POSSESSION
A.S. Byatt


This was one of the most astonishing novels I have ever read. It is so much: an exercise in literary scholarship (as well as a brilliant send-up of academic pursuits), two or more love stories, a voyage into the world of folklore/mythology/faerie, a detective story, even at times a comedy. And in the end, as in fact we've been told before page 1, it's a romance, in the old Shakesperean sense. It is also a recursive exercise into the power of the written word: we the readers are captivated by a book about characters captivated by writing by and about other characters. For all the various meanings of the word "possession" (ownership, sexual intimacy, spiritual or ghostly possession), in the end it's the power of the written word that "possesses" us, just as Roland is possessed by the letter he finds in the old manuscript. Had that letter not wrapped him in its spell, there would be no plot, no story, no novel for us to read.

I had noticed this book in stores, picking it up occasionally over the years. Sometime in the summer I heard about the movie, thought I it sounded interesting. It wasn't until seeing the book again in a store this October I realized it was the novel on which the movie was based, and then I knew I ha d to read it!! (I have not seen the movie; I suppose I would like to, but I'm not sure how a movie could convey all the levels of plot, past/present, real/otherworldly, to say nothing of how it would portray all the chapters that are letters, diaries, poetry.)

At the crux of the story is the Breton legend of the drowned city of Is (I don't know whether this is a real legend, or conveniently made up for the story, must check on this) where everything is upsidedown. As the 20th century characters move closer to knowing their 19th century counterparts, the stories merge -- but with many facets upsidedown, as it were. The 20th century story has a much happier end. In fact, I thought at first, perhaps a bit too happy, too pat -0- and then I remembered, this is a romance, ending a la Shakespeare, with comedy ( read the graveyard scene late at night, kept awake by wind banging on my window, covered with goosebumps, and yet doubled over with laughter), plot resolution, and a "wedding."

Fascinated though I was from the beginning of the book, I read it slowly, largely because I stopped to take notes as I read -- had not to read it with a scholarly eye, when one of the many things the book is about is literary scholarship. And when I began to see all the hints dropped that our hero Roland (Roland! although in fact A.S. Byatt is the real hero -- she not only created all these characters, she also wrote their poetry!) was being drawn into the Celtic otherworld (ancient transformative wells giving way to 19th century tourist fountains giving way to 20th century bathrooms!), I read even slower so I could savor my own seduction.