Tag Archives: A.S. Byatt

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession - AS ByattPossession – A.S. Byatt
Vintage, 1991

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That’s right, I have finally read Possession. And I loved it, as everyone predicted I would, though that love was not present from the very start.

For those who have not read Possession, I am very sorry, but I won’t include a plot summary. Not because I am lazy (or well, perhaps that does play a role), but because I don’t know how to summarise this book exactly without veering into possibly spoilery terrain. I don’t think my thoughts below will be spoilery. It’s just that in order to get a proper outline of the plot, without giving it away, there are too many layers to work through in my head, to get back to that initial unknowing state of when I first started reading a few weeks ago. And this is the kind of book where I am sure you will appreciate exploring by yourself, discovering as you go along. All I can say is: please do read it. And don’t feel daunted and intimidated, as I was. Moreover, remember to stick with it for the first 100 pages (I admit, those can be hard), if any of the themes below appeal to you. The book, and the eventual conclusion, will probably be worth it. It more than was, from my point of view.

So yes, Byatt’s prose, not exactly easy. Even though it is absolutely beautiful, reading it was also a bit of an uphill battle for me. I had to tell myself repeatedly that I had committed to actually reading this during the first 100 pages or so. My engagement with the story was moreover complicated by the initial reserve I felt for one of the main characters, Roland Mitchell. Luckily, excited and interesting things started happening, puzzles were waiting to be resolved, other characters entered the scene (yay for Maud Bailey, Christabel La Motte, and Ellen Ash), and academic tensions started to simmer. It did not take more than those 100 pages to hook me, though I admit, the reading was still difficult at times.

Allow me, for I am a little short on time today, to briefly sum up why I ended up loving this novel so so much, despite my initial struggles:

  • It is (in part) a novel about academia. Remember how I loved the library and research part in A Discovery of Witches? It’s like that, except, I think, even better. Moreover, it highlights both the beautifully romantic about academic life and research, and the cruel, competitive, and not-so-wonderful side, which I think are both very realistically done;
  • Possession highlights the rush, the joy, the curiosity, and the frustrations of not-knowing, in historical research. As you follow two scholars in their quest to find out more, to discover possible connections between two people who haven’t previously been thought of as such before, you get to part of the journey of discovery. The journey that I hope for in my own research. I felt sympathy for Maud and Roland, because like them, discovering some treasure, even a single line in an archive, can have me dancing in my chair (of course, Roland and Maud are a little more sophisticated than me);
  • There is all kinds of gender criticism in Possession. It is literally everywhere. In its portrayal of the dismissal of “women’s studies” in academia at large (oh, how I relate!), in the reflections on the lives of Maud and all those other contemporary women (their relationships, the misunderstandings, the mistakes, the presumptions, the casual sexism), but also in the writing of historical women (you find historical women reflecting on their possibilities, making decisions, reflecting on their pasts, missed opportunities, mistakes). It makes it real, it makes it relevant, it made me love Byatt for it;
  • History! Oh, so much history! And even the mention of some Dutch history (Swammerdam). By the way, it is not that the mention of my national history makes me swell with patriotism, it’s just a small spark of recognition, the idea that someone bothered to mention a Dutch historical figure, out of all possibilities;
  • The (fictional) historical documents contain a lot of reflection on religion. The possible challenges faced by Christianity with the advent of Darwin’s theory, the emergence of spiritualism. Ah yes, (contextualised ideas about) religion + history + gender + good fiction = happy Iris.
  • Literary criticism (not that I know much about that, but it was interesting nonetheless), and the personal importance of reading are everywhere.
  • And can I add the absolute skill of Byatt to that list? Because if this novel portrays anything, it is her skill, I think. Seemingly seamless, she incorporated all these themes and more. Perhaps even more importantly, she also wrote all the different documents that Maud and Roland trace: the poems, the letters, the diary entries, the academic essays about the poetry. I had to double, no triple, check, if it was right that Byatt wrote it all. But she did. I am in awe.
  • I had not expected it at the beginning, but the book also managed to evoke a lot of emotions from me. Those last 100 pages, with all the revelations, the doubts, the feelings, they simply blew me away.

Possession deserved much better than this post by me. Every single one of all of the brief glimpses of thought, or even just brief mentions of themes, noted here, probably deserve a dedicated blog post. And it is not that I do not want to find the time to write it. I would so like to, but my abilities to reflect meaningfully on all of them would probably fall short. And, I know it is a lame excuse, I have an essay deadline approaching. Not wanting to delay on sharing my enthusiasm, I wanted to write this post anyway. Perhaps someday I will reread, and rewrite.

Thanks to Lu and Kim for organising a month-long read along of Possession. Without it, and the participation by other enthusiastic bloggers, I might not have picked this up for another couple of years. And I’m infinitely glad I read it now.

The Children’s Book next?

Other Opinions: Oh so many.

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Reading Everything at Once

Sometimes you simply have too many books on the go at once.. The past weeks would be an example of that for me.

Of course, I am still reading War and Peace. I finally managed to finish the pages I should have read in February, but what do you know.. we are almost at the end of March already!

Possession - AS ByattI am also participating in Kim and Lu‘s readalong of A.S. Byatt’s PossessionAs expected, I am also behind on this one. I seem to catch up about a week late each time. However, I am enjoying the book. It was slow at first, but now it is starting to feel damn near perfect. Looks like it might combine everything I usually love in books.

While walking to work each morning and walking home in the evening’s I am listening to Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, narrated by Kirsten Potter. I had very low expectations going into this book, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how many themes it deals with. I have not quite decided how much I am enjoying it exactly, but as I’m nearing the end I definitely do not think I wasted my time on this audio book.

Lately, I have mostly been too tired to do any reading in bed (falling aleep without even opening a book is a new experience for me), but a few nights ago I happened to lie awake for a while and so I started Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker. First book for Dutch Lit Month?

Bitter Greens - Kate ForsythAnd then yesterday, I also started Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. I have not exactly made much progress (I am 10 pages in at present), but that’s not for lack of wanting to read this book. I’m just struggling with lots of fatigue lately. I definitely have high expectations for this book and I hope it will not disappoint me.

Come to think of it, five books is not that many. Perhaps it just feels like a lot because I have not had much time to really sit down with a book for a few hours lately.

So what are you reading these days? Are you reading lots of books at once, like me, or are you making your way through one book at a time?

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok - A.S. ByattRagnarok: The End of the Gods – A.S. Byatt
Grove Press, February 2012
Review copy through Netgalley
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Ragnarok is A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Scandinavian myth of the end of the world, the moment that the Gods kill each other and destroy all that they know. In retelling this myth, Byatt has taken a girl, “the thin child”, who reads the myth during her childhood in war-time Britain. The reader veers in and out of the story of the myth, through the eyes of the child, following how the child makes sense of her own world, with her father away on war-duty, and the world of the myths told in Asgard and the Gods.

In order to enjoy Byatt’s retelling, you need not be familiar with the story of Ragnarok. In fact, I have never read a version of the myth myself, and have only caught glimpses of the idea of the end of the world as represented in it.  Byatt’s prose is beautiful and lures you right in. And even though I had to adjust to using the child’s perspective and appropriation of the myth for her retelling, in the end this is exactly what made Byatt’s book so interesting to me.

At the end of the book, Byatt explains why she chose to represent the myth as she did, reflecting on the autobiographical inspiration for the thin child, the idea of the relation of Ragnarok as inevitable to the contemporary loss and carelessness about the Earth’s nature, but also on the process of reimagining the specific genre of myth for modern readers. Byatt defines the differences between fairy tales and myths as concerning the kind of story telling they represent: fairy tales are narratives, straightforward, satisfactory to the reader, featuring characters with full personalities. Instead, myths, to Byatt, are often unsatisfactory, need not be narratives at all, and often feature characters that have no all-round personalities, just attributes.

“Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible. The numinous, to use a word that was very fashionable when I was a student. The fairy stories were in my head like little bright necklaces of intricate carved stones and wood and enamels. The myths were cavernous spaces, lit in extreme colours, gloomy, or dazzling, with a kind of cloudy thickness and a kind of overbright transparency about them.”

I enjoyed Byatt’s reflections at the end of the book, because it was exactly this different world view represented in the mythical parts of the book that captured my interest. Not because of the content of the myth, per se. I hate to admit it, but I even found it hard to not let my thoughts wander during the first few chapters detailing a part of the myth pertaining to trees. Instead, it was because Byatt paints such a vivid picture of the differences in world view between Scandinavian mythologies and Christianity, and yet has the child approach both as stories, which she could enjoy but did not believe in. Rather, the child seems to find meaning in the fact that both Asgard and the Gods and The Pilgrims Progress were stories that impressed her and lived on inside of her. Byatt does not criticize belief per se, but she shows how people search for and appropriate stories when they construct their own world view, through the eyes of “the thin child”.

In a way then, Byatt’s Ragnarok can be read as a somewhat post-modern and humanist perspective on meaning making through religious myth. This is reflected in her “A Note on Names”, published at the beginning of the story, in which she explains why she used different names used in different regions for the same character:

“Myths change in the mind depending on the telling – there is no overall correct version.”

But it is a theme that recurs throughout the book. In her story, Byatt has the child prefer Asgard and the Gods over Christianity, at one point, because the child feels she can make more sense of the crumpling world of war in that way. Byatt certainly seems to prefer myth over Christianity, seemingly identifying the latter with a more static and strict worldview. And this is exactly what intrigued me. On the one hand, Byatt had me thinking to myself: “here I have been studying religion for years, and I feel I am finally making sense of the utter difference between a circular world-view, a mythical one, and the more linear Christianity”. On another level, while Byatt states she represents myth in a less modern way than her predecessors in the Canongate Myth series, by retaining Gods as characters with attributes instead of personality, she makes something as old as myths modern in a different way, by emphasising the constructionist and changing nature of myths. Then again, on yet another level, she really does only underline something inherent to the nature of the old custom of what we now call myth-telling, it having always been a tradition of re-telling, without every word being strictly set in stone.

I enjoyed Ragnarok very much, perhaps less so for the parts in which the myth itself was retold, and more because it made me stop and think, every few pages. I am still processing what I have read, and I cannot wait to return to this short book someday. In the mean time, I am anxious to finally read some of Byatt’s other fiction.

Other Opinions: Desperate Reader, She Reads Novels, Things Mean A Lot, Rebecca Reads, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Lindy Reads and Reviews, A Librarian’s Life in Books, Eve’s Alexandria.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list. 

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