Grappling with the Evil American Curator

October 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Now reading: The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning.

Possession is just a freaking brilliant book — one of those freaking brilliant books that’s freaking brilliant in that particular way that deflects both criticism and explication.  You want to explain to someone what Possession is about, you hand them the book and tell them to dig in.  It’s great at explaining itself.  It’s the perfect postmodern romance, which is exactly what it sets out to be.  It seems sort of criminal that it’s not on any of those “Books of the Century” lists, which I can only blame on the blatant ageism evident on those sorts of lists.  (How dare anyone suggest good writing is evident after 1970?)  It’s that good.

All of which makes this an odd entry to restart this enterprise after a two-month hiatus.  It was great fun, as I was reading, charting the ways that Byatt wove into her text the various meanings and interpretations of “possession,” the powerful connotations of her self-proclaimed “Romance,” the points at which the narrator steps back and explains to us that we are reading a novel in a long tradition of novels, a narrative that draws upon many other kinds of narrative — but hey, it’s all in there.  Read the book and you’ll see the same things I did.  You’ll see the same powerful critiques of academia and the whole literary-historical enterprise that I did, as well, and maybe you’ll even enjoy them as much.

Instead, I’ll address myself to Byatt’s exploration of the trade in literary manuscripts and artifacts, and her magnificent, malevolent creation, the Evil American Curator, Mortimer Cropper.  Byatt actually does a much better job with this aspect of the work than I expected: overall, the machinations by which manuscripts make their way from private to institutional hands, and the ways in which access is provided to same, are fairly true to life, with concessions to the needs for narrative tension, conflict,  and drama.  I love the initial action of the book, that scene in which Roland finds that Ash’s copy of an important book, now held by the London Library, has never been viewed and is actually a treasure trove of notes.  (Given cataloging backlogs everywhere, and especially in Europe, this, too is at least plausible, but not likely. It did give me the false impression, initially, that Ash was not such a well known and important figure as he ended up being; if he was such an important figure in Victorian lit, surely another scholar would’ve been by to see this copy, and surely it would’ve been cataloged as Ash’s.)  There’s even a crucial and gripping (gripping!) discussion of copyright law near the end, that ends up being one of the truly pivotal moments of the entire work.

But then there’s Mortimer Cropper.  Possession springs from a period (arguably ongoing) of great English angst about the removal of collections of authors’ papers and historical documents to American libraries, spurred by the large sums of money offered to English writers and collectors.  Cropper here stands in as the archetypal Evil American Curator: possessed (ahem) of a  blank checkbook thanks to wealthy industrial patrons, and further possessed of an unquenchable thirst for the cultural cache that the documents and artifacts of English Literature can provide to young, striving institutions (and young, striving curators), he drives prices for desirable artifacts and manuscripts to ludicrous heights.  He thinks nothing of cultural heritage or the symbolic importance of so many unique materials leaving their homeland: English Literature belongs to the world, and his department/institution/nation studies English Literature as intensively as any English institution does.  He wants the stuff — is possessed by the desire to possess the narrative the documents represent, not only the documents themselves.  Byatt points out the mystery at the heart of all archival collecting: why do we care about the things themselves?  We do we not photograph/photocopy/scan/digitize and let originals crumble to dust?  While Cropper makes his pitch for the perfect climate, storage conditions, and access he can provide to researchers from around the world, he also takes furtive photographs of the objects he desires, and at one point Byatt shows us his love of these surrogates as much as of the originals he pays vast sums of other peoples’ money for.  Possession is a matter of knowing as much as having, throughout this book.

The critique of the collecting of elite American libraries embedded, here, in the person of Mortimer Cropper, is really quite well done, and makes a polemical point with a good deal of subtlety and narrative force.  The story needs a villain, and Cropper is a good one: as someone who works at an American library and collects English literary materials, it was surprisingly easy to root against him, when I sometimes find myself in his position (though I try not to be so doggone evil about it).  Of course he’s an exaggeration — but if I was an Englishwoman like Byatt, I’d probably make him the same kind of exaggeration.  I must say that I did somewhat resent Byatt making him a furtive collector of porn, but even there the thematic importance of the characterization was not excessive.  Nothing telegraphs Evil American Curator like dabbling in Victorian erotica, after all.

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