My Metafictional Romance
By Max Dunbar.
Childish Loves, Benjamin Markovits, Faber 2011
The Texan-born Benjamin Markovits played professional basketball for a year before quitting to study the Romantics, and has written two previous reimaginings of the life of Lord Byron. The third of his Byron books features a fictional Ben Markovits who becomes interested in the life of a man he worked with in his teaching days, a man who also wrote about Byron, and whose career was overshadowed by the whisper of the village.
By now you’ll recognise this as metafiction, a story within a story, a reimagining within a reimagining. We get three long stories of Byron’s life: taking us from his early, tentative steps into adult pleasures and the mating seasons, through the roaring scandals of his university and creative years, right up to the Greek campaign that ended his life. In between, the metafictional Markovits explores a life seemingly without incident or secrets: the teacher Peter Sullivan lived with his mother well into adulthood, never married, and spent what free time he could claim from his teaching job writing novels that no one read, and plaintive entreaties to the slushpile. You wonder why the fictional Markovits is so interested in this man, how the real Markovits could make a workable story out of this – this man like so many middle-aged man in small places, outwardly friendly but with an unmistakeable seedy vibe beneath the friendliness like ground dirt under polished tile, a man born to rest in unvisited tombs. In a letter to John Updike Sullivan says that ‘I write in lieu of all the rest.’
Byron had an affair with a married woman, married her cousin, and was rumoured to have slept with his half-sister. He was also suspected of a fondness for choirboys and very young girls. Twenty-first century scandal is less interesting. Peter Sullivan is rumoured to have abused one of his students. Peter’s old boss lays it out for Markovits: ‘They fired him for fiddling with one of the boys, but the evidence was weak; there was a lot of family pressure. I said, if the guy’s innocent, you got to hire him.’ But he regrets the offer: ‘by the end of the first year I already regret it. It’s clear to me this is not a man with a healthy attitude towards sex.’ Another teacher Markovits speaks to is more sympathetic: ‘Don’t think for a minute they don’t know what they’re doing. Compared to some bow-tied history teacher who probably only had two girlfriends in his life and married one of them.’ Markovits tracks down the kid concerned. The kid is a hipster, a substance abuser, and it’s clear we’re not supposed to like him much. It’s unclear what point is being made here. You feel like Zuckerman in Exit Ghost, raging against literary biography: this obsession with the secretions and temporalities of the life when the work still stands, furious and eternal.
Far more rewarding is the interplay the book opens up between the creative and the actual. We think of Byron as the ultimate man. ‘Mad, bad, dangerous to know,’ said Lady Caroline Lamb; and the poet himself comments in Childish Loves that ‘The name of Byron is now a term of abuse, and fathers even in Southwell guard their daughters against me.’ To write to the full extent of your talents is an achievement. To live life to the full is the achievement. Byron managed both. Markovits told the Telegraph that ‘I think a big part of anyone’s life, mine at least, is the feeling of failure; and around Byron you couldn’t help but feel it. He’d slept with more people, he’d had more money, he’d lived more extravagantly, he’d written better, had more success, more fame, had a title’.
And yet we see the dark lord’s weak points, beginning in the first story, where a young Byron is rejected by a girl he’s in love with, then raped by an older man. ‘Even he suffered from feelings of alienation and failure,’ Markovits says. By the time of the Greek campaign, Byron seems to feel that his life has been wasted, that his poetry will not move the world and that the only redemption is through fighting. He sees himself as a larvae of idle fantasies, only just breaking through to the light of action and decision.
I was particularly touched by the protagonist’s friendship with yet another schoolteacher, a woman he knew in high school. He’s married with kids and she’s recently divorced, and feelings between the two develop over conversations and play dates. They do the right thing, but in these situations there’s a sadness in the right thing, the sadness of lives not lived, the unhappy ratio of opportunity and desire. Byron, in the book, says that ‘Sympathy is a great illusion; there is only sometimes a coincidence of manner’; Childish Loves proves the great man wrong.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 10th, 2011.