Although I spent most of my time in college and grad school reading French lit, I did try, however, to broaden my mind beyond the lovely Hexagone of French literature. The next few blogs will concentrate on books I read "just because".
A.S. Byatt, Possession
Quick summary: This gorgeous novel takes place in two different time periods and follows two different odd couples. The contemporary couple, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey are two 19th century Brit Lit scholars searching for clues to their poet's secret lives and sources of poetic symbolism. The trouble is: Maud is a British scholar ensconced in the politics of feminist theory and rhetoric who studies 19th century poet Christabel LaMotte (supposed lesbian and early feminist), while Roland is an American scholar living in England in an unhappy relationship and pathetic apartment, trying all the while to conduct research on manly poet Randolph Henry Ash. So, how do Maud and Roland even meet? It turns out that Roland discovers some previously unknown notes and letters Ash had written. As he continues his research, he discovers they are to LaMotte, which leads him directly to Maud, the foremost LaMotte scholar. From this point, the novel unfolds as a sort of literary detective novel as the two contemporary scholars try to reveal the true nature of the relationship between LaMotte and Ash, whose story is told entirely through letters and poetry (except for one, very important scene). Ultimately, as the title connotes, this book is about possession: being possessed by passion... for a person, literature, an idea.
This was a book I read in grad school because I had heard about it through a friend and because A.S. Byatt was coming to give a lecture through my favorite Boston (ok, Brookline) bookstore: the Brookline Booksmith. They knew this would be a large audience, so the lecture was held at the wonderful independent movie theatre, the Coolidge - a restored art deco theatre. My favorite place to see indie films in Boston!
Reading this book was a wonderful experience (and so was the lecture!)... It has since been on my personal list of favorites. Not only does Byatt write astoundingly well, but she has also done her fair share of academic work and research, which helps her to create an academic universe that is accurate in its portrayal of the politics and passion that drive so much scholarly work. The frustrations and joys of academia are all there. One of my favorite passages is when Roland first discovers Ash's work in the library and knows instantly that it must certainly be Ash's writing; for, all of his hours laboring in the library painstakingly writing, filing, and cross-indexing his note cards (laptops weren't quite the thing yet) have made him feel that he knows Ash's writing to its core. I remember feeling this way when I was writing my dissertation; yet any time I read Sylvie Germain (my subject author), there is always a new mystery with every read. I think I would miss that if I really knew everything possible in her work.
This is one of the interesting things the book has to say: scholars can't know everything, especially ones who rely on biographical information; there will always be something beyond the grasp of the literary critic. Although both Roland and Maud think they know their respective scholars to the core, the most important (and private) aspect of Ash and LaMotte's story together is the only part not told through primary sources; here, the narration shifts to 3rd person, and it's wonderful and melancholic... Maud and Roland will never know about it.
As a literary, this passage makes me both happy and sad because it makes you feel as if there is always some extremely important motivation behind the scenes that remains inaccessible. This, of course, makes me sad because there will necessarily be an incomplete aspect about any literary criticism; however, this makes me happy as well because literature should also exist in a world where some things are sacred, where literature remains private and personal, for authors and readers alike; a world beyond criticism. Byatt beautifully shows us this untouchable part of literature, and she does it well. Actually, everything about this book is simply beautiful:
"…words have been all my life, all my life--this need is like the Spider's need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out--the silk is her life, her home, her safety--her food and drink too--and if it is attacked or pulled down, why, what can she do but make more, spin afresh, design anew…."
"No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed."
— A.S. Byatt (Possession)