Childish Loves is the third book concerning George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) by Benjamin Markovits. The first two books – Imposture (2007) and A Quiet Adjustment (2008) – are fairly straightforward historical novels. The first in the series focuses on Byron and his relationship with John Polidori (author of the one of the first vampire stories in the English language), while the features Annabella Milbanke, who later became Lady Byron.
But Childish Loves tries for something different. In this novel, Markovits recounts how the previous two volumes are really the work of the late Peter Pattieson (born Peter Sullivan), a teacher at a New York private school. In the prologue to Imposture, Pattieson/Sullivan was the supposed owner of the Polidori manuscript we subsequently read. In Childish Loves, its revealed that Pattieson/Sullivan died following a scandal involving one of his students, leaving author Markovits three manuscripts: the novels Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment and three components that make up this book. It is the conceit of this final novel that Markovits has been merely the editor and literary midwife of these Byronic fictions.
Markovits likes to play the contemporary game of metafiction to a fault. He narrates this novel in his own voice, including details on possible marital trouble with wife “Caroline” (the book is dedicated to Caroline, and a quick Internet check confirms that this is his wife), while also complaining of mid-career malaise. He also includes huge swaths to seemingly true autobiography (his past as a basketball player, for example, as well as time spent both in Texas and abroad). However, it would seem that Pattieson/Sullivan are made up of whole cloth, invented just as much as the passages “by” Lord Byron.
All of this, of course, is the game Markovits is playing. In this novel, “Markovits” (whether the “real” or “fictional” one) complains at length that the only thing readers wanted to know about his earlier Byron novels were what parts were “true.” This dual game Childish Loves allows Markovits to explain where his historical fiction departed from fact, while teasing the reader with doubts about the “real” Markovits.
If all of this sounds beguiling or intriguing, it is … to a degree. Markovits errs in thinking that people really care to any extent on the historicity of historical fiction – they don’t. People want a good story, and if the prose is beautiful or evocative as well, all the better. Everyone expects romanticism in historical fiction, just they expect hyperbole and exaggeration in autobiography, or a closely-structured argument to drive straight history. Anything written without a particular point of view rapidly becomes unreadable.
Sadly, the Byron of Markovits’ imagination (or that of Pattieson/Sullivan, if you wish to play that particular game) is never compelling or beguiling. Byron was a man of extreme intelligence, remarkable charisma, great poetic ability and violent passions. The Byron in these imagined passages is merely an empty-headed spoiled rich kid with murky political ideals – a Brat Packer trying to raise an army. As such, he never comes to life nor convinces.
Fortunately, Markovits equips his novel with a strong narrative hook: Markovits travels across the country meeting various friends and relatives of the late Pattieson/Sullivan, trying to learn how much of the writer’s personal life bled into his Byronic fictions. It is much like The Aspern Papers heavily diluted with contemporary angst.
One plows through Childish Loves waiting for the moment when the novel works better and lives up to it abundant potential, but that moment never seems to come. There are moments and premises here that seem ripe for more satisfying exploration, but the final taste is one of disappointment.