1st chapter close reading – Possession by AS Byatt

When I started my blog and Nano poblano (3 weeks ago) I made a plan and this is one of this things I said I’d blog about. possessionBriefly, before I go back and redraft the opening chapter of my book, I want to close-read the first chapters of some of my favourite novels. Possession is my all time favourite book and one of my main inspirations.

You can read a summary and the start of Possession by AS Byatt on the publisher’s website here. Please note there are spoilers below.

Nearly all novel writing advice will tell you that the first pages of the novel have to orientate and hook the reader/agent/editor. They should provide  the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY of the story, and ask sufficiently interesting questions to make them want to read on. This blog post tries to understand how AS Byatt achieved this with her amazing Booker winning novel Possession.

The first chapter opens with a poem, written by Ash, one of the characters in the novel. It describes a kind of Eden (garden, apples, serpent) suggestive of an immanent fall.The last 4 words of the poem are ‘dispossession and the theft’ which offers a foreshadowing of the theft that will occur before the chapter’s end.

After the poem, the novel opens with a description of an old, damaged book.

‘The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.’

Immediately we are thrown into straightforward detail (the narrator has not attempted a knock-out memorable opening line). This described book, in itself, is not important to the plot only what will be found slipped within it pages. This slows the pace so the reader can better enjoy the discovery when it comes.

‘The librarian handed it to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe…’

Here we learn the WHERE the scene is set – The London library. The slow pace therefore fits the setting.

Also our protagonist is introduced but so far only a name.

The word ‘exhumed’ is an important nod to the end of the novel.

‘…no. 5 where it usually stood between Pranks of Priapus and The Grecian Way of Love.’

These books sound and are false. The narrator is playing with us, not all the historical references may be true, asking us to sit back and enjoy the ride. The location of the described book in the vault would not have been known by Roland, so this raises the question of who is narrating the story. An omniscient narrator?

It was ten in the morning, one day in September 1986.

Here we learn WHEN the scene is set. Clearly and specifically stated.

Roland had the small single table he liked best, behind a square pillar, with the clock over the fireplace nevertheless in full view….The London Library was Roland’s favourite place.

Here were are in Roland’s head so it’s looking like a close omniscient narrator is at work. These sentences suggest that Roland is a regular visitor. The fact that the library is his favourite place also alerts us to the kind of quiet (i.e. not action hero, unless he transforms into superhero) main character he is likely to be. So far, this is just another, regular day for him.

It was shabby but civilised, alive with history but inhabited also by living poets …Here Carlyle had come, here George Eliot had progressed through the bookshelves. Roland saw her black silk skirts, her velvet trains, sweeping compressed… Here Randolph Henry Ash had come…

Another description, this time of the library. It also suggests that Roland is happy relating to the literary greats of the past. Here we meet the poet Ash for the second time, posing as historical figure of great import.

Roland had only recently discovered that the London Library possessed Ash’s own copy of Vico’s Principj di Scienza Nuova. By far the largest single gathering [of Ash’s books] was … in New Mexico, where Mortimer Cropper worked on his monumental edition of the Complete Correspondence of Randolph Henry Ash.

Here the WHO is fleshed out a bit more. Roland, it appears, is an academic studying Ash. He has a competitor/antagonist in Cropper who seems to be fairing better. The fact that Cropper is working on the ‘Complete Correspondence’ is important, it will make Roland’s discovery, and Cropper’s fall, all the greater when they come. Again specific details adds authenticity. The narrator is not afraid to ‘tell’ us certain facts to get the reader up to speed.

But it was just possible that Ash’s own Vico had marginalia missed even by the indefatigable Cropper. And Roland was looking for sources for Ash’s Garden of Proserpina. And there was a pleasure to be had from reading the sentences Ash had read, touched with his fingers, scanned with his eyes.

Here we learn the WHAT Roland is doing on this day and WHY he is in the library. This small finding obviously gives Roland pleasure but it seems to the reader small fry compared to the indefatigable Cropper.

We then have another description of the book and the undisturbed lose bills and letters within its covers. Then…

‘Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement. …Roland asked if it was in order for him to study these jottings. He gave his credentials; he was part-time research assistant to Professor Blackadder, who had been editing Ash’s Complete Works since 1951. … The librarian came back and said “yes,” it was quite in order, as long as Roland was very careful not to disturb the sequence of the interleaved fragments… All this was over by 10:30.’

Now the pace quickens with Roland’s shock of excitement. He can only give his credentials in respect to his supervisor, suggesting he has no achievements of his own worth mentioning. He is only an assistant so we begin to feel what a big deal this might be for him, to find a new reference or source. Also the fact that Blackadder has been working on Ash’s complete works since 1951 suggests a glacial speed of progress in this field of research.

This gives us a lot more detail about the WHO our protagonist is and the WHAT is at stake for Roland and WHY these breadcrumbs might be important to his career.

A warning is issued by the Librarian not to disturb the interleaved fragments. Like a fairy tale it seems ominously there to be broken.

The fact that the time is given exactly, to the minute, alerts us to how quickly things can change.

Roland works for 45 mins, pleased that he may have found the source he was looking for. For now it is described as a ‘treasure trove’, in a couple of lines it pales into insignificance.

‘He was reluctant to tell Blackadder. … Under page 300 lay two folded complete sheets of writing paper. … They were both letters in Ash’s flowing hand, …Both began “Dear Madam,” ‘

This is the real discovery. In academic terms the drafts of the letters to an unknown woman are a real find. This could be game changing for Roland. The letters, in a very different voice, suggest an intimacy and urgency not present in the main, rather controlled, scholarly narrative.

Roland was seized by a strange and uncharacteristic impulse of his own. …he slipped the letters between the leaves of his own copy of the Oxford Selected Ash, …..He climbed on a 14 bus in Piccadilly,….he progressed through his usual states of somnolence, sick juddering wakefulness, and increasing worry about Val.

The chapter finishes with a grand, out of character climax when Roland quietly steals the letters from the library. There is now no going back. The slow pace of Roland’s routine that the novel started with, is shattered.
I like the contrasts between Roland looking for scraps of information about Ash that have fallen through the net of the two Professors. It seems an impossible task knowing they have carved up the study of Ash’s works between them. In spite of the theft, Roland is portrayed as the underdog you might want to root for.
Initially, there is a lot of description emphasising time standing still, for example the library and the book, which seems to purposefully slow the pace of the narrative. Later, the glacial progress of research by Blackadder and to a lesser extent Cropper is contrasted by instant game changing moment the letters are found by Roland and swiftly stolen.
By the end of the chapter, the novel’s initial WHAT is happening (finding a new source for a poem) has now transmuted into a greater WHAT which will take the whole of the novel to answer. The new host of mysteries laid out before us include those of the letters, who is the woman and what relationship did Ash and she have? Will this theft ruin or save Roland’s academic career? What will he do next? How will the two Professor’s (the current academic gatekeepers of Ash) respond?
I, as reader, was orientated and hooked.




2 thoughts on “1st chapter close reading – Possession by AS Byatt

  1. Interesting post and I love the change of colour for the extracts. I was going to buy this book years ago because it sounded so interesting but never got around to it. It looks as if I missed a good one! Thanks for stepping by my writing blog : ) I haven’t posted there in a while as I have been busy with a second blog but hope to start again next year.


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