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Postmodernist Readings: Possession

  • Derek Alsop
  • Chris Walsh
Chapter

Abstract

Possession, A. S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize winner, is a brilliant, sophisticated, complex postmodernist novel in which ‘connections’ do indeed ‘proliferate’, but not ‘apparently at random’, nor ‘with equal verisimilitude’. The word ‘multivalent’ hardly does this particular novel justice: Possession is not merely intertextual but, as will be seen later, intratextual and transtextual. Supremely self-possessed, it reads itself, and other texts, and comments on the very process of all kinds of reading — in and of life, in and of literature. It eschews ‘the aleatory’ but its ‘ferocious ordering principle’ — and anti-theme (taking ‘possession’ as the theme proper, for the moment) — is, ironically enough, the indeterminate basis of readerly freedom. To quote Geoffrey Hartman, to whose seminal essay on indeterminacy in Criticism in the Wilderness we shall have occasion to return later in this chapter, ‘[r]eading itself becomes the project: we read to understand what is involved in reading as a form of life, rather than to resolve what is read into glossy ideas’.1 This is not to reduce or traduce the novel’s own busy agenda; on the contrary, it is to echo and confirm it. Possession is not, pace Randall Stevenson, ‘more or less a love story’;2 rather, it is a novel pre-eminently about reading and the intertextual and indeterminate nature of the process. This is a claim often made about self-conscious fictional texts, of course (and indeed about other texts), but it is true of Possession in a double sense.

… there is an element of superstitious dread in any self-referring, self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot-coil that recognises that it has got out of hand, that connections proliferate apparently at random, that is to say, with equal verisimilitude, apparently in response to some ferocious ordering principle, not controlled by conscious intention, which would of course, being a good postmodernist intention, require the aleatory or the multivalent or the ‘free’, but structuring, but controlling, but driving, to some — to what? — end. Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. But they are always both frightening and enchantingly desirable, (pp. 421–2; Byatt’s italics)

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Copyright information

© D. K. Alsop and C. J. Walsh 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek Alsop
  • Chris Walsh

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