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The idea of Antonia Byatt is extraordinarily attractive – the slow starter overtaking the early success. It ministers to our sense of justice, impartial, over-arching, quasi-theological. Byatts are there in the FT-100 index and Drabbles have been demoted. Her measured, learned voice, unapologetically intellectual, emerges regularly from our radios. She doesn’t do jokes but speaks at least four languages well. She likes contemporary art and is unafraid of it. She also likes football and tennis. She is generous and unsentimental: of Penelope Fitzgerald, another late starter, she noted that ‘she wasn’t a nice person: geniuses aren’t nice people’. She is generous, too, to younger writers, as if she remembers, in meticulous detail, her own subordinate position to Iris Murdoch, a steady admiration in her early days. Her life was irremediably blighted by the accidental death of her eleven-year-old son Charles. She has said on many occasions that she thinks about him every day. No wonder Possession, a novel about the undiminished potency of the past, should qualify so readily as her masterpiece. Too readily, in my view, I am sorry to say.

Emily Dickinson’s poem (1261) catches the drift of Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel of 1990 – the power of past literature to infect the present:

Infection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale Despair

At distances of Centuries

From the Malaria

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) remembers (but easily upstages) A S Byatt’s Possession. (According to Byatt, the dramatist told her that he had stolen her plot.) Arcadia, too, has a pair of scholars, the academic Bernard Nightingale and the author Hannah Jarvis, in pursuit of the occluded past – the possible role of Byron at Sidley Park, which proves to be negligible. It, too, juxtaposes present speculation and the actual past.  In Possession, the scholars are Roland Michell and Maud Bailey – he a studious hack suddenly incandescent with discovery, she a feminist scholar.

Stoppard’s play is about the ultimate unknowability of the past. History is irreversible – his beautiful illustration is the impossibility of stirring jam out of a rice pudding once it has been stirred in – and we are invited to watch, amused, as the scholars hypothesise while we observe discrepancies in the staged nineteenth-century reality they are seeking to recreate.

For the most part, Byatt’s two scholars make their deductions from manuscripts, letters and journals. We watch them like detectives at work. Byatt wants us to want them to succeed. But she defers the moment of closure, of mystery resolved, prolonging our ‘pleasurable’ narrative ache. Possession is a novel of coarse Victorian suspense: Sabine de Kercoz’s Breton journal, after pages of tormenting, fulsome irrelevance, stops at the moment when we might discover the fate of a new-born child – stillborn, or murdered, or given out for adoption to a convent…

There are three (anomalous, formally arbitrary) narrative occasions when Byatt, for the purpose of clarity – clarity necessary for pathos – takes us directly into the period, without the mediation of documents. In Chapter 15, we see the married Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash taking an adulterous trip to Whitby with the Victorian poetess Christabel LaMotte – a union consummated obscurely but definitely. ‘In the morning, washing, he found traces of blood on his thighs.’ From a ruptured hymen rather than a period, it is inferred. In Chapter 25, we enter the mind of Ellen Ash, newly widowed, ruminating about her marriage, calmly aware of her husband’s infidelity, rueful about her own sexual shortcomings (a revulsion like that of Sue Bridehead or the farmer’s wife in Charlotte Mew’s poem, but not as brilliantly realised as either). She decides to destroy some things to thwart future biographers though she preserves vital others by placing them in a casket in Ash’s grave, later to be her own. Which is dug up in the finale, during the Sturm und Drang of the big Sussex hurricane of 1987.

The final postscript – in which the poet meets his offspring, a daughter whose existence is thought unknown to him for the rest of the novel – unashamedly succumbs to the happy ending, or a happier ending than the reader imagined. In her Paris Review interview, Byatt indulges the happy ending, unabashed by its contrivance: ‘I suddenly thought, Why the hell not have happy endings? Everybody knows they’re artificial. Why not have this pleasure, as one has the pleasure of rhyme, as one has the pleasure of colour?’  And perhaps this is a factor in the popularity of this novel with its mix of academic method and candid melodrama. On the one hand, rebarbative samples of feminist theory, deconstruction, Lacanian theory – while, on the other, exhausted heroines are helped, in lashing rain, from their carriages and supported, ‘half-fainting’, up the stairs. A flattering conflation for the reader, then, of fashionable pedantry leavened by old-fashioned passion. The brainy meets the bodice-ripper.

Stoppard’s play is in some ways a similar, but lighter, mix. Arcadia is an early nineteenth-century conflation of farce for adults, ingenious, witty, brilliantly comic – effortlessly topping Oscar Wilde – and a scientific thesis about entropy. Why is it better, so much better? In his introduction to the 2013 Everyman edition of Possession, Philip Hensher proposes to avoid the difficulty presented by the term pastiche, which has negative connotations. Reading pastiche is like switching on the radio and knowing in seconds that you are listening not to real speech but actors in a play. Pastiche means the reader is always aware that the writing – prose or poetry – is in costume. However expert the writing, we are conscious of the dressing-up box in the corner of our eye. The great historical novels – for example, Golding’s The Inheritors, which takes us inside the Neanderthal mind – recreate consciousness rather than copy crinolines. Neither Middlemarch nor War and Peace, both set in earlier periods, are written in self-conscious sepia. And why copy something already realised by others, when the task is to adapt, to remake the language of your own time – which requires originality, inventiveness and the bending of language to your purpose without set patterns and pre-existent patina? It isn’t an exercise in antiquarianism.

Instead, Hensher proposes Possession as an historical novel – an historical novel which uses the very language of the Victorian period, as a deliberate strategy to recreate the past. How so? In the 50s, the American theorists Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir argued that language shaped our reality. Reality is experiential, a function of the different languages we speak, not something objectively fixed. Hensher concedes that this theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, once in vogue, is now comprehensively discredited. However (he continues in override mode), the historical novel is a special case. Novelists ‘differ’ in their practice. By aping the language of the Victorians, Victorian reality is recreated. Well, the ‘reality’ of Victorian fiction might be recreated. And it is true that Byatt’s pastiches of Browning’s monologues and Emily Dickinson’s poems are exceptional simulacra – genuine phonies. (LaMotte’s ‘Our Lady – bearing – Pain’ is first-rate.) But if Sapir and Whorf are discredited, it is perverse of Hensher to maintain – against his own logic – that Victorian idioms will produce Victorian reality.

In fact, one of the things that detracts from Possession is its over-insistence, its nervous unease about the reality on offer. On 14 February 1903, Max Beerbohm reviewed George Fleming’s stage adaptation of Kipling’s novel The Light That Failed. ‘George Fleming’ was actually a woman. This set Beerbohm off on a comic frisk: were Kipling’s male characters, with their insistence on masculinity, afraid of being mistaken for women? Why else, Beerbohm asks, would they so insist on ‘keeping the corners of their eyes on the mirror, to assure themselves that their moustaches are bristling, and their chests expanding, and their pipes “drawing” satisfactorily’. A S Byatt writes throughout as if the conscientious arithmetical accumulation of comprehensive detail is crucial to narrative plausibility. Without it, the text will appear flimsy, skimped and unconvincing. She has the mindset of a schoolgirl persuaded that an essay is at least eight pages long. She writes, to cite Virginia Woolf’s ‘Modern Fiction’, as if life were a set of gig lamps symmetrically arranged and it were compulsory to describe the whole hansom cab – upholstery, the mounting board, the sprung motion, the iron felly round the wheels, the shod hooves, the sway and creak of the carriage, the replacement set of gig lamps in case of emergency. Otherwise, you’d be left with a luminous, semi-transparent envelope. And how would that get you from A to B and back again?

In the Iliad Book 24, King Priam goes to Achilles, with a king’s ransom, to beg for the dead body of his son Hector. He does something extraordinary and tells Achilles he is doing it – lifting the hand of his son’s killer to his lips and asking a boon. He asks as a father in the name of Achilles’s father – a man laden with life’s gifts yet knowing his only son will die. It is an appeal to common ground. Achilles and Priam both shed tears. Achilles has his women-servants prepare Hector’s disfigured body out of the sight of Priam – in case Priam should become deranged with grief, attack Achilles, and force Achilles to kill him. It is an edgy transaction between the two men and when it has been accomplished, Achilles asks the dead Patroclus to forgive him. Then he returns and sits again in his inlaid chair – which Homer tells us, the first telling, extraneous detail in this high drama, is ‘on the far side of the room’. One narrative touch. The merest touch but it takes us there, into the room, into that room. Banal, a nothing – and genius.

You have to avoid overkill.  The body-count of dead detail in A S Byatt is off the scale. Her stream of conscientiousness makes Arnold Bennett look like a minimalist.

There is a restaurant by the sea in Barcelona. You walk through it onto the beach where a trestle table waits. Bruce Springsteen ate there. They bring seafood until the wash of the tide ends proceedings. It stops just before you are fed up and have no stomach for more. In Possession, on the other hand…

I am going to look at food in the novel, but I could do the same for clothes or furnishings. My list of citations isn’t comprehensive, I promise, though it may feel that way. There are regular meals throughout Possession – in much the same way that Iris Murdoch and John Bayley had open tins of sardines everywhere around their house. At first, you think food is a theme, or a motif. Or maybe an obsessive compulsive disorder – like an anorexic unable to stop reading recipes.

Gradually, the author’s worry becomes manifest. Beerbohm provides the clue. She is nervous the reader is feeling peckish and will set her novel aside to snack from the fridge, fiction forgotten. Accordingly, she provides a surrogate every twenty pages or so. We call it JMS – the Jewish Mother Syndrome.

‘He [Roland] cooked a pheasant for his rival in the departmental rat-race, Fergus Wolff, which was exciting and civilised, although the pheasant was tough and full of shot’ (p 17). On p 22, Roland’s bad-tempered girlfriend Val has ‘put before him grilled marinated lamb, ratatouille and hot Greek bread.’ On p 19, lest you felt the meal was conjured out of nothing, we see Val ‘at the sink, chopping courgettes and aubergines…’ – for the ratatouille, in case you were wondering.

By p 55, Roland has met Maud at Lincoln: ‘Maud gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples.’   Not a token meal. Three courses. Ample. Another twenty odd pages and (p 81) ‘[tea] came in an exquisite Spode tea service, with a silver sugar-bowl and a plateful of hot buttered toast with Gentleman’s Relish, or honey…’

By p 99, it’s Mortimer Cropper’s turn to be force-fed detail: ‘He breakfasted in the morning with Daisy Wapshott, a comfortable bosomy lady in a crepe-de-chine dress and a pink angora cardigan, who waited on him, despite his protestations, with a huge plate of ham and eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes, sausages and baked beans. He ate triangular toast, and marmalade from a cut-glass dish with a swinging lid and a scallop shell spoon. He drank strong tea from a silver pot under a teacosy embroidered to resemble a nesting hen…’ You can see what I mean about clothing. Nothing escapes the novelist’s greedily inventorial gaze.

A mere eleven pages later (p 112), Cropper is recording Ash’s tour of Yorkshire, ‘drinking warm disagreeable brown beer, eating unspeakable neck-of-mutton and pieces of braised offal.’ Provincial cuisine, not to everyone’s taste. Sometimes – a subtle variation – there is the absent present, as on p 128: ‘there was no smell of cooking, no burning onion nor warm curry powder.’ (Why, you wonder mildly, should the onion always be ‘burning’ rather than assuming the transparency of a stamp hinge? Because it’s a cliché? A staple from the novelist’s pantry, well-stocked with stock?)

Exactly twenty pages later, something more substantial: ‘Lunch was sausages and mashed potatoes and buttery peppery mashed swede’ (p 148). Sometimes you think you’re reading Nigel Slater, except he’s the better writer. Two pages later, ‘they [Roland and Maud] dined with the Baileys by the kitchen fire on pieces of frozen cod and chips and a piece of good jam roly-poly’. Then you reach the jocose paean to the cucumber sandwich on p 162: ‘poems are worth all the cucumber sandwiches in the world… oh the perfect green circles – oh the delicate hint of salt – oh the fresh pale butter – oh, above all, the soft white crumbs and golden crust of new bread.’ Quite a helping of humour.  You yearn for T S Eliot’s ‘bitten macaroon’ at Professor and Mrs Channing-Cheetah’s.

On p 184, ‘I [Ash to Miss LaMotte] do have the clearest olfactory ghost of your tisanes – though they hesitate between verveine and lime and raspberry leaves.’ Presumably, this item, this ‘olfactory ghost’, touches on Byatt’s dominant theme of spiritualism and the after-life as well as supplying sustenance for the reader in his hour of need. A page later, we encounter something more than a stop-gap: ‘It is beyond her [the servant Jane’s] powers to let be a set of little milk jellies – or delicious macaroons – or brandy snaps.’ Twenty-two pages later, we arrive at ‘excellent seed cake’. Forty famished pages on, Maud and Roland are at Oodles, a vegetarian restaurant, where they stand in a queue for ‘tepidly microwaved spinach lasagne’. A few pages after that and the couple are getting stuck in again: ‘Roland and Maud met there and ordered what seemed to be a light meal: home-made vegetable soup, plaice with shrimps, and profiteroles.’ Don’t bet on getting off lightly. ‘All these things were good and hugely plentiful, the soup a thick casserole of roots and legumes, the fish an immense white sandwich of two plate-sized fillets containing a good half-pound of prawns between their solid flaps, the profiteroles the size of large tennis balls, covered with a lake of bitter chocolate sauce.’ Byatt has taken her eye off the balls. Not ‘as large as tennis balls’, but ‘the size of large tennis balls’. Maybe they should have ordered those small tennis balls everyone else plays with…

That was on p 255. By p 281, the couple have sufficiently recovered to take a ‘simple picnic’: ‘Fresh brown bread, white Wensleydale cheese, crimson radishes, yellow butter, scarlet tomatoes, round bright green Granny Smiths and a bottle of mineral water.’ A nursery colour chart the polar opposite of Pantone. But the reader is entitled, I feel, to know whether the mineral water is Evian or Perrier, still or sparkling. There, in the centre of the perfect picnic, is a Hepworth hole, a troubling anonymity. A page later, Byatt is reassuring her reader that the apples can be trusted: ‘Maud was looking, not at him, but at an apple, which she was dividing into paper-thin wafers with a sharp knife, each with its half-moon of bright green rind, its paper-white crisp flesh, its shining dark seeds’ [my italics]. A deconstructionist might, though, discount the reality of this apple by simply noting the double reference to ‘paper’, as if to underline its ultimate literary status. Just kidding.

By p 293, we’re back on terra firma: ‘They returned to The Cliff and sat in their dining room, to which a tea tray was brought. He poured the tea.’ A good strong cuppa, reliably real after that Derridean wobble.  Nineteen pages on (p 312), there is a Knausgaard epiphany avant la lettre: ‘Val was eating cornflakes. She ate very little else, at home. [Only at home, we are given to understand. Not outside. Unlike Mr William Shawn at the New Yorker, who ate cornflakes everywhere, including the Algonquin.] They were light, they were pleasant, they were comforting, and then after a day or two they were like cotton wool.’ By now the reader is so addicted to specifics we want to have it explained why the flakes turn into cotton wool. Because the eater tires of the treat? Or because the flakes are left in the milk for a day or two days? And in that case, is cotton wool a metaphor for ‘soggy’? Most people think of cotton wool as dry.

In another 40 pages, Maud and Roland have reached France and its famous cuisine: ‘It was his first French meal in France [sic: he has eaten French food in England on previous occasions] and he was overcome with precise sensuality, with sea food, with fresh bread, with sauces whose subtlety required and defied analysis.’ Perhaps, though, on reflection, his experience of French food in England isn’t so profound if he is ‘overcome’ by ‘fresh bread’ (p 345).

A paltry ten pages further (p 355) and we experience Breton food by proxy: ‘We ate boiled fowl – my father has ordered the stock to be put aside to restore her [Christabel LaMotte’s] strength. We ate round the table in the Great Hall – usually my father and I have our cheese and bowl of milk, and bread, by the fire in his room.’ Two pages on (p 357), Sabine de Kercoz sets down her failure to ‘tempt her [Christabel] with a fillet of sole, or a little beef jelly, made with wine…’

Just as the reader begins to feel that Possession should be sub-titled Master Chef d’ouevre, over a hundred pages go by before food is mentioned again. Was the JMS treated by a professional? P 432: ‘It was the sort of house,’ we are told, ‘where breakfast was kidneys, bacon, mushrooms, or kedgeree in silver dishes.’ I, for my part, had begun to experience strong symptoms of withdrawal, an inner chafing for a chafing dish. Immediately (p 437), in short order: ‘They sat over buckwheat pancakes in Pont-Aven, and drank cider from cool earthenware pitchers.’ ‘They’ are Maud and Roland. We learn (p 440) that Roland, ‘during his stay had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Îles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.’ Yellow custard. Whatever next. Well, this may not be innocent gluttony, or simple rabid addiction, it probably also touches on the liminality theme, the spiritualism elsewhere prominent in the novel. ‘Haunted by a ghost’ again. Compare the ‘olfactory ghost’ of the tisanes.

But the memory of this frail spiritual dish is swept aside a mere three pages later (p 443) when Cropper, Blackadder and Leonora Stern eat together: ‘[Cropper] ordered lavishly, a huge platter of fruits de mer to start with, a mound of shells and whiskers and stony carapaces, surrounded by seaweed on a metal pedestal, followed by a huge boiled sea-spider or araignée, a hot angry scarlet, crusted with bumps and armoured crestings, waving a multiplication of feelers. He was provided with an armoury of implements for this feast, like a mediaeval torture chamber, pincers and grippers, prods and corkscrew skewers. // Blackadder ate hake abstemiously. Leonora ate lobster…’ ‘Armoured crestings’ followed immediately by ‘an armoury of implements’, the ready comparison with instruments of torture: how bad is this? Prose wallowing in its own rubble.

Five pages later (p 448), the dyspeptic reader is led to table again: ‘They sat at a corner-table with a pink cloth and stiff pink napkins, in a large dining room, with glittering crystal chandeliers and panelled walls. There was an autumn posy on the table: dusty pink asters, mauve chrysanthemums, a few freesias. Euan ordered champagne and they settled down to smoked salmon, pheasant with trimmings, Stilton and lemon soufflé. Roland found his pheasant tough.’ (Not for the first time, you will recall. Or the last: on p 505 we encounter for the millionth time ‘pheasant with all the trimmings’. By now we are curious to know what those trimmings actually are. Byatt fobs us off with ‘salmon mousse in lobster sauce’, ‘Stilton’ and ‘sorbet cassis maison’.)

Thirty-five pages later (p 485), A S Byatt presents us with her rationale, her philosophy of food, its representative function in the realist novel: ‘It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex. Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force, the green-flecked gold omelette aux fines herbes, melting into buttery formlessness and tasting of summer… the scented garnet glow of good burgundy.’ The formless, gold omelette that tastes of summer, the ideal omelette. It seems foolhardy to claim this ordinary over-egged cookery writing as a tour-de-force. And just recall that earlier picnic, the butter specified as yellow, the tomatoes as scarlet, the apples as round, the radishes as crimson. Not primary pleasures so much as Basic English. Compare Joyce’s ‘last sardine of summer’ ‘on its bier of bread’ or Buck Mulligan slicing open a scone and ‘plastering butter across its smoking pith’. It can be done, but it isn’t done here. Nor is the sex between Ash and Christabel, prefaced as it is by ruminations on Shakespeare, Balzac and Smollett – all more intelligible and specific than the murky transaction in bed. ‘It was like holding Proteus…’

Food is only one example in Possession of a general malaise, the elephantiasis in the room. I will spare you the descriptions of clothing and furnishing. Instead, I turn to the photocopier on p 25. You might think the photocopier commonplace enough to escape detailed description. You would be wrong. This is how a photocopier works: ‘Whilst the machine warmed up, in the din and hum of the extractor fan, he took out his two letters and read them again. Then he spread them face down, to be scryed on the black glass, under which the rods of green light floated and passed. And the machine spat out, hot and chemical-scented, spectograms of those writings, black-rimmed by imaged empty space as the originals were edged by a century’s dust… Roland’s Xeroxes were cleaner and clearer than the faded coppery-grey script of the originals, indeed the copy-ink had a black and gleaming freshness, the machine’s rollers must have been newly inked.’ Except that this isn’t how a photocopier works. The primary pleasure of photocopying, its ease, its dispatch, isn’t made over to the reader any more than the primary pleasure of eating is. The ink (toner) is a form of powder. The rollers aren’t inked. They are hot and their heat fixes the ink powder. Not that this matters. The important word is ‘scryed’ which assimilates the machine to the theme of spiritualism, shape-shifting and further life.

This variation on her theme doesn’t matter either. It might, it should, but it doesn’t. What matters is that the description is wordy, worthy and, the word we have been avoiding – boring. Like the food, the furnishings, the clothing. Like her infernal makeover of the Ash Factory, the basement rooms where Blackadder and his team work on their edition of Ash’s poetry. If the British Museum Reading Room is like Dante’s Paradiso, then the Ash factory ‘hutched in the bowels of the building was the Inferno’.  ‘The bowels of the building’ isn’t fresh. And watch Byatt forcing and bullying her comparison: ‘a hot place of metal cabinets… It smelled occasionally sulphurous, when the photocopiers short-circuited. It was even beset by wailings and odd shrieks [from cats].’ We get the idea – hot, sulphurous, filled with lamentations. The trouble is, it doesn’t begin to convince on the obvious, surface level. It is all sub-text. It insists without persuading us. Beside Joyce, the king of the text and the sub-text, it is enfeebled.

In his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James relishes a paradox: ‘it was naturally of the essence that the young woman should be herself complex; that was rudimentary.’ At present in English fiction, there are many writers – for example, A S Byatt, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Hensher – capable of formal complication but unable to improve the rudimentary. This is Ishiguro creating the character of a butler on the first page of The Remains of the Day: ‘An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days. The idea of such a journey, I should point out…’ It sounds strangely like pastiche Henry James. It could as easily, I should venture, establish the character of someone Japanese, a race also much given to the subjunctive, as I recall, in Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World.

This is Philip Hensher establishing the character of a German landlady on the first page of The Emperor Waltz: ‘“You will have brought your own towels and bedlinen,” Frau Scherbatsky said, in her lowered, attractive, half-humming voice, “as I instructed, as I suggested, Herr Vogt, in my telegram. Other things I can supply, should you not have them for the moment. Soap, should you wish to wash yourself before tea of which we shall partake in the drawing room in half an hour. Should you wish for hot water…’” Should you find in your mouth a sentence like the third one here – ‘Soap, should you wish to wash yourself before tea of which we shall partake in the drawing room in half an hour’ – you should probably consult a doctor. It may be a brain tumour. Or you may just be a butler. In fiction, it signifies formality and it is standard issue dialogue, a construct the novelist pretends is real speech.

This is A S Byatt establishing three characters below the salt, each a spitting image of Joan Littlewood: ‘he never had no inclination for any kind of work, really’ (p 100); ‘I don’t hold with no imitations’ (p 271); ‘there isn’t nobody there any more, luv’ (p 481). Three different members of the lower class from all over England with a single ungrammatical idiom crudely on offer. Symptomatic, actually, this pastiche – fake on first hearing.

And these are three of our better writers.

I nearly forgot: ‘his bald patch was like a pink tonsure.’ Towards the end of Possession. Which is like writing ‘his bald patch was exactly like a bald patch.’ Not  even Andy Warhol’s A to B and Back Again. From A to A and back again.

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