Everything is relative.
It’s one of life’s reoccuring oddities to see yourself morph into a different person depending on who you’re with. With friends, you’re funny, quirky, lovable. With your partner you’re daft, irritating, special. But chuck yourself into different settings and suddenly you’re unbearably loud and thoughtless, or just as quickly a wilting wallflower with nothing to say. At work too – in front of a terribly senior client you’re insignificant and ignorant; in front of a new starter and you’re the old hand with a Ghandian level of knowledge.
It sounds like I have only a vague self-identity, but I fall prey to this phenomenon with monotonous regularity.
And, no surprises, it’s the same with books.
Unknown words make you a fool. A twist figured out make you a genius of detection. A fluffy love subplot makes you the high-minded intellectual superior. From book to book you change almost as much as the books themselves.
Reading Possession, by A S Byatt, you start off feeling pretty damn clever to be reading it at all. While very readable, this is touching the edge of high-brow. There are reams of Victorian poetry and literary analysis, all written and interwoven by the author. The knowledge and skill with which Byatt takes on these areas are evidence to her knowledge of the field, but where the poetry is given to you straight, the treatment of the world and works of literary academia are sharply satirical. I’ve just about enough knowledge, with my BA (Hons) English Literature (thank you very much) to see how sharply Byatt punctures both the old world of academia – toiling away fruitlessly and with vague competitiveness – and the new world of literary criticism – particularly feminism. One amusing passage details a character’s feminist essay on landscape, a comically overblown account where every feature of a landscape is related back to a woman’s body.
Or at least I think it’s satire. Maybe I need an MA to be sure.
The other particularly impressive element is the Victorian poetry, which to an amateur eye seems remarkably good. Having said that, I read novels for a reason, and found myself blithely flicking through pages of verse to rejoin the story (much as I skipped a good 50 pages of Levin’s agricultural ramblings in Anna Karenina … have I no shame?)
Perhaps this isn’t purely evidence of my literary heathenism though – maybe it’s testament to the story. Because while all this talk of literary themes may seem dry, it’s the semi-thriller-detective story plot that is the engine of this novel. The slightly pathetic set of characters, who really are barely up to any sort of thriller, almost seem surprised at the narrative they find themselves in, which although it begins in the dusty confines of the London Library, ends in a dramatic/grotesque stormy grave robbery. The social limitations of the academics and the brilliant portrait of a rapacious American collector hell-bent on owning every artefact from his favoured poet’s life, form a quirky but wonderfully different band to follow on this bizarre adventure through the past and in their own careers and lives.
The binding glue in this oddball set of characters – almost all writers, poets or academics – is a sense of love for literature which Byatt clearly shares. It’s as though you, author and characters are in a romp through language together – you’re in good company, among friends.
Which is a good place to be, with a book or otherwise.