Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Less Than Nine-tenths of the Law

After seeing Neil LaBute's excellent cinematic adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Booker-prize winning novel Possession, I was eager to read the underlying book as its themes were similar to the stories that captivated me in Richard Altick's The Scholar Adventurers (how's that for a title!) and Nicholas Basbanes's volumes on bibliomania. Having slogged through Byatt's five-hundred page tome, I regret my eagerness.

The plot's summation (unlike its execution) is simply put. Roland Michell, a literary scholar employed by the British Library, finds a letter by a great Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, to a mystery woman and he decides to chase down the elusive romance. Alas, Byatt is so caught up in concocting Nineteenth Century letters, diaries, and poems--which undoubtedly was great fun--that the novel sinks under the weight of all this spurious material. It is not unlike how Boswell's Life of Johnson is simply unreadable because the author insists on giving us endless verbatim letters to, from, and about people we don't know or don't care to, often in untranslated Greek and Latin.

One diary, that of Mrs. Ash, seemed all too precious and deliberate, not resembling diaries I've read, such as Quincy Adams's or Pepys's. It reads very much like she had an eye to the press, not unlike Evelyn who rewrote his "diaries" for publication. Real diaries reflect the extemporaneous nature of their composition.

This artificial tone infects the characters' dialogue as well. While they all sprang, Athena-like, from Byatt's head, she herself lacks any affection for her brainchildren. Michell is penurious, messy, and cold, saddled with a Xanthippic girlfriend who is always in a sulk. Maud Bailey is an undersexed feminist academician. Mortimer Cropper, apparently modeled on the University of Texas's Harry Ransom, is a crude American acquisitor always waving his checkbook about. Leonora Stern is a vulgar, oversexed American academician who tries to seduce Maud. Beatrice Nest, a self-loathing woman, is lost in her own erudition, having spent two decades editing Mrs. Ash's journal for publication and is nowhere near completing her task. James Blackadder, Michell's boss, is a typical cold, stoic Scotsman. And Ash's modern-day heir is a money-grubbing twit.

Byatt describes Cropper as engaging in a "reverse hagiography", determined to bring his subjects down to earth. Byatt as a biographer would have the same affliction. Undoubtedly, she would do it quite colorfully. Byatt is learned, having no qualms of showing her knowledge of literature, geology, mythology, art history, and countless other fields, so much so one wishes Dr. Nest could supply us with explanatory footnotes. Lorraine Adams, reviewing A Whistling Woman, one of Byatt's more recent books, correctly tags the author as "a melodramatic pedant" whose allusions are in "a kind of endless mitosis."

Which is a shame, as from Michell's discovery in the London Library we are taken on a wild Gothic adventure. Hikes in Yorkshire, lectures on biography, seances, lost children, adultery, family secrets, family feuds, suicide, penurious heirs to a home they cannot afford to maintain, musty archives, and even grave robbing! All elements the creator of the detective story, a contemporary of Ash, would have loved. Think what a novel Edgar Allan Poe could have made of this.

As for the film, hardly anyone saw it, despite it starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Aaron Eckhart. It's quite good and terribly unlike the pieces LaBute usually does. Get the movie, not the book.


At Thursday, May 12, 2005 1:20:00 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Ah, The Scholar Adventurers. I have a paperback copy of that one that's about to fall apart. It's been well read and well marked.

At Tuesday, December 02, 2008 1:11:00 AM, Blogger Cristina said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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