Faking it, Byron-style


Benjamin Markovits <em>Faber & Faber, 20opp, £10.99</em>

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.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide