A.S. Byatt: Plunder and Possession

Fans of A.S. Byatt who are impatient for the U.S. release of The Children's Book (October 2009) can fill the gap with two podcasts from the Guardian (UK). The first, a 17-minute audio clip from Claire Armitstead's Guardian Book of the Week series, features Byatt reading the first chapter of The Children's Book, followed by some discussion of the characters and Byatt's inspiration. This podcast can be listened to online at the Guardian's Book of the Week archive.

Twaddle-Free Prof Chat
The second podcast is a Guardian Book Club love-wallow of interview and Q & A about Possession, Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize novel (and it's full of spoilers, so read the book first). This is 51 minutes of audio you can download from The Guardian Books iTunes listing (summer of 2009) and listen to on your next ramble (also available on the site archive). John Mullan, Guardian book critic and host of the Book Club, is a repeat Possession reader; he plus the assembled devotees get a lot out of Byatt with swotty-yet-accessible questions. It's like listening in on an extremely amicable fac lounge discussion at University College London (where Byatt used to teach, and where Mullan currently teaches) without having to pursue an advanced degree. Byatt tells Mullan that she agreed to the Guardian Book Club event because Mullan is one of the few critics whose reviews "restore writing to the reader--you write reviews in really good English with no twaddle" (Minute 14:40).

From Browning to Bathrooms
Among the pleasures to be heard in the Guardian Book Club podcast on Possession:

the naming of the 19th century poets that Byatt read as a child (Tennyson and Browning),

Byatt recounting her desire to branch out from the "she felt" narrative construct,

Byatt riffing on George Eliot's and Honoré de Balzac's point-of-view strategies,

Byatt rueing the prevalance of twaddle in literary deconstruction, tempered by a deep bow to Jacques Derrida's "La Mythologie Blanche" (Byatt calls it "La Métaphore Blanche," a logical fusion),

Byatt giving a nod to Terry Pratchett and the consequences of loving one's characters,

Byatt sharing a retroactive glimpse of the Coleridge scholar whose activities in the British Library first inspired the title Possession (and then explaining the layers of meaning the word subsequently generated in Byatt's linguistically hyperactive brain),

Byatt responding to a question about the significance and sourcing of allegorical names in fiction, and

Byatt running with an audience member's mention of the startling frequency of bathrooms in her oeuvre, illuminated by a quote from poet George Herbert (it has more to do with light and reflection than loos).

If you want a condensed sample of Byatt's allusive agility, fast-forward to the allusionpalooza in Minutes 41-44, during which Byatt manages to flit from Charles Dickins, to critic F.R. Leavis, to le nouveau roman, to Byatt quoting Iris Murdoch quoting Sartre on fiction as frame, to the scarring and wildly exciting effect the mirror in Disney's Snow White had on the young Antonia, to the Quakers' attitude toward selfhood and looking at one's reflection, to using a hairdryer to clear the fogginess in hotel bathroom mirrors, to Sylvia Plath's poem "Mirror" which Byatt interprets in this interview as describing a mother's face rising out of the mirror like a terrible fish--all this in three minutes of audio. Phew. But it is quite fun to listen to.

Byatt Answers a "Humdinger" of a Question
When an audience member asks Byatt about whether women can be "possessed" by a relationship and still maintain enough aloofness for intellectual creativity at Minute 45:30, Byatt, mother of four, says "That's a humdinger of a question," and notes that it's probably the first time she's ever used that word. She goes on to give a thoughtful, frank, and good-natured answer, endorsing D.H. Lawrence's ideal of balanced human relationships as attempted in Women in Love, while also noting that regardless of intentions or centuries, the biological reality of raising small children affects a woman's independence. Of course, that's not all: at Minute 48 Byatt adds a quick reference to a neuroscientist's study of medieval romantic love, where the objective is for two to become one, and then die, an idea that Byatt does not endorse.

If you liked Possession, or if you like idea-based lit chattiness, you're bound to enjoy listening to A.S. Byatt and the Guardian Book Club plunder three centuries of literature in this lively discussion of a dual-century book based on academics and poets in love.