Childish Loves by Benjamin Markovits
Faber, Hardback, Published August 2011, 416 pages, ISBN 0571233368
Childish Loves is the final part of Markovits’s acclaimed trilogy concerning the life and circle of Lord Byron. The two previous works were standard historical novels: Imposture deals with the escapades of Byron’s doctor John Polidori, and A Quiet Adjustment the marriage of Byron and Annabelle Millbanke. Markovits’s third offering takes a rather more complicated form.
Its metafictional frame works as follows: three short stories written by recently deceased American high school teacher Peter Sullivan come into the hands of his former colleague, a novelist called…Benjamin Markovits. The stories are written in the style of entries in Byron’s Journal, most of which was burnt by Hobhouse and Murray shortly after his death. The narrative follows Markovits’s attempts to verify the fidelity of Sullivan’s stories against Byron’s biography, and discern to what extent Sullivan’s questionable sexual past permeates the stories. Between these investigations the three stories are printed in full. Blurring the boundaries of fact and fiction, we find the fictional Markovits winning a grant to look at Byron papers at Harvard, which the real Markovits had done to research the novel, and a fictional meeting with the work’s real Faber editor, Lee Brackstone. This type of artifice is nothing new, and can sometimes fall flat: Martin Amis appears in a greasy-spoon cafe in Money, for which his father chastised him for ‘buggering about with the reader’.
The frame is at first a little cumbersome: it felt like the novel was over-inflated without engaging the reader. This is not aided by the style of the first twenty pages which, unlike Markovits’s prose in the rest of the novel, is far too prolix. Following this stuttering start, the novel finds it stride with a delightful inset narrative on a visit to ‘The Society for the Publication of the Dead’. Here relatives of dead authors press terrible manuscripts on Markovits. He leaves the meeting laden with these works, which he accidentally leaves on a subway train, unread. The balance of this tale’s dark humour is one of the author’s strengths; it returns in his descriptions of the International Byron society. The portraits are cannily accurate in their depictions of the eccentrics who are drawn to Byron.
This comedy is tempered by the three stories which are interspersed as alternating chapters of the work. They acts as vignettes of Byron’s thirty-six years: the youthful Byron’s relations with Lord Grey, Byron and the choir boy Edleston at Cambridge, and the poet’s love for a young Greek boy as he approaches his death at Missolonghi. All play on sexual relations, with men and women, and – within the frame – the sublimation of Peter Sullivan’s sexual frustrations through these works. The characterisation of Byron as buggerer of every man, woman or child who moves in his meandering path has been well, if not over-, done. Markovits gets away with this unoriginality of subject by making his Byron such an enjoyable narrator. The style he chooses bears little relation to Byron’s actual prose, it has none of the constant allusion or digression for example, but he does retain the headstrong thrust of the poet’s feelings. We get the sense of a poet constantly aware that his journal will be read: he plays with tone, at once confiding in his reader, while later skimming over uncomfortable crucial events.
Markovits’s passion is clearly for the potential of Byron’s life for fictional treatment, and not his poetry – in a recent article he even claimed ‘Byron himself treated fiction as a kind of code, which allowed him to refer more or less openly to the facts of his life’. Markovits is daring to see these ‘facts’ as still being a replete source for original fiction, but that is exactly what Childish Loves is. He uses Byron, and the worlds of publishing and academia, to explore perversion, sexual acceptability, and social exclusion, which he convinces his reader are just as important now as they were in the early-nineteenth century.