BENJAMIN Markovits’ latest novel takes as its inspiration an intrigue close to the heart of this publication: that heady summer of 1816 in which, imprisoned in the Villa Diodati by the bad weather, Byron, his occasional lover Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft spent a week composing ghost stories on the shores of Lake Geneva. The particular focus is the lesser known work that that infamous summer – the one which gave birth to Frankenstein – produced: the macabre novella ‘The Vampyre’.
Originally attributed to Byron, ‘The Vampyre’ was in fact the work of John Polidori. Taken into Lord Byron’s service at the tender age of twenty, Polidori, the eldest son of a distinguished Italian scholar, was appointed his private physician. Accompanying Byron into exile in Europe, Polidori found himself amidst the not entirely sympathetic company of the various literary and aristocratic households his master frequented. Indeed, as Byron’s friend Thomas Moore wrote, he was the “constant butt for Byron’s sarcasm and merriment”. After just a few months, Byron dismissed his doctor. “Our tempers did not agree”, Polidori wrote to his father. Yet amidst their “continued series of slight quarrels”, the men also formed a real intimacy. It is the bittersweet memory of this painful relationship, and the literary child it bore (Polidori developed ‘The Vamprye’ from a fragment of narrative Byron abandoned) that form the backdrop to Imposture.
The novel finds its protagonist back in London. Three years have elapsed since he was dismissed from Byron’s service, and Poliodori has fallen deep into a quagmire of unemployment, poverty and despair. Lonely and dejected, he is plagued by a sense of profound humiliation at both the failure of his literary ambitions, and the embarrassing reality of his professional incompetence:
Sometimes he counted over all the people that he had killed. Lord Byron’s line often ran through his head: ‘Polidori’s patients could never want a better doctor. They were all dead’.
We meet our hero standing in the soaking rain of Soho, banging on the unresponsive red door of Henry Colburn, Bookseller. The savvy-minded Colburn has just published ‘The Vampyre’ in his New Monthly Magazine, falsely attributing it to Lord Byron. The work has caused an absolute sensation, and the hungry public rush to buy copies. Trailing behind this literary bloodthirst, our unlikely heroine, the mousy Eliza Esmond, finds herself on the publisher’s doorstep.
Despite Polidori’s sodden and dishevelled appearance, he still exudes the air of a faded dandy, “like a prodigal returning only to find that his threadbare suit, carefully, proudly preserved, has long since fallen out of style”; and with his dark curls and boyish charms is mistaken for the very man whose success and fame precluded his own. So begins Markovits’ gothic romance. In a series of deceptions and impostures (for Eliza herself is not quite the sophisticated girl she pretends to be), the narrative interweaves their burgeoning love story with Polidori’s reminiscences of Byron. Just as Polidori’s one chance at personal happiness rests on a mistaken identity he must preserve, so too his one chance at literary fame depends on the uncovering of that identity.
This is a novel about living in someone’s shadow. About frustrated ambitions, failure and mediocracy, in the face of success, fame and blazing talent. “The force of impossible comparisons”, as Polidori’s father puts it damningly. Anyone who has ever been employed by or fallen in love with an artist will recognise with amusement and sadness much of Polidori’s alternately enamoured and disgusted portrayal of Lord Byron. And playing on all those delicious themes of the vampire tradition – imposture, incest, seduction, abuse – Markovits finds at the heart of it a painful truth about the creative spirit:
he understood something of the burden great men thrust upon their companions; something of the patience, the simplicity of character, the easy confidence necessary to carry the weight of another man’s arrogance…he felt, in their presence, the blood drain from him, his life-blood thinning away.
If I have focused on the author’s literary conceits, here perhaps is where the slight fault of the book lies. At times the story, and particularly the prose (surely there are some more synonyms for imposture, posture and pose…), struggles under the weight of its own creation, and its merit lies too much in his highly inventive adaptation of literary history. Yet Markovits is an acutely observant writer of human emotion, and he has translated these characters of literary legend with intelligence, sensitivity and compassion, to create a moving novel of modern sensibility. Most of all, he betrays a deeply felt empathy for that heart-rending figure, the failed Romantic, not least in the luminously written prologue, a gripping story of contemporary imposture that forms the final intertextual twist to his tale…