PossessionThat was.. not what I was expecting this time.I have to admit, I did not approach this book this time around with what I would consider pure motives. I wasn’t in it to find things I had never found before, to revisit a personal classic to explore ideas that I had left behind for the time when I was ready to connect with them in the way that they deserved. I wasn’t even in it to re-approach situations and characters with a new perspective of age and experience.
No, I needed something from this booThat was.. not what I was expecting this time.I have to admit, I did not approach this book this time around with what I would consider pure motives. I wasn’t in it to find things I had never found before, to revisit a personal classic to explore ideas that I had left behind for the time when I was ready to connect with them in the way that they deserved. I wasn’t even in it to re-approach situations and characters with a new perspective of age and experience.
No, I needed something from this book.I can’t really think of any other way to put this, really: I was self-medicating with this book.
I’ve heard this talked about in so many different ways, if perhaps not in those words, by other book lovers that I know that I can’t be the only one who does this. I came back to this book because of the transformative experience I had the last two times. I needed to be transformed. I’ve fallen into a new line of work in recent years, and I.. well, there are a lot of things that I’ve seen that I wasn’t prepared for. It’s the sort of work where I’ve felt the need to create an entirely separate daytime persona to feel brave enough and competent enough to get through the day, one that I consider separate from what I would consider myself. I come home at the end of the day and spend my time trying to reconnect with the other person I know I am and want to continue being. Some days I can even stay awake long enough to get some of her back. It isn’t that it is necessarily objectively that horrible of an experience. It’s just something where the vast majority of the time I spend during the day is spent in tasks that are for the most part not suited to my personality or many of my strengths. It also involves things that I would personally prefer not to be part of my life. I chose this job because I had become so disillusioned with the ivory tower academic path I was on that I chose the most opposite thing that I could think of to do that still fell within the realm of my skills and education. After years of being shut up inside a library going crazy inside my head, I got sick of the whole exercise as a merry-go-round of narcissistic and masochistic head games. I decided I just wanted to be useful, do anything that didn’t leave me time for that nonsense. I think that I am useful, sometimes. Sometimes I help. Sometimes I go home and don’t wake up in the middle of the night worried, or check my email at 10 pm just in case.But goddamn, it’s just… it’s ugly sometimes. It’s tiring, and isolating, and my daytime persona is taking over more and more of my time. There are things about her that I like and I think would benefit me if I could adopt them outside a situation of necessity. But there are things that I desperately want to save about the person that I can only be after work hours, which I have less and less time for. What I would gain is not worth what I would lose-I am lucky enough to have enough time with my other self banked right now to be able to say that with certainty. It’s the only fucking reason I can write this review right now- I’ve got the other one far enough at bay that I can only barely hear her screaming about what a fucking waste of time this is and what a terrible writer I am anyway and I should get back to doing something that fucking helps somebody.
I reached for Possession after two weeks of working twelve hour days and only one Saturday to restore my Self. I wanted it to bring me back to myself as fast as possible, though I'm sure I didn't think that consciously. I thought, Irememberthis , only, when I was lucky enough to see it on the shelf.There are parts of this book that I have such a strong, bodily anchored memory of, that I have connected to so strongly that my body has a sense memory of what it should do at the time when I read those words. I am at the point with this book where I am not only remembering the scenes and words, I am doubling that over with my memories of myself reading them and feeding off of them, trying to make them a part of my immediate self again. It was a cycle of memory and experience, one feeding off the other to bring me back, make me disappear and make me whole again, here in the present.I went to it looking for something that I knew wasn’t going to go away: beauty. I needed some beauty in my life so badly, and this is how you know the disease of bibliophilia has really set in- books are what I turn to when I need that. I go to books to remind myself that beauty exists and it is worth something and it is a part of me, no matter how much I forget that sometimes. There are some books that we readers can no longer do this with. Before I realized what I was doing this, it was happening for years with my constant re-reads of parts of Guy Gavriel Kay novels. He was my go-to until I read his latest novel and the spell was broken- I stayed in the present and analytical- that it wouldn't work again. That was when I started to figure out what I was doing because then I tried reading my favorite novel of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s, and similarly, rather than being swept away, all I could see was the melodramatic dialogue and some fucked up coded gender politics that I considered writing an enraged essay about. Some of this, sure, is perhaps about developing better taste and letting go of adolescent attachments. But more of it is about being so far away from what I like to think of as myself that there are days where I can’t get back.
Possession, though, it brought me back. It has not disappointed me yet. Parts of this book made me laugh and smile and exercise my brain in the way that I want it to be exercised, and alternately, it devoured me whole. There were parts where I came up gasping for air, and parts that I danced over lightly, barely reading, except for letting the pieces of a well-known structure fall reassuringly into place.. There were parts where the rhythm of it was enough, and parts where I read and re-read a page again and again until I felt I had understood it on many levels.
But mostly, it was all so much words, words, words, paragraphs and pages put together in just that way. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a read that looked to suck out whatever drop of beauty it could find, it was the “first-hand” personal accounts that stood out to me the most here- the letters and the diaries- each and every one of them a record of love, desire, becoming and stone-set final regret and loss, each and every one of them filtered though the love of words, writing and books, of the seeking, narrative embroidered kind that I recognize as one of my own:
”…I may write to you as I write when I am alone, when I write my true writing, which is for everyone and no one- so that in me which has never addressed any private creature, feels at home with you. I say “at home” what extraordinary folly- when you take pleasure in making me feel most unhemlich, as the Germans have it, least of all at home, but always on edge… But poets don’t want homes- do they?- they are not creatures of hearth and firedogs, but of heaths and ranging hounds. Now tell me, do you suppose what I just wrote is the truth or a lie?”
“Today I laid downMelusina having come trembling to the end of this marvelous work. What shall I say of it?.... How shall I characterize it? It is like a huge, intricately embroidered tapestry in a shadowed stone hall, on which all sorts of strange birds and beasts and elves and demons creep in and out of thickets of thorny trees…”“At first Roland worked with the kind of concentrated curiosity with which he read anything at all by Randolph Ash. This curiosity was a kind of predictive familiarity; he knew the workings of the other man’s mind, he had read what he had read, he was possessed of his characteristic habits of syntax and stress. His mind could leap ahead and hear the rhythm of the unread as though he was the writer, hearing in his brain the ghost-rhythms of the as yet unwritten…”“We live in an age of scientific history- we sift our evidence- we know somewhat about eyewitness accounts and how far it is prudent to entrust ourselves to them.. So if I construct a fictive eyewitness account- a credible plausible account- am I lending life to truth with my fiction- or verisimilitude to a colossal Lie with my feverish imagination? Do I do as they did, the evangelists, reconstructing the events of the Story in after-time? Or do I do as false prophets do and puff air into simulacra?..”“My dear Friend,I may call myself your friend, may I not? For my true thoughts have spent more time in your company than in anyone else’s, these last two or three months, and where my thoughts are, there am I, in truth, even if- like the May, only a threshold-presence, by decree. I write to you now in haste- not to answer your last most generous letter- but to impart a vision…”“I have dreamed nightly of your face and walked the streets of my daily life with the
rhythms of your writing singing in my silent brain. I have called you my Muse and so you are, or might be, a messenger from some urgent place..”“Oh Sir- things flicker and shift, they are indeed all spangle and sparks and flashes. I have sat by my fireside all this long evening- on my safe stool- turning my burning cheeks towards the Aspirations of the flame and the caving-in, the ruddy mutter, the crumbling of the consumed coals…”“My dear-The true exercise of freedom is-cannily and wisely and with grace-to move inside what space confines- and not seek to know what lies beyond and cannot be touched or tasted. But we are human- and to be human is to desire to know what may be known by any means…I would not for the whole world diminish you. I know it is usual in these circumstances to protest- “I love you for yourself alone”- “I love you essentially”- and as you imply, my dearest, to mean by “you essentially”, lips and hands and eyes. But you must know- we do know- that it is not so- dearest, I love your soul and with that your poetry- the grammar and stopping and hurrying syntax of your quick thought-quite as much essentially you as Cleopatra’s hopping was essentially hers to delight Antony- more essentially, in that while all lips hands and eyes resemble each other- your thoughts clothed with your words are uniquely you, came with you, would vanish if you vanished…”
“I have been angry for so long- with all of us, with you, with Blanche, with myself. And now near the end, “in the calm of mind all passion spent,” I think of you again with clear love. I have been readingSamson Agoniste and came upon the dragon I always thought you were- as I was the ‘tame villatic fowl’-His fiery virtue rousedFrom under ashes into sudden flameAnd as an evening dragon cameAssailant on the perched roostsAnd nests in the order rangedOf tame villatic fowl-
Is not that fine? Did we not- did younot flame and I catch fire? Shall we survive and rise from our ashes? Like Milton’s Pheonix?That self-begotten birdIn the Arabian woods embossedThat no second knows nor thirdAnd lay erewhile a holocaustFrom out her ashy womb now teemedRevives, reflourishes, then vigorous mostWhen most unactive deemedAnd though her body die, her fame survivesA secular bird, ages of lives.
I would rather have lived alone, so, if you would have the truth. But since that might not be- and is granted to almost none- I thank God for you- if there must be a Dragon- that He was You…”
See, that is the shit that matters. Fuck, I remember now. That is the shit that started me down this path in the first place, that lead me to make choice after choice that I thought was going there, even if it went somewhere different. That restored me again. I read the letters twice and Sabine’s diary slowly once, the sort of read that is three times over in reality. By the time I was done, my brain circuitry had slid back into it’s proper place, and I could answer the sort of basic questions that I couldn’t before I had started. I felt purged, like I had gone on a cleansing diet for a month. This is the sort of read that cleans out all the nonsense from my brain and leaves me with what is essentially important again.It is a species of addiction- it works much the same as any other. I realize this. But for now, books like Possession, books that devour me and spit me out again remade… this is what keeps me in equilibrium, and keeps the self that I very much want to keep around from disappearing. They are my guide back. I am keeping this one, along with others of its kind, on my bedside table. I have a feeling I will need them again soon.If anyone has any books to recommend that they turn to for beauty and rest, please let me know. I would love to add them to what I can only call my arsenal. Thank you.* * *ORIGINAL: I do so hate to be predictable, the girl who has victorian and victorian-wannabe shelves, and shelves for regency and romance and the-aftermath, and pretty much every other category that this would plausibly be generally shelved in (except, perhaps, pretentiousness-that's-worth-it...but we'll get to that later) but I really do love this book.I'm going to have to go even further down the disgustingly adoring path and say that this is going to be a personal classic, for me. I don't argue that it needs to be taught in classrooms or become part of a modern canon or anything like that (though I'm certainly not against the idea), but it definitely meets the most important thing for me:
A different experience at every age/read- This is my second read through. The first time I read it was in 2002. I was 16 years old, and the movie was coming out. There was no way I appreciated this book beyond a few very shallow things. Why? 'Cause dude, there was a movie coming out with some of my favorite sexy people in it (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehele), and duuuude it was about hot Victorians having hot sexy smart people sexy sex and their words were as hot as their hot costumes and hot modern academics (ooohmygood whoos this Aaron Eckhart, hellooo!) getting it on over books, books are so awesome... Ooh look, letters with smart people references in it that I understand, this is so cool that I get even a little of this, yay!... oh did I mention HOT VICTORIANS??... Yeah, that was about the extent of my thoughts at the time, I think. I did cry at the end, but for the most simple of reasons, something that you could cry at a freaking Hallmark special on the Lifetime channel about.
Now? I am only 23, but I'm old enough to be mostly embarrassed for myself at 16 (though I still think parts of this book are smokin' sexy), and I do feel like I'm getting worlds and worlds more out of this book than I ever got back then, and I can see myself getting more and more as I grow older, as the characters do. There's so much in here that leaped off the page and spoke to me and both my every day little problems and the bigger opinions and feelings that I have about the larger things in life. And I know there are still vast things in here that I missed, things that I don't think I quite understand yet, or call bullshit at at the moment that I just know will be of comfort to me when I pick this book up again in ten years or so, in twenty years, in thirty years. And the fact that I know that I'm going to do that, that I expect my copy to wear out and that I'll have to get a new one before I die, well, that speaks volumes, doesn't it? This particular read I really attached onto the characters struggling to find out what to do with themselves, what they were worth, after the life prescribed by their parents and other authority figures ends, those characters trying to deal with what other people expect them to be as opposed to how they see themselves, creating the narrative of your own life, being your own person in a relationship, and the connections I keep making between this book and the ideas in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. There's a fascinating fight over spiritual beliefs that I don't have the headspace to deal with now, but is haunting the back of my head, and I expect to be obsessed with it the next time I read it.So, yeah, that's what the good books should do to you.There's also other things, like all the fascinating things she deals with in the book. I mean, just to rattle off a few: feminism, post-modernism, living in a post-modern world, deconstructionism, many many issues of religion and spirituality, cultural relativism and archetypes, living in a globalized world, negotiating the self in relationships, the academic life and petty infighting, etc, etc. And I do mean etc, etc, etc, because there's tons in here that I'm not even bringing up, and probably tons more that I missed. Which is why I think this book is a gold mine.Now a lot of people say that they abandon this book because they find it too pretentious, or too self-gratifying, etc. I don't really think that's the case. I think a lot of the things that could be deemed 'pretentious' are being used by Byatt to make fun of the ridiculousness of some of the characters within who are indeed pretentious. Maybe it is just the subject matter- I don't know how you avoid pretentiousness when you're writing about overeducated Victorian people with literary tendencies. It probably does tend to go to your head, the way that all works. I can see that putting people off to begin with, but if you picked up the book already knowing it was about Victorian poets and squabbling Victorian scholars then I would think you'd be prepared for that kind of thing and be able to wade through it. Are all the full length Victorian style poems she includes pretentious? Probably. But man, if I could do that, I would want to do that too. And it isn't as if they are pointless. Most of the poems are clues to the mystery, clues to the characters themselves, especially as they get longer- they're not just there to create an ambiance. Plus, we hear so much about the poems and other peoples' interpretations of them its great to actually see the real things and judge for ourselves, and fits really well into the theme about people creating their own narratives out of the past according to their present needs, and I think reflects cleverly back on the reader. For me, all of that pretentiousnes is worth it, and I find it all brilliant, that's just my response to it. I usually think agree to disagree is bullshit, but when you get into literary experimentation, I think that's the only way to come out alive.
So anyway, I tore through this in four insanely obsessed days- and this on a re-read. So if you're into this kind of thing, leap right in. Leap, I tell you! It's the way to read this one....more