At a book signing several years ago, I walked up to A.S. Byatt with my nerves in shreds. As a journalist, I had met famous sportspeople, film stars and financiers for years without feeling any fear or anticipation. But with the great Booker Prize winning novelist, whose best-known book, Possession, had changed my life and my view of literature, it was different.
In addition to this, my copy of Possession, given to me by my mother a decade before this date, was tattered and stained and had Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover (from
Yet, Byatt (full name Antonia Susan Byatt) could not have been more gracious. She gave me pointers on developing characters, said that Possession-the-movie was a brave effort and assured me that all novelists love to see a well-read copy of their book. She finished the brief, but warm, conversation by saying: "Sorry about Gwyneth Paltrow."
Byatt was a towering intellect. But she wore her erudition lightly, and allowed her sense of
compassion and hopeful sadness to lead her books. I could talk about her brilliant short stories, or her Frederica novels, or Ragnarok -- which introduced me to the wonderful world of Norse mythology -- but I want to focus on Possession, her magnum opus.
Roland and Maud, two literature academics in the 1980s, stumble upon letters written between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, who were not previously known to have met each other. Through the letters and literary clues in the poets' work, Roland and Maud piece together this secret romance.
Of course, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte did not exist. They came from Byatt's head, along with their letters, lives, and most remarkably, their poems. Byatt essentially created two Victorian poets and two whole bodies of work.
And beyond the intellectual achievement, Possession is also a novel of great compassion, sadness and hope. It reminds us of "the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature", as she puts it in the book. It reminded me of why I read and write. It asks difficult questions about life, love and religion. It bristles with literary references and traverses the entire canon of English verse.
But quite apart from this, Possession is also a brilliantly crafted novel. As one of the commenters mentions in this Guardian obituary, the last few chapters are so perfect as to leave you gasping at how well it all ties together. Some of the descriptions of London in the 80s, the English countryside, and the French coast bring these places to life.
Every time I read Possession - and I have read it several times - I feel the urge to revisit all the classics, from Shakespeare to Goethe to Christina Rosetti (on whom Christabel LaMotte may have loosely been based).
And even more, I want to go back to being an inky-fingered literature graduate, poring over ancient volumes in dusty libraries. Possession makes me mourn for the penniless academic that I became in a parallel universe, where I took "the road not taken," as Robert Frost would have it.
But it also makes me happy to think that this world exists, ready for me to visit whenever I please.