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Benjamin Markovits: Childish Loves

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. The kind of book I like to read, the kind of book I have been trying to write, is a straightforward but textured account of a mildly interesting experience. This quote, by the narrator of this book, also called Benjamin Markovits, may be seen as a literary manifesto for the author, except that this is the third of his novels on the subject of Lord Byron. While this one is also (semi-)autobiographical, the other two are not. As Markovits has also written another autobiographical novel, I think we can assume that he falls in both camps.

Benjamin Markovits (the character in this book) worked for nine months as a high school teacher in the United States. While there, he met and befriended another, older teacher, called Peter Pattieson (the name comes from the imaginary editor of Walter Scott’s Tales of My Landlord) but whose real name, we later learn, was Peter Sullivan. Peter was an English teacher who barely spoke to his colleagues but talked to Benjamin about English literature. After Benjamin left the school to return to England, they kept up a desultory correspondence, which soon faded away. However, when Peter died, by suicide, Benjamin received some manuscripts from his lawyer. They were two unpublished novels about Byron, with the same names – A Quiet Adjustment and Imposture – as those the author Benjamin Markovits had written, as well as three large unconnected sections of a third. We get the three large unconnected sections, while Benjamin Markovits (the character) arranges to have the two completed novels published.

The first two sections show Byron as a teenager. He is broke, does not get on with his mother, is sad at having to rent Newstead Abbey, as he would rather live there himself, unsure of his future, both immediate (should he return to Harrow?) and longer term and is in love with a neighbour, Mary Chaworth. He is aware that his love is not returned, not least because Mary wants to marry a man with money. The story is narrated by Byron himself and shows him as something of a mean-spirited man but also with the makings of the reputation he was to have in later life, that of a man with strong sexual appetites, which encompassed both homosexuality and heterosexuality, with both his own class and those of the lower classes, including prostitutes. Indeed, the book tends to focus on both his social and sexual activities, with little discussion of his literary creation, except insofar as it brings him fame and fortune. The final section covers Byron’s last days, which he spent in Greece, trying to help Greek independence, before succumbing to a fatal disease. In this we see the man of fame but with a still very active sexual life. In none of the three sections does Byron come across as a loveable character, which is probably an accurate portrayal of the man.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Markovits (the character in this book) has decided to study Peter. I want to find out what you can learn about people from the books they write – how much is true, he tells his fellow fellows at the Radcliffe Institute where he teaches and is able to study Peter. One of the things he finds out about Peter, which explains his name change, is that, in his previous teaching position, he was accused of having an illicit sexual relationship, with a male student. The accusation was later withdrawn and no charges were made but he still had to leave the school and changed his name so he could get another job. He clearly identified, at least in part, with Byron and his homosexuality, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Benjamin Markovits (the character in this book) examines the texts in great detail to see where Peter’s Byron differs from the actual Byron and does find a few tentative differences, which enables him to make what seem fairly dubious claims about Peter’s life. But he also tracks down sources, including Peter’s mother and the young man who allegedly had the sexual relationship with Peter (we learn the truth of the matter). But Markovits, both the real and fictional one, seemed to be concerned at getting at the truth. One of the things I had learned after three years in teaching is that my training had taught me to distinguish between good and bad writing, but not between what was true and what wasn’t. But when he talks about historical novels, All anybody wants to know about is how much is true. And that seems to be the aim of Benjamin Markovits (the character in this book), though he struggles to find what is the truth.

Benjamin Markovits (the character in this book) also has his own issues. His wife appears in a somewhat shadowy form but their relationship is not generally working out well (is this autobiographical?) and he nearly has an affair with a former fellow high school student. Above all, however, what makes this book interesting is this quest for truth, its nature and how we can find it and recognise it. Where the book is less successful is that we cannot help but feel that Peter Pattieson/Sullivan is not actually terribly interesting and the prurient obsession with finding out his sexuality and then giving us Byron’s in all its forms is also too often less than interesting, at least to me. Nevertheless, it is still a very worthwhile attempt to explore truth, both literary and real-life.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Faber & Faber/W W Norton