The Modern Library cover for Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession: A Romance

  • Author:  A.S. Byatt  (b. 1936)
  • Rank:  #41
  • Published:  1990
  • Publisher:  Chatto and Windus
  • Pages:  555
  • First Line:  “The book was thick and black and covered with dust.”
  • Last Line:  “And on the way home, she met her brothers, and there was a rough-and-tumble, and the lovely crown was broken, and she forgot the message, which was never delivered.”
  • ML Edition:  Gold hardcover  (2001)
  • Film:  2002  (*** – dir. Neil LaBute)
  • Acclaim:  Booker Prize, All-TIME List
  • First Read:  May, 2002

The Novel:  When I read Possession for the first time, I was no longer alone.  In a sense, I hadn’t been alone since the summer of 1991 when I first read Catcher in the Rye.  And I had been even less alone after reading High Fidelity in the winter of 2000.  In Holden Caulfield’s loneliness, isolation and the thought by the rest of the world that he was more than a little insane and Rob Fleming’s obsessiveness about his past relationships, especially in the manner of defining his life in lists, I had found myself in literature (you are reading this in a list of Top 100 Novels, after all).  But then there was Roland Michell, trapped in his life of academic bleakness, desperately wanting to be important in the world and knowing, when there is a meeting of the minds, that he is not.  In his romanticism, his love of literature and the feel of archives and libraries, in his desperate desire to figure out who he was long into adulthood I saw more than an echo of myself.  When you read, late in the novel, “Roland was so used to the pervasive sense of failure that he was unprepared for the blood-rush of success,” you can find how I have felt in those few and far between moments where things seem like they truly work.  But most days I feel like the failed scholar, much like Blackadder, who at least has steady work to keep him going through his life: “Leavis did to Blackadder what he did to serious students: he showed him the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature and simultaneously deprived him of any confidence in his own capacity to contribute to or change it.”

Instead, I sit here and write.  Not words that will ever be published, and indeed, hardly anything of substance anymore, for the fiction I had once hoped would find a publisher remains unread and the scholarly works I had hoped to contribute to academia remain unwritten in the embers of a crushed academic career.  Instead, I am in the archives, luckily not collecting dust.  I love books, of course, writing away in these reviews and posting about the love of collecting books in the hopes that others might love them as well.  I love to find in Byatt a description like “The Shadowy Portal was a rich violet in colour, with gilded leaves and an embossed design on its cover, of a gilded dove, bearing a wreath, emerging from a keyhole-shaped black space.”  That is a book I want to hold in my hand and treasure and she clearly feels the same way.  My biggest argument with the film is not the changes they made to the characters or the way so many of them were eliminated or how the plot was stream-lined, but how, in the opening scene in the London Library, the book that is handed to Roland is so nice-looking.  It is not the book of the description: “Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been mal-treated in its own time.  It spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a library marker.”  It is a book that has been well-read.  And Byatt doesn’t just love the book itself.  Look at her description of the library:

Here Randolph Henry Ash had come, cramming his elastic mind and memory with unconsidered trifles from History and Topography, from the felicitous alphabetical conjunctions of Science and Miscellaneous – Dancing, Deaf and Dumb, Death, Dentistry, Devil and Demonology, Distribution, Dogs, Domestic Servants, Dreams.

I have said very little so far about the story, and yet, the way it is constructed, the degree of difficulty that Byatt drew for herself is one of the most impressive things about it.  First of all, she writes the story in such a wonderful way that we only slowly, as the characters do, understand the greater implications of what they discover.  But so much of what they discover is through notes and journals, through a shared line of poetry, an echo of the land around them.  Byatt must create, not only the novel itself, but the poetry that would be deemed worthy of a man who would be so passionately studied, the fairy poet that he loved, their letters to each other – each different in style, and the journals of a wife who knows and understands more than she will allow any potential reader to discern.  She must also know how to write about her own time, about these academics who would have to find a way towards each other: “They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love, ‘in love,’ romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure.”  And all of these worlds must balance among themselves, never stray too far out or into one lest they all get lost in the sense of style.  And still I have said hardly anything about the plot.  But the plot is the plot.  Read the back of the book if you want to know the story.  This is about the book itself.

And the book itself is a treasure.  As I have written before, I made a list prior to starting this whole project and I have stuck to it.  Having read it again, Possession would be higher, quite possibly in the top 20.  It is a magical book, a book where, in the same pages, you find a magical description of a woman’s hair finally seeing the light of day (“The pale, pale hair in fine braids was wound round and round her head, startling white in this light that took the colour out of things and only caught gleams and glancings.”) and a end to the story that seems at once poetic and apt, dark and light, magical and real: “It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful.”

the poster for the 2002 film version of Possession

The Film:  So how to make the film?  So much of what makes the book so brilliant – the various writing styles, the personal interactions, the in-depth, and somewhat satirical look at the academic world – would not be of much use in a film.  So the filmmakers decided to focus on two aspects – the mystery and how it is solved, and the dual love stories.

To focus in on the mystery they, rather wisely, eliminated several of the secondary characters.  The film would have been bursting at the seams if all the various characters had come into the film full tilt.  So, with some necessary use of Blackadder and Cropper, most of the rest of the secondary characters were simply wiped out.  This was easy enough to do, though it did leave one particular hole that necessarily effected the other aspect of the story – the love story.

By choosing to eliminate Val, Roland’s longtime girlfriend, it makes it easier to believe how easily Roland will fall in love with Maud.  However, it also makes it much less likely that he would have been able to resist falling in love with the icily beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow for as long as he does.  He does point out early on that he is “off women” for a while, but that really doesn’t hold up very well.  The film also decides to give us much more of the actual action taking place in the nineteenth century in order to establish the dual love affair.  It doesn’t work as well, as part of the joy of the novel is slowly discovering the mystery – in the film, it is only the characters who are discovering the mystery – in a sense, we have already discovered it long before they do.  The film does what so often films choose to do – it takes what is subtle and left unsaid in a novel and places it in the forefront of the action.

There is also the necessary action of changing Roland to being an American.  It is understandable that once Aaron Eckhart (a favorite of director Neil LaBute) was cast, that it would be in the film’s best interest not to try to pass him off as British, but the film makes too much of the fact that he is an American and doesn’t simply allow the issue to die.

The film is fairly well-made.  Eckhart is solid enough, Paltrow is icy and beautiful and exactly what I had pictured as Maud.  Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are both good as the 19th century pair (a curious casting as Northam had played Paltrow’s love interest in the film version of Emma several years before) and the film looks absolutely gorgeous – both the cinematography and the 19th Century costumes and art direction.

It’s a good film.  It’s not a great film and there really wasn’t any chance that it was going to be a great film.  There is too much to the novel to make more than simply an academic mystery film and it does what it can in a film version.