Possession by A. S. Byatt

Possession was the first A. S. Byatt I ever read, and it is still far and away my favourite. I love the variety and interactions of the modern characters, the sense of such a completely diverse group of people linked by nothing more than a passion for two long dead poets, and the fact that they have such different ways of relating to them. I find all the characters – even the unlikable ones – enjoyable to read about. I also love the treasure hunt aspect of it – particularly as it gains momentum towards the end.

For all that I love the book, though, I don’t think I’ve ever read the Ash or LaMotte poetry, and I mostly skip the LaMotte prose as well. In fact, this time through I found myself skimming very lightly through the whole Ash/LaMotte correspondence, and I also skipped large segments of Sabine’s journal. On the other hand, I still read the Ellen Ash journal bits with great pleasure.

For me, though, this book also crystallises why it is I chose to study literature rather than history. With history, there is an absolute Truth – events either happened or they did not – and the historian may never know for certain whether what they believe is right. And there are other things that will simply never be known – as the Postscript to Possession says, “There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of”.

This is also reflected earlier in the book, when Roland and Maud go to the Boggle Hole to “take a day off from them, get out of their story, go and look at something for ourselves. There’s no Boggle Hole in Cropper or the Ash Letters”. And then in the next chapter we see that Ash and LaMotte did go to the Boggle Hole – I love the parallel between the two pairs, but at the same time it is incredibly frustrating and sad that Roland and Maud will never know about it.

The same idea comes up in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (which, co-incidentally, I saw at about the same time I first read Possession). As in Possession, while the modern characters end up knowing most of the things the audience does about the past, there are some things they are unaware of – or, as in the case of the Fuseli portrait, some things they have a gut feeling about, but no way of proving it (“I know it’s them. … How? It just is.”)

Studying literature isn’t like that, at least for me. You have the text, and you have the reader, and you really don’t need anything else – it’s all about the relationship between the two, which, of course, will be unique for each reader. I guess an exception to this is if you are specifically trying to work out “what the author intended”. But I suspect this is a task sitting somewhere between the problematic and the impossible – and, as with history, leads to the situation where you will never know – or never be able to prove – how close to the truth you are.

But in terms of general appreciation/interpretation of a text, everything you need to know is between the covers of the book. If the author has written or said something elsewhere about it, that’s a bonus; and a greater knowledge of the author’s life, or the historical period they lived in, or anything else of that nature, may shed a different kind of light on the text. But ultimately, any interpretation a reader chooses to make of the book – unless it is actually contradicted by something between the covers of the book itself – is totally valid. It’s not like history, where you may never know if you are right or wrong. If you know something about a text, then it is true – even if the next person to read it knows the complete opposite.

Post a Comment