“He felt unable to urge the unbuckling of the trunk. He felt as though he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.” -A.S. Byatt, Possession
Ever since a week ago I completed the second draft of my novel and handed it over to my agent, I’ve been feeling out of sorts. I always feel this way when my writing project goes on hold again … kind of melancholy, on pins and needles, unsure of what I even feel like reading. Over the past month while I was hibernating in my head and writing for glorious chunks of time every day, the down side was that I did very little reading. So in a way it’s nice to come out of the cave for a while and breathe and read again.
A.S. Byatt’s mammoth Man Booker prize-winning novel Possession has been sitting on my bedside table for some time, but I’d been putting off reading it because the topic – a simmering romance between two literary scholars, who bond over discovering an illicit romance between their respective authors of study – struck me as a tad all too reminiscent of my own former life as an English prof, burrowing myself away in dusty rare books libraries. Once I got used to Byatt’s longwinded descriptions of clothing, gestures and the interiors of houses, to name just a few instances (perhaps meant as a kind of parody or luxuriant love affair with the conventions of the Victorian novel, depending on how you look at it), I found myself settling into the rhythm of her prose and getting immersed in the inner lives of the central characters. Currently two hundred and fifty pages in, what’s most striking to me is the way the novel is bringing back fond memories of the life of the mind, but memories I could never acknowledge having while I was caught up in climbing the ladder of the Ivory Tower. These disavowed memories, which I suspect most academics have, are brilliantly illuminated by this novel. When Roland, our unlikely hero, a mild-mannered postdoc trying to eke a living studying the Victorian poetry of Randolph Ash, unearths from an archive a couple of thinly veiled love letters that Ash appears to have penned to the poet Christabel La Motte, his pulse quickens; his interest is deeply personal, prurient. Seeking the advice of Maud Bailey, a scholar who specializes in La Motte, Roland is drawn on increasingly obsessive journey. Compelled to go on a trip together to La Motte’s country home, the two discover a full set of letters that sparkle with a vibrant interchange of ideas about faith, crisis of faith, art, poetry and desire. Most importantly, it appears that Roland and Maud are the first scholars to lay eyes on the letters and gain such insight into Ash’s illicit relationship with La Motte (Ash was married to another woman, not a poet, with whom he exchanged some comparatively drab letters).
It's precisely this kind of rare connection with the private life of a favourite author that I lusted after during my short-lived career as an academic, even though I could never admit it at the time; in order to have any cred as a scholar, you’re forced to pretend that your perspective is far more serious, aloof and remote – couched in the interests of the latest “ism.” And yet, what inspired me to keep poring over the papers of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather was this more primal desire to get inside the author’s unconscious and discover something secret, illicit maybe, deeply personal always, giving me some special private insight into why that author wrote the way she did. This would be, as Byatt’s title suggests, absolute possession.
I’ll be interested to see where the plot goes in the second half. I’m tucking this novel into my overnight bag as I get ready to leave for the Niagara Literary Arts Festival, where I’ll be giving a reading from my memoir The Reading List at 2:00 pm later today, at the Niagara on the Lake Library, before seeing a play (Misalliance) with my mother at the Shaw Festival. Niagara on the Lake is so picturesque I feel it could almost be out of Byatt’s novel. Hope to see you there!
Photo from: here