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!

The Thing in the Forest by A.S. Byatt

Little Black Book of Stories tells five tales, which blend the ordinary with the absurd. The collection opens with a perfectly intriguing story, about the blurred edges of reality, called The Thing in the Forest.

It is the story of two girls, Penny and Primrose. It is set during the WWII, when children are evacuated from London to the country. The girls, who have nothing in common, other than this shared exclusion from the world, meet on the train and deciding to stick together, become friends.

At the estate, when the children are free to do as they please, Penny and Primrose decide to explore the forest. In it, they see, or think they see, a thing. A huge slimy worm-like creature right out of a nightmare. It doesn’t harm them and they never speak of it again. But this sudden exposure to the uncanny, the evil changes the girls forever. Each finds her own way to deal with the loss of childhood innocence till their paths cross again, and the women meet in the very forest years later.

“They remembered the thing they had seen in the forest in the way you remember those very few dreams – almost all nightmares – which have the quality of life itself, not of fantasm, or shifting provisional scene-set. (Though what are dreams if not life itself?) In the memory, as in such a dream, they felt, I cannot get out, this is a real thing in a real place.”

“I think, I think there are things that are real – more real than we are – but mostly we don’t cross their paths, or they don’t cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours.”

Ever since I read Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, I’ve been in awe of A.S. Byatt’s wordsmithery. Even in this story, she paints vivid pictures with her prose. Her writing prods each of our senses. She has a way with colours, describing darkness as nothing but the colour of ink and elephant; contrasting the golden and darkly shadowed light in the woods with the light in city terraces, and naming toadstools, some scarlet, some ghostly-pale and some a dead-flesh purple. With a delightfully rich imagination, Byatt describes feelings that run over our skin, pricking and twitching; primroses that smell of thin, clear, spring honey without the buzz of summer; and Penny, in the woods, hearing a tremulous shiver in the darkness, and her own heartbeat in the thickening brown air. But the vivid detailing is, appropriately, only part of the charm.

Like in Ragnarok, in this story, Byatt portrays children just as they are: naughty and innocent, with more understanding than any adult could fathom, imaginative, curious and daring and having their own personal reality. The story weaves together themes of war, innocence, dreams, faith, dealing with loss, grief and finding our place in the world. It’s a coming-of-age story; slightly too abstract, perhaps, to appeal to all; but worth reading.

Byatt’s works are categorized as fantasy, but seem to me to be a genre-defying combination of magic realism, naturalism and gothic horror. The Thing in the Forest and two other stories from the collection, The Stone Woman and The Pink Ribbon, have a blatantly mythic, supernatural element. The Stone Woman is a bit too vague for my taste, but will be adored by geology and Icelandic mythology enthusiasts. The Pink Ribbon is about a man who is haunted by a sort of memory of his wife, who now has Alzheimer’s. The other two stories, Body Art and Raw Material, not fantasy nor horror, portray the tragic mundane of our lives with overwhelming honestly. Together, the five stories form another great read by (and, possibly, a nice introduction to) my favourite short story writer.

Reviewed for Peril of the Short Story – the R.I.P. Challenge.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

I must say, this was a great start to Once Upon a Time VII. Join the challenge here.
When I saw this at the book store, I immediately bought myself a copy,
even though I knew nothing about Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) and very
little about Norse mythology in general. Why? Well, firstly, it’s part of a series of books on mythology, of which I’ve read the first introductory book; The Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Secondly, well, it’s written by A.S. Byatt, who has grown to be one of my favourite authors, and not without
reason. Byatt is a brilliant writer, a wordsmith. Her prose is rather
poetic; a combination of apt imagery and beautiful sounds, which
together with the strong emotions that her stories invoke in you, leaves you
If you’re a mythology fanatic or an expert, you might find this
book a little too basic, as some of the Goodreads reviews seem to suggest. But
if all you want is a general glimpse into the Norse myths, without having to
struggle through a reference journal, the book is perfect. It is far from scholarly, and that, somehow is the magic of it. Throughout the book, Byatt maintains these careful inconsistencies, even with the names; because, she says, myths are always changing, there is no right or wrong, no accurate version. Where you’d have footnotes and in depth analyses of the different allegories, you have a thin young girl, who has had to move to the English countryside with a war raging around them, reading and shaping her world according to a book she loves called “Asgard and the Gods“. It draws parallels to our world, at every step, through the mind of that little girl, who likens her father being away bombing the enemy’s planes to Odin’s Wild Hunt. 
At the same time, it’s just a story, of how the world was fashioned by the gods from the Giant Ymir’s corpse, of the creation of Ask and Embla, the stories of Odin or Wodun, Thor and Baldur the beautiful God, who was killed by his blind brother. We also read about Loki or Loptr, the playful shape-shifting fire God and his spawn; Jormungandr, the giant sea serpent, Hel, ruler of Niflheim, where the dead go and Fenris, the monstrous wolf. We experience, finally, the eponymous end of the gods, the terrible Ragnarok. With her writing, Byatt brings the myths alive, to the point where we don’t only find Loki interesting, but want to read further to find out what happened of him. It’s not informative, as an academic book about myths would be, instead, it’s engaging.
All of Byatt’s writing is heavily influenced by mythology, I’ve read enough of her books to recognize its hold on her. The thin child is based, after all, on Byatt herself, as a young girl, first finding her way to these myths. In her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession, one of the main characters is a poet called Randolph Henry Ash. These lines are from the epic he writes about Ragnarok. 

And these three Ases were the sons of Bor
Who slew the Giant Ymir in his rage
And made of him the elements of earth,
Body and sweat and bones and curly hair,
Made soil and sea and hills and waving trees,
And his grey brains wandered the heavens as clouds.
These three were Odin, Father of the Gods,
Honir, his brother, also called the Bright,
The Wise and Thoughtful, and that third, the hot
Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire
First warmed the world, then grown beyond the bounds
Of home and hearth-stone, flamed in boundless greed
To turn the world, and Heav’n, to sifting ash.
(Chapter 13, Possession by A.S. Byatt)

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt

About the book: Published in 2009, The
Children’s Book is a novel by  A. S. Byatt, which is loosely based on
children’s author E. Nesbit’s life. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker

Summary (partly from here.): The
book spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and
centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and
secrets that tear apart the people she loves. Olive Wellwood writes magical
tales for children. On a visit to a museum, her son Tom finds a talented
working-class boy, Philip, and they decide to take him home. The Wellwoods live
in a house as fantastical as Olive’s stories. Philip soon begins to realize,
though, that their happy lives contain more darkness and secrets than they
initially let on. The children grow up, not knowing what is about to come and
their personal struggles are overshadowed by the golden era coming to an

What I thought: After reading and falling in love with Elementals, a short story collection by A. S. Byatt, I immediately went and got this book. And I really wanted to love this book, ever since I saw the fabulous cover. I mean, look at that blue! But I felt like it was slightly overdone. It is long, and at times too complicated. It also has a very leisurely pace. The author takes her time describing every little detail, which I actually liked: my problem was that she has squeezed too much story, too many chunks of information into a couple of hundred pages at the end. In a way, it shows the suddenness of the children growing up, not remaining quite as innocent anymore or the effect of the abrupt end of an era – but it doesn’t quite work that well.

I do love A. S. Byatt, though, and she is a brilliant writer. She paints vivid pictures in your head, which you couldn’t erase even if you tried (I don’t see why you would want to, either.) The book has a bit of everything – history, politics, society and best of all, family. I have discovered recently that I love historical fiction, for that feeling it gives you, like you’re actually there – this book felt wonderful that way, specially when familiar names like Grahame and Wilde popped up. The easy flow of words and the deep characterization make this book much more special than Elementals.

I may not have loved this book as much as I wanted to (blame the sky-high expectations) but it is quite fabulous, nevertheless. So I would recommend this book, but be sure to save it for a some day when you have enough time.

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A. S. Byatt

I think the beauty of a well-written short story, is that
you can experience everything that a novel has to offer and experience it in a
really short time. I appreciate the sense of fulfillment, as E. A. Poe put
it, which you get from reading a tale in a single sitting.
When I picked up that little yellow book at the library, I
had never even heard of this fantastic author. The pages looked and smelled
rich and the book was small enough to fit into my tiny purse. I had already
found the book I was looking for, and this one, I picked without giving it a
thought. I had no idea what kind of surprise I was in for. The book is
beautiful and I was fascinated right from the first tale, I read the collection in
not more than a couple of hours.
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A. S. Byatt consists
of six enchanting stories about passion and loneliness and love and hate, each of which transports you into a new world altogether. 
The first story, and one of my favourites, in this fabulous
collection is called Crocodile Tears. It is about a woman who
escapes the pain of her husband’s death by running off to some place, only to
meet another person there, who is just as lost as her. It is abrupt and on the
outside, strange, but underneath it is just a compelling combination of inner
violence and outward detachment. 
The story Cold is a Grimm-sical dark fairy
tale, about how love changes you. It is the story of Princess Fiammarosa, the
supposed descendant of an icewoman, who can only survive the heat of the day by
dancing outside on the wintry cool nights. 
There is also a surreal and comical story about a
woman who loses herself in a shopping mall and that about an artist who finds
inspiration in a beautiful monstrous snake-like creature.
A. S. Byatt is a wordsmith. She weaves together wonderful
words and beautiful sounds to create a magical, poetic language which, together
with the feelings that the stories invoke in you, leaves you enraptured. It
is also a wonderful introduction to the author, before picking up her bigger
works. If you like fantasy, art or magical realism, it is a must read!