Emma Darwin was born and brought up in London, with interludes in Manhattan and Brussels. After a drama degree and a spell in academic publishing she took to photography and writing fiction. Her first novel, The Mathematics of Love, was published in 2006, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' and Goss First Novel Awards. To date it has been translated into seven languages and looks particularly nice in Russian. Her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, will be published by Headline Review in November 2008, and she has also won prizes for her short fiction. Emma now lives in South East London and teaches at Goldsmiths College, where she's doing a PhD in Creative Writing. She blogs at This Itch of Writing. In this post, Emma discusses A.S. Byatt's Possession.
Emma Darwin on Possession by A.S. Byatt
This isn't a story of a life-long influence, or even a passion, at least not exactly. It's a writer's story about writing, which means it's awkwardly shaped, somewhat contradictory, a rag-bag of what came before and what happened after, and what isn't finished yet.
I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love. I'm not sure how I got the idea for it, except that there were things I wanted to say about my first - 1819 - story that couldn't be said until a 1976 world. The two strands were connected in every way except plot because I balked at the all too well-used letters-in-the-attic scenario, but couldn't see how else to link them. But it didn't matter: for me and my trusted readers on the MPhil course it was enough that they were connected by themes, images, ideas and places, and one mysterious child, even though each story had no other existence in the other world. Then my squirming, half-formed novel was rejected by the agent who'd come to talk to the course, on the grounds that parallel narratives don't work. Aha! What I was trying to do had a name, had it? With not a little sense of thumbing my nose at her I decided to write the critical paper for my Masters about a parallel narrative novel which did work.
But my demand for a novel with two stories with wholly different casts, set in wholly different eras and well-enough written to stand up to critical scrutiny, proved almost too demanding. A.S. Byatt's Possession was the only real candidate, with Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin as runner-up. I'd read Byatt's pair of novellas published as Angels and Insects and liked them very much, but this fat, prize-garlanded book was a different beast altogether.
I read. And read, and read. Like many I skipped the poetry at first, while admiring the virtuosity of what I discovered Byatt calls not pastiche, but ventriloquism. But all the structural things that I'd struggled with - what goes next to what, what's revealed when, how do you make it seem uncontrived? - Byatt does with such virtuosity and brio that my first reaction was, 'Thank God I didn't read this before I'd finished my own'. And then I went back and took the book apart to write my paper.
So what does Byatt do? Well, she certainly illustrates the risk, built into parallel narratives, that most readers will enjoy one strand much more than the other. I have one friend who prefers the modern literary-detective-campus-satire strand, but most of us fall for the wonderful Victorian love story that's put together so unchronologically, so seemingly naturally, so very carefully, from letters and diaries and slippery inferences in Ash and Christabel's published work. Byatt's even said herself that her heart used to sink when she realized another chunk of modern-day literary detective story was due. And yet, like Conan Doyle's Watson, modern Maud and Roland are our representatives in the novel: Byatt's so determined to assemble the Victorian story only from its remains that we need their help to put it together. In these narrated sections the writing is authoritative, densely-textured, magnificently precise in its diction and wide-ranging in its references. You could spend a scholarly paper tracing Byatt's use of the imagery of insect life alone, or her exploration of the possessive possessedness of the biographer, or her structural use of the Melusine myth. And yet the narrative voice is detached: coolly narratorial. Only in what I came to call the documents - the letters, diaries, poems, literary criticism and stories - does the fierce subjectivity of each character-writer seem to break out and away from the narrator's own controlling intelligence and shrewd judgement.
The most interesting thing for me as a writer is just how Byatt plays those documents within that narrative. My novel already had letters in it: indeed, the whole thing started with my writing a set of letters, because I was fascinated by the technical challenge of expressing for the reader what a letter-writer wouldn't say. But here were documents used as clues for readers and for characters: as structure, as image, as plot and personality. Here were letters not sent or not delivered, diaries that didn't say things, private meanings in published works. Here was a long statement - implicit and explicit - about why people write. And here were two moments of a great love story, arguably the two most important moments of all, that couldn't be put together from people's writings, that were beyond the characters' own words - that needed a narrator.
So what did Possession do for my own writing? Well, when people started saying that they loved the two strands of The Mathematics of Love but spent the whole novel wondering when they were going to come together, it was the physical, crumbly, dusty reality of the documents in Possession that showed me how I could do it. Not directly: my modern character isn't allowed to handle the historical letters. But, in a novel that's all about photography, voyeurism, light reflected and light making images, it's even better to have her handling photocopies, with the back of the letter showing through that thin, shiny 1976 Xerox paper, to be read in a mirror. And the influence of Possession continues, in a contradictory way. My new novel, A Secret Alchemy, begins thus:
What I have known, I shall not set down. My habit is silence, and it is a habit that has served me well. Words set on paper are dangerous.And, more broadly, Possession made me think very hard about narrative and voice. When you start a novel, one of the first things you have to decide is, Who's telling this story? Is it me, or an authorial persona not altogether unlike me? Is it some Supreme Being, modern style, who neither comments nor interferes, but merely states what happened? Is it one of the characters now, as the story unfolds or even explodes? Is it one of the characters remembering the past? Or is it really the reader, in which case my black marks on the page aren't definitive but merely the material for readers to make the novel for themselves? There's no right or single answer, and it makes me very cross when I hear teachers and editors and writers themselves saying that one kind of narration is 'old-fashioned' or another 'pretentious'. What Possession showed me is that there needn't even be a single answer for a single novel. As so often in Byatt's fiction it doesn't have to be 'either-or', it can be 'both-and'. 'Both-and' is more difficult to get right, of course. But when did difficult mean that a writer shouldn't try?