Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Possession by A.S. Byatt

The Historian and the Man of Science alike may be said to traffic with the dead.  Cuvier has imparted flesh and motion and appetites to the defunct Megatherium, whilst the living ears of MM Michelet and Renan, of Mr Carlyle and the Brothers Grimm, have heard the bloodless cries of the vanished and given them voices.  I myself, with the aid of the imagination, have worked a little in that line, have ventriloquised, have lent my voice to, and mixt my life with, those past voices and lives whose resuscitation in our own lives as warnings, as examples, of the life of the past persisting in us, is the business of every thinking man and woman.  But there are ways and ways, as you must well know, and some are tried and tested, and others are fraught with danger and disappointment.  What is read and understood and contemplated and intellectually grasped is our own, madam, to live and work with.  A lifetime's study will not make accessible to us more than a fragment of our own ancestral past, let alone the aeons before our race was formed.  But that fragment we must thoroughly possess and hand on.  Hoc opus, hic labor est.

"The question with Possession is," my professor told me, "do you read the poetry?"

That depends, of course.  It depends partially on how much you like poetry, and then again on how much you like Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, who provide the templates for Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the two 19th century lovers in Possession. In the 20th century, a down-and-out academic named Roland inadvertently discovers evidence of a secret romance between Ash and LaMotte, who--as with Browning and Rossetti--are not particularly thought of us as being similar poets.  Half of the story is Ash and LaMotte's, told through transcriptions of a cache of correspondence Roland unearths, and through scraps of their poetry, which suddenly, when you're looking for them, resound with traces of each other.

There's a lot of poetry, to be sure.  And like most poems embedded in novels, they're easy to skip over.  (I'm looking at you, Tolkien.)  But to do so misses the most wonderful thing about Possession.  First of all, to my non-expert ears, the Ash poems are an incredibly spot-on imitation of Browning.  (Cliffs Notes: Browning is notable for blank verse dramatic monologues which often took the voice of a specific historical character, like fresco painter Fra Lippo Lippi.)  Here's a snippet from an Ash poem which takes the voice of the 17th century microscopist Jan Swammerdam:

I sought to know the origins of life.
I taught it lawful knowledge.  Did not God
Who made my hands and eyes, lend me the skill
To make my patient copper mannikin
Who held the lenses, variously curved
Steady above the living particles
I learned to scry and then to magnify
Successively in an expending scale
Of dimuniton and magnitude,
Until I saw successive plans and lines
Of dizzying order and complexity
I could anatomise a mayfly's eye,
Could so arrange the cornea of a gnat
That I could peer through that at New Church Tower,
And see it upside down and multipled,
Like many pinpoints, where no Angels danced.
A moth's wing scaly like a coat of mail,
The sharp hooked claws upon the legs of flies--
I saw a new world in this world of ours--
A world of miracle, a world of truth
Monstrous and swarming with unguessed-at-life.

(The LaMotte/Rossetti I am less able to judge.)  Moreover, to pull off such a remarkable impression, and also craft these poems in such a way that they allude to the minutiae of the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte--I'm pretty blown away by that.  By contrast, the prose in the "real time" sections is nothing out of the ordinary, and to ignore the poetry is to ignore the novel's really great technical achievement.

But it's also to miss the larger point of the novel.  Half of it is given over to Ash and LaMotte, the other half to Roland and a LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey, who work together to dig up the details of the poets' affair.  Perhaps predictably, Roland and Maud also fall in love.  But they must also defend their work, hiding their discoveries from other Ash experts on their trail, including an American millionaire whose obsession with Ash's life and biography comes off as selfish and predatory.  Roland and Maud are deeply invested in their work, but are also aware of their own personal need to possess the work of their critical icons.

The novel is always asking us to question that titular noun, possession.  To some extent, Roland and Maud are engaged in the same project as Ash, who writes to LaMotte that we have a duty to possess the past and preserve "the life of the past persisting in us."  But where is the line between this and the kind of self-preserving predation that Roland and Maud want to protect their discoveries from?  How can we possess the past and still honor the autonomy of those who lived it?

I'm getting my Masters degree in English literature now; I believe, despite recent reports of its death, in the project of literary criticism.  One of the things I love most about Possession is its defense of "lit crit" as something apiece with the literature it studies, vital and important for reasons both personal and historical:

Most of all, he [Roland] saw her [Maud's] waist, just where it narrowed, before the skirts spread.  He remembered her nakedness as he knew it, and his hands around that narrowing.  He thought of her momentarily as an hour-glass, containing time, which was caught in her like a thread of sand, of stone, of specks of life, of things that had lived and would live.  She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness, into this small circumference.  He remembered an odd linguistic fact--the word for waist in Italian is vita, is life--and this must be, he thought, to do with the navel, which is where our separate lives cast off, that umbilicus which poor Philip Gosse believed had had to be made by God for Adam as a kind of mythic sign of the eternal existence of the past and the future in all presents.  He thought too of the Fairy Melusina, a woman jusqu'au nombril, sino alla vita, usque ad umbilicum, as far as the waist.  This is my centre, he thought, here at this place, at this time, in her, in that narrow place, where my desire has its end.

This is a parody of academic writing, I have no doubt.  The connection straining for cleverness, the name-dropping, the knotted prose, the smug use of foreign languages--three of them!  It's literally a navel-gazing exercise.  And yet it's impossibly beautiful.  Roland is doing what he does best, thinking like an academic, but the result is neither arcane nor useless.  Rather, the little academic exercise he performs in his head leads him to a profound epiphany about his love for Maud, and an understanding of both Ash and himself.

Possession has quite a few flaws.  The Roland-Maud sections are rarely quite as imaginative or carefully conceived as the Ash-LaMotte ones (the above paragraph notwithstanding), and some of the minor characters--Roland's fiancee/es especially--are pretty underwritten.  Worse, the Elizabeth Barrett Browning character gets pretty short-changed, which may dismay those of us who prefer her poetry to her husband's.  (Though I suppose there are narrative reasons for that.)  But it reminded me what I love about reading, and what I love about criticism, which, at its best, lets me know myself and my world a little better.

Did I read all the poetry, though?  You can't prove I didn't.