Is it possible to love a novel for all the wrong reasons?
Yesterday, I finished A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) for the first time—”a romance” (the front cover tells me), “an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story” (the back cover continues) about “a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets.” Jay Parini’s New York Times review of the award-winning novel describes its mass of fictional research material—a completely fabricated trace of poems, letters, diaries, and scholarly biographical excerpts—as its “most dazzlingly aspect.” While this artificial archive is certainly impressive and no doubt brilliantly composed and arranged as a counterpoint to the main plot, I confess that I fall into the camp of bad readers who skimmed the letters and diaries and often skipped the poetry altogether. I found it difficult to invest my time and mental energy in this material, especially since most of that energy is currently going toward research projects of my own or class prep for the upcoming fall semester. Although I enjoyed Byatt’s style and the novel’s plot, characters/caricatures, and settings (and I am certainly interested in reading her Lawrentian quartet), I just didn’t—couldn’t—care about the affair between Chistabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash.
As I scroll through the Goodreads reviews, I find myself chastised, “READ THE POETRY, PEOPLE!” and left out of what, for many readers, appears to have been a profound, transformative experience. And yet I’m beginning to wonder what sort of ideal reader the novel itself presumes. It seems to me that Possession‘s ideal reader is a patient student who will slow their pace when appropriate (a three-page poem does not read as quickly as three pages of narrative, after all; letters or diaries do not function dramatically the way realist dialogue does). Byatt’s ideal reader is also a detective who, like its main characters, will search epigraphs and long lost research material for clues or echoes that amplify the novel’s plot and ideas (about love, death, literary studies, public funding, Anglo-American difference, etc.). Maybe I resisted this role, since I was not looking to study this novel or to become the sort of academic sleuth exemplified by Maud Bailey, Roland Michell, and others. (I’m neither an archivist nor a researcher on a heroic quest for solutions to mysteries.) And maybe I resisted for good reason, since the novel itself seems ambivalent about the value of its ideal reader (who is doubled and tripled by its characters). Indeed, the obsessive and possessive investment of its characters in uncovering the truth of what happened between these poets—especially when seen through the non-academic eyes of family members or journalists—looks overinflated, self-centered, or misdirected. Even the plot must personalize the truth of the LaMotte–Ash affair; in the end, this postmodern Dickensian novel is really all about the discovery of a major character’s familial connection to the very mysteries driving her.
And so I’m left with a few questions: How does one depict or explain an academic’s attachment to their subject of study? Is “possession”—ownership of an object, of a copyright, of a favorite author, of a field of study, of a lover, of a future—the most convincing metaphor? Reading on . . .