Details: (c) 1990 AS Byatt; Pub Vintage International 1991; ISBN 0-679-73590-9
Verdict: Possession is clever and delightful.
Reasons for reading it: When I was only able to bring three books with me to Sweden, this was one of them. It's not absolutely my favourite; Babel Tower is a stronger book but I only have it in hardback, and large paperbacks are better value for weight. And Possession is very well suited to being read slowly; it has taken me over two months to read it, which shows how strictly I've been rationing myself. And much as it is horrible spending this little time reading, Possession is very much worth savouring!
How it came into my hands: I bought it in a second-hand bookshop in California, the first time I went out to visit darcydodo in 2000.
Possession is just amazing in many ways. It's beautifully written and incredibly intricate and clever and still works as a good story, it's highly readable and the characters are very well drawn. For something this dense to be this readable and paced is really impressive.
I was a bit unsure about rereading it in my current situation. The first time I read it I was in a highly romantic relationship, something that I had never expected would happen. Now, well, I'm not really any less in love but I am single and I don't have that kind of very intense, limmerence interaction going on in my life. And really a lot of the focus of Possession is about True Love, which is a theme that generally annoys me. Even though I am no longer forced to be tolerant of that kind of thing to avoid hypocrisy, I didn't find Possession as annoying as I feared. It's a very good book, so I'm inclined to recommend it even if you generally hate anything involving "boy meets girl" type of plots. Because while it is extremely romantic and even soppy, it has a lot of other very strong features.
And one of the aspects that impressed me is that Byatt conveys very well how intense falling in love can be, but doesn't use the intensity of emotion as a moral excuse; actions still have consequences even if the motivation is romantic. There are plenty of books where love is the only thing driving the plot and there is no realism, and plenty that dismiss love as overrated hype, but very few that manage to keep that balance. The other writer who does this well is Iris Murdoch, and of course Byatt is a Murdoch critic when she isn't being a novelist.
Because I was reading so slowly, I had time to linger over the beautiful language, and even read the poetry properly. The language is a joy; I kept wanting to copy out passages. And likewise I took the time thinking about all the cleverness and interconnections and allusions. That really enhanced my enjoyment of the book. But there's something a bit weird about reading it closely because it's so much a book about literary analysis. And even apart from the highly confusing levels of meta, it's very obviously set up to be analysed by English students, you can just see the potential essay titles there.
I did appreciate the way Byatt portrays academia, and Roland and Maud as people who are really passionate about it. Partly because geeks don't often get this kind of positive portrayal in most mainstream books, and geeks in fields other than computing or possibly physics don't get portrayed very much at all. And partly because the book is very conscious of how ill-suited academia is to the structure of most novels. The whole point of it is that it's about cooperation so you can't have the heroes gloriously defeating all their rivals, (which incidentally is why Watson's The Double Helix hugely misses the point). I think part of the fun of Possession is the way the construction is visible, but not in a clumsy way, rather it works at a level where the novel is commenting on itself.
I veered between being annoyed and being amused by all the Significant Names. I'm fairly certain that the characters mostly have analogues in the Norse pantheon, which is something that is referred to within the book itself, for example. And I don't know whether that's really cool or really pretentious and stupid. I feel similar about the playing with all the different meanings of the word Possession. I also found it hard to hate Cropper as much as I think one is meant to; I hadn't realized on my first reading how explicitly he is being compared to Death, for example. And Byatt really has a problem with men who use porn.
Reading through a less misty-eyed filter, I noticed the melancholy tone of much of the book as well as the happy romantic ending. I think the moods balance fairly well, actually. And I found things like the account of Ash's death and Ellen's reaction to it very moving. I also noticed that a lot of the characters are really very passive indeed, which perhaps is an observation to add to rysmiel's thoughts about writing passive characters. Oh, and while I'm linking, I made some comments about the book's claims to be a "romance" rather than a novel in comments to zdamiana's review.
But yeah. Highly, highy recommended. I think even people who don't normally read "literary" novels might enjoy this one.