“In certain moods we eat our lives away
In fast successive greed; we must have more
Although that more depletes our little stock
Of time and peace remaining. We are driven
By endings as by hunger…”
Possession deserves the numerous blurbs on its covers and in its front matter. Like Angels & Insects, two of Byatt’s novellas sandwiched between one cover, Possession pits relationships against the foibles and schemes designed to prevent or sever them (society being one such foible). R.H. Ash, a long-dead poet who seems based around the later Romantics, might note that government is one folly of man. I use “man” in its broad, Victorian sense. Yet its chief characters are hypermodern academics who would no doubt circle “man” in their students’ papers as an example of sexist language. They have their own potential love story, though as both would probably note, conventional narratives seldom play out in reality. Yet in their investigation they look vicariously for connections between the subjects of their own research.
In large part the academics are trying to overcome themselves—especially the barriers they erect to financial and emotional success This one-sentence description makes the novel sound dry, and yet it is lush with description and lyricism that never get in the way of a plot whose last hundred pages makes one turn them madly just to find out what happens, and in doing so it’s easy to miss the subtle beauty of the writing itself.
The story is superficially about academics, but it is not an academic novel; like Mating, which I’ll write about later, it uses academics as a focal point because of their highly developed analytical skill. The fact that some academics can be as conniving and cunning as mobsters or thieves helps, as does Byatt’s ability to keep the flow even during long epistolary poems. I wanted to know what happened between two dead poets almost as much as I wanted to know what would happen between two barely-alive academics—like whether they would come to life.
And—not to give it away—they do.