Henry James’s The Aspern Papers is, in part, a tribute to the Romantic poets’ capacity to scandalise later generations. How far should our view of writers’ works be affected by tittle-tattle about their lives? It is a theme reworked with great subtlety and interest in the novels of Benjamin Markovits centred on Lord Byron.
Childish Loves, the concluding volume of Markovits’s Byron trilogy, is an onion. There is the narrator – Markovits himself, or a version of him who, like Markovits, is a writer married to a woman named Caroline, dividing time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Hampstead in London. Towards the end of the book, Caroline objects to the passages describing their marriage and Markovits agrees not to publish them. She later relents and allows him to publish.
There is then the figure of Peter Paterson, which is itself a pseudonym (taken from Sir Walter Scott) for a teaching colleague of his, real name Peter Sullivan, a bearded recluse who secretly wrote historical fictions about Byron. And then there are the fictions themselves, which in this book consist of Byron’s memoirs, which we had all supposed burnt by his prudish publisher John Murray.
Much of the journal, and much of the book, concentrates upon Byron’s bisexuality and his fondness for young boys. Does this, in turn, reflect the emotional preference of the somewhat shadowy Peter Sullivan?
Markovits feels some kind of obligation to get Sullivan’s books published. Clearly, the Byron pastiches are the most problematic layer of the onion. For instance, when there are obvious modern Americanisms in prose supposedly written by Byron – “drapes” for curtains, a “reverend” for a “clergyman” – are we supposed to attribute these rare blemishes to “Paterson” or to Markovits – not to the Markovits in the novel, that is, but to the overall guiding intelligence that produced the entire onion?
These are deep waters, Watson! Markovits is a subtle, delicate writer who is at his best in dealing with ambiguities and ambivalences of human relationships. A tendency to emphasise Byron’s bisexuality, and to hint that he much preferred boys to women, has been part of a number of recent studies of the poet, most notably Fiona MacCarthy’s magnificent biography of 2002.
This fine novel traces – again, a very Jamesian theme – our relationships with the dead. Sullivan’s obsession with Byron is mirrored by Markovits’s obsession with Sullivan. And both obsessions change radically in the course of the book, becoming more tender as understanding grows. If the narrator of The Aspern Papers is a “publishing scoundrel”, Markovits is the opposite of a scoundrel: his patient desire for an old colleague’s version of Byron to come to light is itself infused with generosity of soul.
AN Wilson is author of ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)
Childish Loves, by Benjamin Markovits, Faber, RRP£14.99, 397 pages