Mad, bad and dangerous to write about
Book review: Childish Loves
Byron and historical fiction fall through the rabbit hole
Childish Loves is the final novel in Benjamin Markovits’s stylistically varied trilogy about the poet Lord Byron. In Imposture, Markovits presented Lord Byron from the point of view of his hapless and envious doctor, Polidori. Then in A Quiet Adjustment, we saw the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Bryon through the eyes of his unfortunate wife, Annabella, who witnessed Byron’s destructive affair with his half-sister Augusta and bore the brunt of his mood swings. Finally, in Childish Loves, Markovits shows us Byron and two other writers in a hall of mirrors.
Childish Loves has two narrative strands. In one, we are privy to the private journals of Lord Byron. In the other, a contemporary writer investigates the life of a late colleague who has left behind unpublished novels. In Childish Loves, Benjamin Markovits introduces a narrator who is also called Benjamin Markovits, a creative writing teacher overseeing the posthumous publication of manuscripts by his late friend, Peter Pattieson. In this meta-fictional universe, Peter, not Benjamin Markovits, wrote Imposture, A Quiet Adjustment and a third, incomplete manuscript, which will become Childish Loves.
The narrator called Benjamin Markovits then goes on to pick apart Imposture and appraise A Quiet Adjustment. Although self-referential novels with intrusive narrators are nothing new (just think of Tristram Shandy, published in 1759), I think this is the first time I’ve encountered an author critiquing his earlier works via a narrator who shares his name. Benjamin Markovits the narrator tells us that “Imposture struck me as immature – clever in a first-novelish kind of way, but too plot-heavy and conceit-driven”, whereas A Quiet Adjustment “shows how the age that began with Austen produced in the end a Henry James. An argument he makes not only through the style of the novel itself, evolving from one to the other, but through the life of its central character.”
This confusion between author and narrator creates some uncomfortable moments. For the first 51 pages, the reader witnesses what seems to be a private psychodrama in which the author is simultaneously denouncing and justifying – to himself – his decision to devote three novels to a man who had loathsome qualities. Glimpsed from afar, Byron can seem mercurial, talented and exciting, if somewhat volatile. (He was, after all, an inspiration for the Brontë sisters’ brooding romantic heroes, Heathcliff and Rochester.) Get too close, however, and you’ll find that Byron was not only cruel, arrogant, self-pitying and selfish; he was also a paedophile. I confess that I never finished Fiona MacCarthy’s door-stopper of a biography, Byron: Life and Legend because she unveiled the brooding bad boy of Romanticism as a sociopath. Why spend more time in his company? Strangely, in Childish Loves, the author (or at least the narrator) seems to be asking himself the same question.
Some of this ambivalence about Byron and historical fiction is projected on to the unsavoury character of the dead writer, Peter Pattieson. The narrator swears that Peter, not he, wrote Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment:
‘I’m telling you, my first novel cured me of any interest in historical fiction,’ I said. ‘The people who matter don’t respect you for it. Besides, you know yourself I’m a lazy bastard and have no head for facts. … What do I care if Byron slept with his sister? … All anybody wants to know about is how much is true.’
Once we get past the meta-fictional set-up of the first 51 pages, the novel shifts to a credible first-person narrative from the point of view of a young Lord Byron. He is a proud, self-conscious, unkind, needy and moody teen who feels nothing but contempt for his impractical and distracted mother. He won’t improve with age.
What emerges as the two narratives criss-cross is an examination of how three authors grapple with the competing needs of privacy and public recognition. Byron fed upon his private life for his poetry and was confused with his fictional heroes. In the end, this confusion between the author and his characters obliged him to live up to a legend of his own making: he sailed away for heroic action and premature death. Peter Pattieson and the narrator of Childish Loves face similar dilemmas. How can they mine their own experiences for fiction without depleting themselves? Can revealing your true self in fiction become a poor substitute for being open in real life? Why do some readers hope that fiction is autobiographical and are disappointed when it isn’t?
The real Benjamin Markovits dares us to confuse him with his fictional double by giving the narrator not just his own name, but a back story that echoes the author biography on the jacket of Childish Loves. The narrator, ‘Benjamin Markovits’, fights his way out of writer’s block by writing his private life into Pattieson’s manuscripts and publishing them, undermining his own marriage in the process. When the narrator reports his wife’s anger about appearing in a novel, we are tempted to think that Childish Loves is autobiographical. The only thing stopping us is the knowledge that the narrator has already complained that the worst thing about writing fiction is that “all anybody wants to know about is how much is true”.
Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment are fine novels for which I set aside my dislike of the private Byron. Childish Loves, with its two central stories gazing at each other in a series of distorted fun-house mirrors, is less even, with one story losing momentum as the other gathers speed.
In the contemporary strand of Childish Loves, Markovits makes some amusing jokes about teaching creative writing, the fate of the average novel, the unpublished novels of the dead and the self-promotion demanded of writers. At first, I thought that this material belonged in another book. The satire about contemporary writing and publishing didn’t seem a natural fit with Lord Byron’s fictional memoirs, although other novels such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession switch between literary sleuths of the present and authors of the past. And yet, as I read on, I found that the narrative about an unhappy writer investigating his late friend’s work began to hold its own against Byron’s tale. This is no mean feat, as Pattieson is hard to like. You can pity him, but that is not the same thing.
What about the story in Byron’s ‘memoirs’? Well, the young Byron, although sometimes morose and self-pitying, has charm and energy. The same cannot be said of the middle-aged Byron in the latter half of Childish Loves. The story drags a little here because Byron is procrastinating. He hangs about the Casa Guiccioli. He lolls about in Greece. Once he commits himself to action, he becomes ill.
What Markovits does so superbly is master a range of styles and establish credible voices. He flits effortlessly between speaking in the voice of an aristocratic poet who has been dead for almost 200 years and a contemporary American writer. What I was not entirely convinced of was that these two stories, one about Byron, the other about two modern writers, belong together. I admired, however, the way Benjamin Markovits managed such a variety of styles in Imposture, A Quiet Adjustment and Childish Loves. “Most writers”, the narrator Benjamin Markovits says in Childish Loves, “write the same novel again and again.” You cannot say this about the author of such a remarkable trilogy. Had I not set out expecting and wanting a straightforward, realistic historical novel, I might have been more open to the experimentation of Childish Loves.