Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

‘Possession; a Romance’ by A.S.Byatt

cover of paperback edition; photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Reading this book aroused a gamut of emotions in me. I found it challenging, entertaining, irritating, moving and finally even exciting. It is a novel about writers (poets) and literary research, switching its time-frame between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on contemporary literary criticism and the poetic idiom of the nineteenth century. It purports to represent the ideas and writing of two nineteenth century poets who became involved with one another’s lives, with all kinds of unforeseen and unexpected consequences.

The book is a veritable tour-de-force, presenting the supposed writings of the various characters in the form of their poetry, journals and correspondence, all tied together through the medium of the account from the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator. Several plpot lines connect and intertwine throughout the book, and the reader has to be alert to the constant switches in time-frame and point of view.

It’s all very admirable, well-written and original, but the irritating aspect is the resort to long passages delivered in italics or a smaller than customary font in order to indicate departure from the overriding narrative. This makes for difficult reading. In addition, anyone not intrinsically interested in nineteenth-century English poetry (e.g., this reader) can find themselves annoyed by having to plough through interminable verses of obscure poetry, no matter how clever. I found myself skipping most of those passages or even chapters. After all, who has the patience to work their way through all that versification together with emotional stanzas combined with literary and classical references?

As well as a sort of backhanded love story between the main contemporary characters, the literary researchers, it is also an account of an illicit affair between the nineteenth century poets. In addition, especially towards the end, it is also a detective story as rival literature departments of English and American universities strive to gain access to and control of the documents that reveal the underpinnings of the complex and complicated emotional couplings, complete with a surprise ending.

In the context of today’s events in Israel it is entertaining to come across a reference to Gaza, in the principal poetic character’s description of his disruption of a séance. This is presumably referring to Samson’s destruction and suicide, and mention is made of Milton’s ‘Samson Agonistes.’

The book makes for interesting albeit challenging reading, and was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 1990. It presents a literary feast for the cognoscenti, but is not the kind of easy reading to take on holiday.


About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.