How well do we know our great artists? Do we do them any favours with our contemporary obsession with biography and life circumstance, in an age in which, ironically, the celebrity of the artist and an industry of grubbing biographers and scholars has reached fever pitch, long after literary theorists had tried to cast biography out the window when it comes to understanding writing? How are heroes created, and are alterations in our picture of them damaging to their art? Are the new voices of the post-modern, post-colonial, post-patriarchal culture doomed to repeat crimes of the old? Is romantic passion a liberation or a distraction, especially for female artists and intellectuals, when it comes to achieving lives of creativity? Is life without creativity worth living, and is creativity worth anything when constantly subordinated to the effort to reduce it to coherent theories?
The title of Possession: A Romance is a fruitful nexus of polysemy, from which the novel’s story and themes spread like limbs on a tree. Both “possession” and “romance” have multifarious meanings which entwine and threaten to choke one-another throughout. The journey of Roland and Maud, in echoing that of their mutual idols Ash and LaMotte, dovetails several definitions of, as well as objects of, possession: that of lovers, that of social and cultural institutions, of knowledge, of lineage and heritage, and even of the innermost self. Throughout the novel, the manifestations of possession, as well as attending ambiguities, are interrogated, as Byatt’s narrative calls into question the ownership that individuals and institutions can claim over art and artists, language and discourse, even private emotions and sexual instincts. Roland’s stealing the draft letters is a breach of law, and of the rules of scholarly trust and hierarchy, and yet the arbitrary revelation stimulates impulses within Roland as both scholar and aficionado, and he feels this dictates his action. He will later describe himself as possessed by the urge to pursue the mystery to its solution. His act suggests, initially, motives of worldly self-interest, for such a discovery might revolutionise his career. Roland is presented as a man of no status, peripheral to the people and institutions in his life, except for Val, the woman to whom he is tethered in a relationship failing, ironically, partly because of a successful inversion of traditional gender roles. His grasp at possession seems sourced in desperation to escape this rut. And yet his choice of career is bound up with his admiration of Ash, and this provides a subtler personal impetus.
That is partly embodied by the coolly manipulative predations of Fergus Wolfe, who used his knowledge of deconstructive theory and nose for sexual insecurity to first bed Maud and then keep her on a kind of short rhetorical leash, so that even though the affair ended long ago, Fergus still retains power over Maud in presenting himself as the only man worthy of her, the only one to comprehend her inner nature, and therefore the only one strong enough to degrade her. Maud’s memory of the affair then is encapsulated in the image-totem of a soiled, despoiled bed. But the alternative, the wilfully political lesbianism that Leonora has embraced, builds only to a kind of bedroom farce in which Maud dodges her fellow scholar’s efforts to seduce her. Roland, for his part, feels perpetually dizzied and invaded by the pretentious sexualisation of all language and expression by so much modern theory, as particularly exemplified by Leonora’s writing, an inspired satire on Lacan-esque psychological symbolism mated in ungainly fashion with feminist ballyhoo.
Both Maud and Roland remain, in spite of all the detail about them, nonetheless remain somehow ill-focused, as if standing in for principles Byatt wants to animate but never quite imbues with self-animation: in spite of its thematic appropriateness as noted above, Roland’s inner life, beyond his perpetual queasiness about his situation, is never presented with the kind of immediacy that lends credibility to his eventual transformation into a poet (one of the few good ideas of Neil LaBute’s sloppy film of the novel was to put this aspect of Roland more up-front). He feels, on occasions, more like a fantasy sketch of a Sensitive New-Age Guy. Considering that one of the novel’s most riveting passages is the direct flashback that confirms Roland and Maud’s theory about a trip Ash and LaMotte took together – the interior perspective used to convey Ash’s fascination with the guarded and altogether mysterious LaMotte, especially when he contemplates how it seems he’s taken the virginity of a woman who is nonetheless very sensually experienced – it’s odd that she’s so choosy about what she flashes back to. The dark central tragedy of the period romance, Blanche’s death, remains problematically out of reach, feeling not so much purposefully as conveniently elusive. The story never quite recovers the impetus of the first quarter when it’s happy to be a realistic novel where the rush of discovery, the everyday grubbiness of Roland and Val’s life, and the oppressiveness of the major characters’ circumstances, are outlaid with keen, occasionally beautiful writing. The clashing textures of romanticised historicism and contemporary drear, all but suffocating in their irreconcilable natures, are excellently conveyed. But a lot of the subsequent pastiche, whilst technically brilliant, nevertheless often defies penetration in lacking the essential musicality of their models, and Byatt to a certain extent proves her own sneaking preference for the old-fashioned novel. Nonetheless, Byatt pulls off the novel’s last segment with a magician's touch, revealing many of the oppressive qualities to be shadows Roland and Maud have been boxing, as characters who seem threatening and one-dimensional blossom into contradictory, likable creatures, like the amusing, accidental partnering of chalk-and-cheese couple Blackadder and Leonora as they chase after Roland and Maud.