Childish Loves by Benjamin Markovits Faber, 416pp, £14.99
In a recent article in the London Review of Books about the historical novel, Perry Anderson writes that it allows postmodern writers to "freely mix times, combining or interweaving past and present; parade the author within the narrative; take leading historical figures as central rather than marginal characters; propose counterfactuals; strew anachronisms; multiply alternative endings; traffic with apocalypse". It's fair to say that in the final novel of his Byron Trilogy, Markovits covers most of these points. His is most definitely the historical novel reinvented for postmoderns. What exactly does that mean, though, for his novel and for those of us who read the genre?
Markovits began his trilogy with Imposture, about Byron's doctor friend, Polidori, that also included a preface where Markovits claimed the forthcoming narrative was in fact written by a now-deceased former teaching colleague of his called Peter Pattieson. A Quiet Adjustment, about Byron's marriage to Annabella Milbanke and told from her point of view, followed, but without any intervention from Markovits. Now the trilogy is complete, as Markovits inserts himself into the text whilst also giving us Byron's first person narrative in the form of a journal (supposedly written by the elusive Mr Pattieson).
Childish Loves begins with Markovits arranging to meet another former teaching colleague in New York, Steve Heinz. He wants to find out a little more about the man who bequeathed him the manuscripts that turned into Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment and hopes Heinz can help. He's also preparing for the launch of the US edition of the latter novel, which so far hasn't received much attention from the press. He is waylaid by a meeting with the Society of the Publication of the Dead where he meets others who have also been bequeathed unpublished manuscripts, usually by loved one who have died. Most of this work is unpublishable, and Markovits wonders about Peter (whose real surname is Sullivan), and why he couldn't get published in his own lifetime.
Much of Markovits's search for Pattieson/Sullivan and the story of his life reflects the task of the historical novelist, searching for the "truth" about a subject or period. Postmodernism exposed the artificiality of history, the notion of multiple histories to be told by the victims and the victors, who might tell very different versions of the same event. The question of validity, of the truth of personal experience, became paramount. And so the trilogy of novels about Byron reflects three different versions of the man: Polidori's first, then Annabella's, and finally the poet's own. Which one is the correct version? The answer is, of course, that they all are. Childish Loves focuses on Byron's early years, just after he has succeeded to his title, and his final months when he left on what was virtually a suicide mission, to fight for Greece.And so when we first meet him here in this final novel, he is a rather hapless young man, full of unrequited love for his cousin Mary Chaworth who won't consider him as a suitor because of his limp. Not only that, he is at the mercy of his predatory new tenant at Newstead, Lord Grey, who insinuates himself into Byron's bed and abuses him.
Is this the moment that changes Byron and sets him on a path to self-destruction? All three books contain a moment of sexual transgression: when Polidori tricks Eliza Esmond into bed by assuming the identity of the famous poet; when Annabella is sodomised by her husband; and here, when Byron is "seduced" by an older man. These are both invented moments and "real" ones - as the character, "Markovits" says in Childish Loves, there are plenty of biographers who are convinced that Byron was abused by Grey, even though solid evidence is scant. And while searching for the truth behind Pattieson/Sullivan, Markovits unearths evidence of a possible affair between his old teaching colleague and one of his male students. Markovits himself is experiencing his own possible transgressive sexual moment - an adulterous liaison with a woman from his childhood growing up in Texas. Will he remain loyal to his wife?
Childish Loves is much more layered than the previous novels in the trilogy, and in that sense is even more rewarding. All three are beautifully written and reel you in to a disturbing world of fictions and a genuine attempt to answer the question about the essential unknowability of history.
If the postmodern "revival" of the historical novel is, as Anderson argues, about "a desperate attempt to awaken us to history", then few can have done it as entertainingly as Markovits.
• Benjamin Markovits is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August.