a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: possession

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (the movie)

Summary: Roland Mitchell is an American scholar, out of place in the British academic world. He is studying the life of the Victorian poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, when he happens upon two letters addressed to an unknown woman, whom Roland suspects to be a minor supposedly lesbian poetess, Christabel LaMotte. Roland begins to suspect a love affair between the two, that if discovered would change the way the world sees both the poets forever. Stealing the letters, Roland enlists the help of Maud Bailey, a fellow literary scholar and distant relative of Christabel LaMotte, to uncover the truth. Together, they become obsessed with the poets’ stories, even as they try to keep their research a secret from rival scholars. Possession is a tragic but ultimately hopeful tale.
My thoughts: Possession by Antonia S Byatt is one of my favourite love stories. The movie is different from the book in many ways, the most conspicuous being this whole new and jumpy version of Roland Mitchell in the form of an unavoidably American Aaron Eckhart. This adaptation only grazed the surface of what the story has to offer, and yet, I did like it.
Why? Two words, Jeremy Northam, previously known to me as a rather nice-looking Thomas More on The Tudors. He makes a wonderfully solemn Randolph Henry Ash and Jennifer Ehle is an unbridled beauty with a right-out-of-a-painting look. They are a perfect portrait of the two poets, who get much more ‘screen time’ here than in the book. In the film, you catch Ash and LaMotte impatiently awaiting the other’s letters, staring at each other with that tinge of a smile, making the sort of passionate love that cannot be contained in pages. Neil LaBute has created for them a vivid world that even Byatt did not manage to fully build with her prose. When Randolph Henry Ash talks with that rich voice of his, you want to stop and listen, and the Christabel LaMotte of the movie makes it hard for you to look away from the screen. They awaken the romantic in you. You want them to live happily ever after, which makes it so much harder when they don’t.
One of Ash and LaMotte’s very first meetings,
“It surprises me, Madam, that a lady, who lives as quietly as you do, would be aware of my modest success.”
“Oh, I am very aware the papers herald you weekly. It is you, however, who surprise me.”
“And why is that?”
“Judging from your work, I’m surprised you would even acknowledge my existence. Or any woman’s, for that matter, since you show us such small regard on the page.”
“You’ve cut me, Madam.”
“I’m sorry. I only meant to scratch.”
The same cannot be said for Maud and Roland, even though the tension between them is palpable. In the book, Maud is a woman who has been trapped by her own beauty, who has cocooned herself in an attempt to fight men’s need to possess her. Roland’s struggle is to free her from the uncanny figurative bell jar, that curiously features on the cover of the book. In the movie, it is often difficult to make out what, if anything, lies beyond Paltrow’s stony composure. Maud and Roland’s on-screen relationship leaves something to be desired. But Possession is more than the two pairs of lovers. It is about the precarious nature of all relationships, about the time it takes for one to collapse and the destruction even momentary happiness leaves in its wake. It is about unrequited passions and unsaid promises, and one of its best played characters is that of Christabel’s old lover, Blanche.
The movie is nowhere near subtle. It is a satirical look at the literary world with its grotesquely one-sided cast of academicians. They all fight for recognition, poring over dead writers’ lives with a voyeuristic greed and no concern for privacy or emotion. A character I really missed from the book was Leonara Stern, the feminist scholar, who is the living embodiment of wishful conclusions. Often enough to cause alarm, the drama threatens to become a mawkish display that does seem odd in this century, and yet, suited to a world of past-diggers. It begs to be made fun of. In the movie, unlike the book, it is unclear whether the farce is intentional. 
Possession must have been a difficult book to adapt. So much of its beauty and intellect lies in its linguistic nuances. The film is a really good effort, with moments I want to watch over and over, scenes I am so glad I now have visuals for. But to me it was just a three star adaptation of a five star book. Go for it if you have read the book or if you like romance of every kind. Or you can simply watch it, like me, for a swoonful of Victorian charm.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

It is two weeks into February and the blog desperately needs to be fed. It also happens to be Valentine’s Day, so I’m going to seize the moment and write a post about one of my favourite literary love stories. I have never been much fond of the romance novel. I like subtle romance weaved into fiction of other genres more than books solely dedicated to it.
But sifting through my old posts last night, I realized I have tried reading and ended up loving quite a few romances, well, quite a few by my standards. Possession by A.S. Byatt is a book I loved but never wrote about on my blog. It is a book that I believe would appeal to people who, like me, don’t usually read love stories. (In all honesty, I don’t know what justice this haphazard review does to the book, it’s been so long since I properly read it, but to sum up my thoughts – read the book, it’s worth your time.)

They say that women change: ’tis so: but you
Are ever-constant in your changefulness,
Like that still thread of falling river, one
From source to last embrace in the still pool
Ever-renewed and ever-moving on
From first to last a myriad water-drops
And you—I love you for it—are the force
That moves and holds the form. 

— R. H. ASH, Ask to Embla, XIII

I think I read Possession two years ago and every part of me knows I’ll appreciate it so much more today. I read some of my favourite sections of the book yesterday, and they sufficed to make me swoon and want to gush about it. If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d call it dazzling. 

Possession is the story of two literary academicians uncovering a secret affair between a couple of Victorian poets. Byatt has woven an intricate love story between the poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, which gradually unfolds through surviving letters, allusions in their works to each other, and the undying memories of times spent together. Meanwhile, in the present, we see the cold distant Maud Bailey immersed in a fairytale romance that brings her closer to her fellow scholar, Roland Mitchell.

The book has a lot to say about identity, by looking at the intangible self in a relationship. LaMotte is like the moth forever in a jar, forever helplessly owned by circumstance, and beautiful Maud fights every instinct to let her guard down, almost throttled by the fear of becoming someone’s possession. For Ash who may perhaps have failed his lover, Roland finds redemption. On the surface, Possession is a tragic romance, but in its glinting moments, it is a wise and hopeful rumination on relationships. The book is about more than the lovers; etching a quiet romance between a poet and his art, the academician and his scholarship, and a delicate love affair between the past and the present.

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed. One night they fell asleep, side by side… He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

The style of this book is breathtaking and the pages ooze literary charm. Byatt is smart and she knows how to trap the reader in her magic. A word I find apt for her writing is thick, for being laden with meaning, perhaps. Possession is not a book you can read at one go, you have to slowly swim through it, there are moments when it’s almost a struggle and yet mysteriously, not a word seems superfluous.
R.H. Ash: We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world.”
C. LaMotte: And every day we shall have less. And then none.”
R. H. Ash: Would you rather, therefore, have had nothing at all?”
C. LaMotte: No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.”

Which is one love story you think everyone must read? And if you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you make of it. Happy Valentine’s Day, and of course, happy reading!