Tuesday, January 16, 2007

From the Stacks #5: A. S. Byatt's Possession

Wow. Possession was such a magnificent book. My biggest regret is not reading it during the summer when there would be t i m e to double back and explore it at leisure. It's the type of novel where ideas are played out and interlocked on so many levels.

Random thoughts: The book begins and ends with the discovery of secret letters and with unlawful possession of same. The first letter starts the plot in action; the second resolves the remaining complications. (And neither letter ever reaches its intended destination.) The first letter also starts the chain of ideas associated with possession, some of which include:

  • physical possession -- of various letters (Roland's, Maud's relatives), of objects in collections (especially institutional, with limited access and restricted use of material), of women in the 19th century (and their limited rights of possessions, even of their own children, leading to Christabel's flight)

  • material possessions -- as in wealth: Cropper's excess, especially, contrasted with the more limited financial resources of the British institutions; in general, Americans seem to be presented as wealthier and more assertive than their British counterparts, leading to issues about national claims and about the marketability of artifacts, the struggle between collectors, scholars, and national heritage

  • intellectual property/possessing copyright -- controlling access to ideas, via copyright or related issues

  • obsession/possession -- with another's life (academically or romantically) -- or with any type of passion, actually (Cropper's desire to own all things Ash)

  • spiritual/seances -- being possessed by spirits, Ash's "Mummy Possest"

  • possessing knowledge -- again, multiple levels: Roland and Maud's desire to possess information about Ash and Christabel; Ash's continual quest to possess knowledge of the world; Swammerdam, the scientist Ash studied and wrote about, in search of knowledge of the microscopic world (and perhaps the other extreme, Christabel's desire to possess the type of knowledge gained from seances, of the other world)

  • sexual possession -- ("an outdated phrase," to quote Byatt, and the last direct reference to the word in the novel)

(Note: spoilers in this paragraph:) Another idea woven through the book is not quite the opposite of possession, but perhaps a tempering of it: openness rather than secrecy, choosing not to closet or close oneself or something else away. Maud opens herself to Roland, physically and emotionally, at the book's conclusion, one of the elements contributing to a happy ending. That, in turn, contrasts with the tragedy of Ash's wife, who kept herself closed too long, until she could neither open to Ash or write truly in her journal. Throughout the story, openness and sharing -- ideas, information, access -- lead to advances in knowledge. The sequence begins with Roland telling Maud about the letter (which has remained undiscovered partly because it's in an archive with limited access); only at the end, when everyone shares information (foiling a plot hatched in secret and planned for the dark of night), is there a satisfactory conclusion for all.

There's so much more I'd like to write, but the thing I don't possess right now is the time to do it. (I actually finished the novel two weeks ago and am halfway through The Odyssey for the next challenge, but finding moments to order my thoughts enough to comment about them has been almost impossible.)


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