Her presence had been unimaginable, or more strictly, only to be imagined. Yet here she was, and he was engaged in observing the ways in which she resembled, or differed from, the woman he dreamed, or reached for in sleep, or would fight for.

There’s nothing to see here, folks. Really. I’m not even going to tell you all what the book’s about because such menial things are beyond my grasp. [Those who have read this book: Did ya see what I did thar?]

Me and this book, we have a very complicated relationship. One that can be compared to the way things are between strangers who got stuck in a stalled elevator for about four days–one is the doyenne of all things Literary, the other is a glorified bum. You don’t have to think hard about who’s whom. As apologetic as I’ve been with my inability to share my experience of good books lately, well, I suppose I’m apologizing now because this book kicked my ass, and I tried to fight back, but I have nothing to show for it but an extremely bruised brain, not to mention a strained wrist from having to lug a heavy–but very very very pretty–book around.

As much as I respect–the way one respects what one fears, harhar–A.S. Byatt‘s behemoth of a book, Possession, there’s something to be said about the first thought that came to my head when I put it down, deemed it finished: Holy cheesecake, I’M FREE. Sasha liberated from the demonic clutches of a fat book full of lit theory, lit crit, Victorian poetry, and the uber-political academe.

Oh, it’s a good book. I mean, everyone says its a good book. Ha. And from a purely objective point of view, I am very much impressed with how Byatt crafted the story. Intricately plotted, bursting with characters, and with the inclusion of so many forms to supplement the narrative–Victorian poetry, love letters, academic papers [all made by Byatt, dammit]. That’s it, it’s an impressive book. It’s intelligent, and occasionally, Oh look at me I’m intelligent. But it’s okay, because Byatt is a smart egg. [Yes, I just called A.S. Byatt a smart egg.] And the language is lush. So lush and dense sometimes, that it’s a gee-dee block. But when the words strike something in you, they strike hard:

That was the first of those long strange nights. She met him with passion, fierce as his own, and knowing too, for she exacted her pleasure from him, opened herself to it, clutched for it, with short animal cries. She stroked his hair and kissed his blind eyes, but made no more specific move to pleasure hi, the male–nor did she come to that, all those nights. It was like holding Proteus, he thought at one point, as though she was liquid moving through his grasping fingers, as though she was waves of the sea rising all round him. How many, many men have had that thought, he told himself, in how many, many places, how many climates, how many rooms and cabins and caves, all supposing themselves swimmers in salt seas, with the waves rising, all supposing themselves — no, knowing themselves — unique. Here, here, here, his head beat, his life has been leading him, it was all tending to this act, in this place, to this woman, white in the dark, to this moving and slippery silence, to this breathing end. “Don’t fight me,” he said once, and “I must,” said she, intent, and he thought, “No more speech,” and held her down and caressed until she cried out. Then he did speak again. “You see, I know you,” and she answered breathless, “Yes, I concede. You know.”

But. It’s never good when you read a book and treat it as a challenge. You don’t read it as something to be enjoyed–not even as something to immerse one’s self in, not even as something to be studied, even looked at critically. When you read a book as something whose patooty you want to kick so you can climb the nearest tower to yell, “I. Am. Victorious!”, well, something is just terribly wrong with that set-up.

Still. For what it’s worth: I read Possession, dammit! /confetti

16 thoughts on “marginalia || Possession, by A.S. Byatt

  1. I read–and loved–this not long after it was published, so it’s reputation as a *big important novel* hadn’t really developed. I think that was a good thing because I was able to just read it as a book to be enjoyed. And boy did I ever enjoy it!

    1. Sadly, it reputation precedes it when it came to my experience. So glad you enjoyed it. I mean, in a parallel universe–or, maybe, if I were my age five or so years ago, I just might totally love this. But, well, augh. It wasn’t “hype,” as you may know. It was Reputation, capital R, that cause, uh, a lot of tension between me and the book.

  2. (1) Your cover is far prettier than my cover

    (2) I have not read P yet because every time I come across it on my bookshelf, I shiver in my boots. That is to say, if I were wearing boots in Florida (which is highly unlikely) I would be shivering.

    1. [1] It’s the Vintage Classics Edition. I actually prefer the red spine than the butterfly front, haha. But that’s me being weird.

      [2] I live in a tropical country–and believe me, one can still shiver when seeing Byatt’s chunky opus. Ugh.

  3. I read this in highschool, if you can believe it! But I totally skipped all the poetry parts, and while I want to reread it… I would probably still skip the poetry parts! Not sure when I’ll really feel in the mood for it, but I do have a behemoth copy to tackle whenever the whim strikes me…

    1. I’m not sure whether to applaud High School Steph or wrap her in a blanket. That’s awe-inspiring, haha. I tried so hard not to skip the poetry parts. Incredibly, they help a lot to the narrative. It’s like Easter Eggs within the story. It can be creepy how, well thought-out Byatt has crafted this.

    2. Hey, I read it in high school and skipped most of the poetry parts too. I really did try to read them. But after I got to the several pages long wacky fairy epic poem I gave up.
      And I own this edition too. Have you got around reading Middlemarch (assuming that you bought this as a two book package at a super-attractive price like I did)?

      1. I really really tried to read them too. That epic poem, I gleefully skipped, haha. Oh, and I got this on its own. The bookstore decided to separate them, and just half the price–which is against the principle of the thing, but hey. Hee.

  4. I so want to conquer this book but I’m too scared. I’m scared of all Byatt’s books. I’ve been trying to find one that is the least scary.

    1. Yes, she really is scary. Although I can’t help but be proud of myself when I finished this, there’s something to be said about how much I cowered while I was actually reading it. She has short stories–maybe I’ll try those when I’m brave enough to face her again.

  5. I liked it but didn’t like it. There are some aspects I found really impressive, and I like it more in hindsight. But while reading, I found my experience very much the same as yours. It was somehow tedious. Still, I’m intrigued enough to want to read The Children’s Book. Talk about subjecting yourself to (somehow pleasurable) torture, lol.

    1. It is impressive, but objectively, haha. While I was reading it, I was in awe of all the work that went in to it — but that didn’t mean I’d love it. Tedious, yes; torturous, yes. I could not wait for it to free me from its evil clutches, haha. I’d love to read her short stories. And maybe, from there, reread this again? In twenty years?


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