Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dream states (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

A. S. Byatt is brilliant at creating dream states. Her novel Possession, is set in the halls of academia, Victorian literature to be specific. A scholar finds the draft of a letter between poet Randolph Ash, the subject of his graduate dissertation, and Christabel LaMotte, a poet and writer of fairy tales, which suggests that the two writers knew each other. A fact previously unknown. The poems and diaries are re-read looking for confirmation of this new fact. The feminist scholars who owned LaMotte as a recluse and lesbian become ruffled. The Ash men who envisioned their poet a stick-in-the-mud raise their scholarly eyebrows.

Here I am reading another novel where the author gets a chance for literary role play. I seem to have read two other's in succession. Tobias Woolf's Old School and The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. The second even had the Victorian era as its setting! Perhaps this is not a coincidence. Any poems, letters, diaries or stories by either of the two poets in Possession are Byatt's creation. She is really a marvelous mimic while simultaneously being a good writer, and here she writes about good writing besides:
...But poets don't want homes - do they? - they are not creatures of hearths and firedogs, but of heaths and ranging hounds. Now tell me - do you supposed what I just wrote is the truth or a lie? You know, all poetry may be a cry of generalized love, for this, or that, or the universe - which must be loved in its particularity, not its generality, but for its universal life in every minute particular. I have always supposed it to be a cry of unsatisfied love - my dear - and so it may be indeed - for satisfaction may surfeit it and so it may die. I know many poets who write only when in an exalted state of mind which to compare to being in love, when they do not simply state, that they are in love, that they seek love - for this fresh damsel, or that lively young woman - in order to find a fresh metaphor, or a new bright vision of things in themselves. And to tell you the truth, I have always believed I cd diagnose this state of being in love, which they regard as most particular, as inspired by item, one pair of black eyes or indifferent blue, item, one graceful attitude of body or mind, item, one female history of some twenty-two years from, she we say 1821-1844 - I have always believed this in love to be something of the most abstract masking itself under the particular forms of both lover and beloved. And Poet, who assumes and informs both. I wd have told you - no, I do tell you - friendship is rarer, more idiosyncratic, more individual and in every way more durable than this Love.

Without this excitement they cannot have their Lyric Verse, and so they get it by any convenient means - and with absolute sincerity - but the Poems are not for the young lady, the young lady is for the Poems.

Fantastic stuff. Byatt, of course, writes the poems as well. Just a bit of one here.
Deep in the silence of drowned Is
Beneath the wavering precipice
The church-spire in the thickened green
Points to the trembling surface sheen
From which descends a glossy cone
A mirror-spire that mocks its own.
Between these two the mackerel sails
As did the swallow in the vales
Of summer air, and he too sees
His mirrored self amongst the trees
That hang to meet themselves, for here
All things are doubled, and the clear
Thick element is doubled too...

As I am reading the novel and come to a stanza or two of verse, I am sometimes compelled to want to skip it and get back to the business of the plot, but everything Byatt puts in our path is necessary. This poem, for example, read by our young scholar, after having been given it by Maud Bailey. He (and by extension we) read the poem's three stanzas and just a page later drive home in the car with Maud Bailey. We, the modern reader, read of a contemporary (fictional) scholar reading a Victorian poet, whose subject is a mythical Breton city in ancient Pagan times. So each reader in their time is transported to an earlier one, and if each writer (in fact all Byatt) have done their job, that sense of transportation will be enveloping and complete.
She drove through the park, much of which had been planted by that earlier Sir George who had married Christabel's sister Sophie, and had had a passion for trees, trees for all parts of the distant earth, Persian plum, Turkey oak, Himalayan pine, Caucasian walnut and the Judas tree. He had had his generation's expansive sense of time - he had inherited hundred-year-old oaks and beeches and had planted spreads of woodland, rides and coppices he would never see. Huge rugged trunks came silently past the little green car in the encroaching dark, rearing themselves suddenly monstrous in the changing white beam of the headlight. There was a kind of cracking of cold in the woods all round, a tightening of texture, a clamping together that Maud had experienced in her own warm limbs as she went out into the courtyard and cold ran into her constricted throat and pulled tight something she thought of poetically as the heartstrings.
I just love that passage because the world of the poetry is still lingering in this reader's mind from a page earlier, just as that same poetic world is occupying Maud's mind as she drives her car home. That is why a ride home circa 1990 in a car requires such elegant verbiage. I love how a phrase evoking an earlier style of writing "rearing themselves suddenly monstrous" combines with "in the changing white beam of the headlight" It's just like a dream, using what is presently in mind to create an altered state. Writers role play isn't just a way for Byatt to display her talent. She is creating the twin universes of her novel and wants to encourage a parallel state of mind for her reader with regard not just to their contemporaries, but to the relationship between those contemporary scholars and the writers who have become the driving purpose of their lives' work.

Dream states. She creates others but perhaps I'll save them for another day.


Beth F said...

Thanks for the reviews. Wow. Looks like this is a must-read for me. Besides, you mentioned M.F.K. Fisher in one of your posts . . .

Anonymous said...

I savored the role play story between the poets but I wasn't keen on the romance between the two scholars.

Sheila O'Malley said...

This whole book just transports me. Byatt is NOT a poet - but she decided to put herself out there and "mimic" poets because she really wanted to include the works of the poets in the book. So she immersed herself in Tennyson and Dickinson - and I'm just awestruck by what she is able to pull off. Yes, sometimes I want to skip them - but there is SO MUCH THERE when you read them.

And Maud Bailey kills me. I don't know. I really really related to that character. She makes me cry.

Sheila O'Malley said...

But you know who really kills me? Ellen Ash, Randolph's wife. She's the one who really haunts me.

Ted said...

Beth - I'll have to read some good food writing again on my break!

Matt - I remember that it's coming but I don't remember anything about it well enough to know what I thought yet.

Sheila - I'm floored by her mimicry skills, actually. They have verisimmilitude but also compel the reader in their own right.

Anonymous said...

I need to read this when I have nothing else going on, to be fair to all the work that Byatt clearly put into it. I can be such an impatient reader and I think that would be a disservice to this type of novel, so filled with 'extras' beyond the main story.
But I am enjoying the excerpts you've been posting, she's such a talented and careful writer.