Mystery, History, Myth and Mush

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

PossessionPossession (Byatt, A. S.)

 “Literary critics make natural detectives,” said Maud. “You know the theory that the classic detective story arose with the classic adultery novel – everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?”

We are assured of two things on the cover page of this book. Above the name of the book proudly scrolls the line, ‘Now a Major Motion Picture from Focus Features’. Asserted boldly and firmly below the name are the words, “A Romance”. These two lines, one on either side of the name, remind me of bodyguards who are simultaneously the jailors of the person they protect. The words ‘major motion picture’ and ‘romance’ are constraints on the reader’s imagination, and conjure up the image of a frilly, giggly rom-com romp and they do Byatt a major disservice in the process.

This is what Hollywood has done to romance. They’ve made it one-dimensional, that dimension being sentimental melodrama. Nothing else is even recognizable as a romance any more. But however much I may enjoy ranting about Hollywood, my point is different. It is that the readers who are most likely to enjoy this book are not those who are fans of major motion picture romances. Besides, Possession is somewhat more than a romance – it has many interesting things to say about feminism, for instance, and literary research; about Victorian poetry, about the interpretation of mythology. All the themes coincide in Byatt’s excellent poem based on the mythological story of Melusine. But if you forced me to slot Possession into a single genre, it wouldn’t be any of these: I’d call it a detective novel.

The feminist myth of Melusine (Heinrich Vogeler's Melusine, courtesy Wikimedia)

The feminist myth of Melusine (Heinrich Vogeler’s Melusine, courtesy Wikimedia)

This, for me, was the revelation of Possession: that in order to work, a detective novel does not need a dark, dastardly crime. Or a victim. Or a smooth-talking private eye. Any painstaking piecing together of old facts from a multitude of textual sources, along with some inspired guesswork and deduction, is indistinguishable from detective fiction, in terms of its effect on us. We know only such scraps of incomplete information as are made available by the author at every stage, and our gradually escalating desire to know the truth about what happened builds the dramatic tension necessary to carry us from start to finish. The narrative flows downstream from the port of ignorance to that of knowledge, and our natural curiosity about what we don’t know yet, is the current that bears our raft along.

Of course, convention requires the truth that is discovered at the end to be an interesting one, commensurate with the built-up suspense. Here, Byatt fails to deliver the goods. The final piece of her jigsaw puzzle is guessable and hardly worth the hoopla. I suppose it is possible that the end is deliberately designed to be anti-climactic. If so, Byatt has a wickedly subversive sense of humor – she gets all the lead characters to a graveyard on a dark and stormy night for the gothic denouement – but I doubt it. Somehow, I think Byatt takes her story too seriously for that.

It isn’t just that the truth that finally emerges is boring, but that it shows up the lives and romances of both pairs of protagonists to be dreary, sordid and depressingly ordinary. It is just possible that this was Byatt’s message all along – but it simply isn’t…satisfactory that there isn’t more to it. I have to admit that I admired Possession more than I loved it. It intrigued but didn’t possess me. In fact, at the end, I felt robbed of an exciting end; I felt distinctly dispossessed.

We unsophisticated, coarse readers of today do not understand, as CP Cavafy exhorts us to, that Ithaka’s function is to give us the beautiful voyage; we demand that Ithaka offer us the riches that the voyage promised, when we finally reach it. This isn’t Ithaka’s fault. It isn’t Byatt’s either. Or mine. Personally, I blame Hollywood.


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