The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Possession: A Romance
by
A.S. Byatt.
Possession: A Romance
by A.S. Byatt

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Roland Mitchell, a post-doctoral student who exists on the fringes of
the academic world, is an unlikely hero for a novel of intrigue and
romance.  At the start of A.S. Byatt’s novel
Possession, this
lackadaisical scholar operates in the shadow of his mentor,
Professor James Blackadder, and seems
destined to live a quiet and insignificant
life as a third-tier academic.  Yet Mitchell
soon discovers—surprise!—that when it
comes to deceit, backstabbing and scandal,
professors could give espionage agents a
run for their money.

Okay, maybe you’re
not surprised.  But
don’t send me the details—take them up
with the university ombudsman.

In any event, Mitchell stumbles upon two
previously unknown letters that have been
hidden away in a library for decades, and
seem to hint at a secret romance in the life of Victorian poet
Randolph Henry Ash. Mitchell should alert the library, or at a
minimum tell his mentor, a famous Ash scholar.  But instead he
pockets the documents, and begins his own private investigation
into their possible implications.

This story unfolds along familiar lines.  Mitchell tries to solve the
mystery of Ash’s possible romantic entanglements, but also gets
caught up in a love story of his own.  We have seen this before, in
Hollywood movies and genre fiction.  Yet A.S. Byatt takes this
simple premise, and builds remarkable superstructures on top of it.
Her novel is a masterpiece of interweaving narratives and
contrasting styles.  In
Possession, nothing moves forward in a
straight-forward fashion, and every clue and turning point comes
embedded in its own appropriate “text.”

Our tale quickly branches out into several complicated plots. The
mystery of poet Ash seems to intertwine with the life of Christabel
LaMotte, the likely recipient of his love letters.  This discovery not
only threatens to rewrite LaMotte’s biography, but also to create
politicking and rivalry among modern-day scholars.  Byatt is
especially good at showing how revisions in a Victorian biography
can stir up turbulence among professors many decades later.  One of
her most salient sub-themes (among many that populate this rich
novel) is her incisive take on the pettiness and pretentiousness, the
turf wars and antagonisms, of scholarly circles.

But the most masterful aspect of the plot is the superimposition of
the two love stories, the 20th century one involving Mitchell and his
accomplice Dr. Maud Bailey, a famous LaMotte scholar, and the
19th century romance between Ash and LaMotte.  The contrast is
not just one of couples, but also social mores, etiquette and gender
roles.  Byatt is in complete control as she juxtaposes the pacing and
complications of these side-by-side stories.  We have seen this
tackled before—John Fowles did something similar in his brilliant
The French Lieutenant’s Woman—but even with precedents, the
difficulty of merging plots from past and present should not be
underestimated.  The overall effect is a dizzying sense of a Victorian
romance being swallowed whole by a post-modern novel.

The architectonics of this plot would be enough on their own to set
Possession apart from your typical love story. But the style of the
writing is even more impressive than the twists and turns of the
narrative.  Byatt is forced to adopt a wide range of writing styles
during the course of
Possession.  She needs to write poetry that
could plausibly come from the pen of a famous nineteenth century
poet.  She needs to mimic Victorian prose and epistolary styles. She
also needs to be conversant with the language of modern academic
criticism.  Moreover, she must subsume all of these under the
authorial tone of today’s fiction, while being sensitive to the genre
expectations that are invariably raised by romance and mystery
tales.  Above all, she needs to push her story ahead while constantly
shifting between these various styles.

To pull all these together so flawlessly is a tremendous achievement
for A.S. Byatt. Her success is virtuosic, yet it is never showy.  A
marked seriousness, an unsullied respect for literary decorum,
permeates this novel from start to finish.

The essence of many post-modern novels is to play around with the
conventions of various literary genres, creating delightful hodge-
podges and surprising juxtapositions.  But too often these efforts
collapse into mere playfulness and gamesmanship.  
Possession has
this same multi-layered resonance, but Byatt never gets caught up in
the flashiness of her textual juggling, and every move she makes
contributes to a holistic effect. The result is a novel that many will
study, but still more will simply admire and enjoy.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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