The most famous dinner-party game in literary history took place in 1816 at a villa near Lake Geneva rented by Byron and his Anglo-Italian physician, John Polidori. One evening they received a visit from Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and Byron set a challenge: each must write a scary tale. The eventual, unlikely winner was the teenaged Mary, with Frankenstein. But another notable work came out of their game. Byron sketched a fragment about a ghostly nobleman; from it Polidori created "The Vampyre", a short story whose eponymous villain paved the way for Count Dracula 80 years on.
Benjamin Markovits's new novel, Imposture, is about John Polidori. The basic plot - literary envy; love arising from mistaken identity - is simple enough, but upon it Markovits draws a swirling maze of deceits, some overt, others more subtle. It begins with a prologue that is itself a deception. Markovits tells of a period spent teaching in New York, and an encounter with "Peter Pattieson", a brilliant English tutor. Markovits recognised the name as being that of Walter Scott's schoolmaster narrator in the Waverley novels; Pattieson admitted it was an alias, but Markovits agreed to stay silent. Over a decade later, Markovits received several manuscripts from Pattieson's estate, of which the ensuing story is one.
The novel proper begins with Polidori, recently dismissed by Byron, arriving back to a London obsessed with "The Vampyre", which to his annoyance has been wrongly attributed to his former master. Polidori resembles Byron so strongly that a nervy, bookish girl named Eliza mistakes him for the poet. She reminds him that they danced at a ball three years earlier; Polidori plays along, unaware that Eliza was never at the ball - Byron had danced with her more glamorous sister, Bea.
Polidori and Eliza meet again, and fall in love. Each knows that honesty is required, but Polidori in particular finds himself enjoying his role and "the imbecility that his fame brought out, like a latent colour, in most ordinary people". Meanwhile, we see examples of imposture everywhere. Colburn, the publisher of "The Vampyre", is a false friend to Polidori, and the social-climbing Bea has reinvented herself to join the upper class. Soon, given the tricky nature of the novel, one wonders whether Markovits is reminding us that all of it is false - for "imposture", read "fiction".
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the rise and fall of Polidori's stock. Initially we side with him; his story has been stolen and he has been fired by the man who benefited from this. But then we see events differently. Polidori has always been painfully jealous of Byron, who saved Polidori from suicide and nursed him when he was injured in a fall, but was rarely repaid with anything but scorn.
"The Vampyre" itself, with its bloodsucking, parasitical aristocrat and his naive young friend, is an allegorical representation of Byron and Polidori. The inevitable question arising from all this, however, is: who is the real parasite? Is it Byron, who charmed and discarded many? Or is it the man currently borrowing Byron's identity to gain a woman's love?
Markovits (or "Pattieson", if we are to indulge the game) leaves us mercifully free of neat conclusions about Polidori, who emerges as a complex, conflicted character. In spite of his deceit (which leads, predictably, to disaster) and his envy, he must surely, in the end, capture our sympathy because he wants the impossible: he wants, above all things, to be Byron.