Classics Challenge: Possession by A.S. Byatt

March 25, 2011 at 12:00 am 7 comments


I’ve decided to try something new with the Classics Challenge this week! As per the schedule, the next two weeks are allotted to A.S. Byatt’s Book Prize-winning Possession. Since Possession is a book so rooted in pure bookishness, academic literary criticism, and intertextuality, I thought it would be nice to take a closer look at specific quotes from the book rather than me coming up with particular questions.

I’ve chosen two quotes from Possession that each bring out a particular issue of reading in general and I hope you will join me in sharing your thoughts about these quotes and issues! As an added bonus, those of you who don’t have time or inclination to join in reading the whole book can still participate by engaging with these quotes.

Quote I:
“I will read the most trivial things — once commenced — only out of a feverish greed to be able to swallow the ending — sweet or sour — and to be done with what I need never have embarked on. Are you in my case? Or are you a more discriminating reader? Do you lay aside the unprofitable?” (176)

Quote II:
“Then I was angry with her, for we do not talk of meanings in this pedantic nineteenth-century way, on the Black Nights, we simply tell and hear and believe…. I do not believe all these explanations. They diminish.” (354-55)
Related Question: Do you agree that reading too much into a text “diminishes” it? Or do you think does the opposite (i.e. adds valuable layers of meaning)?

As a reminder, anyone who participates will be entered into a drawing to win a completely lovely Penguin clothbound classic, so please do share your thoughts!

The other change for this week of the Challenge is that this will serve as both the question post and discussion post, so comment below with your thoughts on the quotes. Once again inspired by Possession, next Friday will be devoted to fairy tales rather than further discussion of this book. All highly irregular, I know, but bear with me!

And for those of you who are reading along, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book as well as your favorite and least favorite parts, as always.

Personally I found the first half of the book nearly impenetrable and had great difficulty getting to the second half, which I very much enjoyed. I also wasn’t too keen on Byatt’s entire chapters of poetry. While showcasing Byatt’s impressive ability to write not just as herself but in the style of any number of other fictional writers, I did not think they added substantially to my understanding or enjoyment of the book. This may just be because I’m not a poetry person, so correct me if they are actually crucial and I’m missing out.

In terms of favorite parts, I think it was definitely Byatt’s ability to become anyone, go anywhere, and make it all perfectly believable. And I additionally liked the omniscient narrator who made lovely comments about the story that were removed from what even the characters were aware of. It made it feel nice and Princess Bride-ish (which I mean in the best possible way).

And both the endings were perhaps the most perfectly written and constructed endings I have ever read. I was literally moved to tears with pleasure at them.

–Corey

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Entry filed under: Classics, Contemporary Fiction, LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Em  |  March 27, 2011 at 10:42 am

    “Do you agree that reading too much into a text “diminishes” it? Or do you think does the opposite (i.e. adds valuable layers of meaning)? ”

    This is something I often ask myself and I don’t have an answer. I guess I do both: sometimes I read books quickly, without analysing too much, because it is really pleasurable. At other times, I can’t help trying to decipher some meanings that might not even be intended by the author.

    I guess this is our own freedom as readers: once the work is in our hands, we can do whatever we want with its text.
    Ideally, if we had all the time in the world and far less books to read, I would like to read each book twice: the first time without taking any notes and analysing it, just being a passive recipient.
    However, there are also those books that will never let you being a passive recipient and will always leave you scratching your head.

    I could talk about that for hours, but I have to go back to my paper, which is not on a totally unrelated topic as it discusses the figure of the author in the short story…

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  March 28, 2011 at 1:20 am

      I’m in the same, conflicted boat as you, honestly. I like that we have the option of “deeper” readings of texts, but sometimes I do think that over-analyzing a text can really just ruin something that was meant for simple enjoyment. I very much like your idea of reading every book twice. I would add that I wish I could have book-amnesia the second time so both readings were like going into it for the first time, total clean slate.

      You’re doing your degree in literature, though, right? So it’s probably an issue that you have to deal with much more regularly than I do!

      And good luck with your essay!

      Reply
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  • […] Byatt. This apathy is despite my very best, very genuine efforts to like her. I struggled through Possession; I ultimately loved it, but still feelt grumpy about how I had to force myself through the first […]

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