“Writing Against Time”: An Interview With Benjamin Markovits
Benjamin Markovits’s novel Childish Loves, the concluding volume of his Byron trilogy, was published in August. The trilogy also includes Imposture (2007) and A Quiet Adjustment (2008). His other novels are The Syme Papers, Either Side of Winter (published in the US under the title Fathers and Daughters), and Playing Days. Markovits was born in 1973 in California and raised in Texas, London, and Berlin. He shared his thoughts on the trilogy and on Byron in an interview with Joshua Lustig, who reviewed Childish Loves in the August issue of Open Letters Monthly. Their email exchange began as Markovits was winding up a US book tour at the end of September and continued after he returned home to London.
Joshua Lustig: So I’ll start off, since you’re on the book tour for Childish Loves, by pointing out that the novel actually begins with you on a book tour in the States, for A Quiet Adjustment, the second novel in the Byron trilogy. And you describe some sad and funny scenes from the tour, having to do with your lectures to various literary societies: the Austen Society, the Byron Society, the Henry James Society, and, crucially, the Society for the Publication of the Dead. This is part of the framing device for the trilogy, in which you’ve supposedly seen these novels into publication after receiving them, in manuscript form, as a legacy from a deceased colleague at a New York private school where you used to teach. I wonder if being back on tour might feel sometimes as if you’re still inside the novel, inside the trilogy, reliving some kind of endless metafictional loop? And more broadly, did you have doubts about the risks of making yourself a central character in your own novel, doubly exposing yourself and your life to critical scrutiny?
Benjamin Markovits: Yes, it’s been a little odd, giving readings from the book from the sections about giving readings. Especially since some of the people in the audience get mentioned in the novel: my parents, who came to my event in Austin, for example, where I read the section about visiting Austin. I often pick the Society for the Publication of the Dead to read, since it works as a kind of self-contained story, more or less. But I don’t feel like I’m in a loop. It’s true that some of the things I invented for the book, family arguments, have been remembered by members of my family as real events. But then, I tried to make those arguments sound as plausible as possible. Was I worried about putting myself in? Not particularly. I’d done the same thing in Playing Days, and many readers I’m sure, and some critics, took it as straight memoir. Which I didn’t mind. I think if readers believe that what you are writing is true you can get away with writing about quieter and more plausible events, which is what I like to do. What worried me more is alienating readers who feel that I’m playing post-modern games. Whereas I feel like I’m playing Romantic games: mentioning the frame to make the picture seem as real as possible.
JL: Playing Days is about your experience playing pro basketball in Germany. [It came out this year in the UK, but hasn’t yet been published in the US] You also wrote a great piece for Slate after the NBA Finals this past June, when the seven-foot center Dirk Nowitzki won the MVP award. You recall playing against him in Germany when he was 17, and there’s this line that sums up the outcome: “I suppose you could say that he dunked on me, but the truth is that he was so far above and beyond me that I wasn’t even really in the picture.” Were you driving at something similar in the Byron trilogy, where you bring up the idea of “impossible comparisons” between Byron and those around him, like John Polidori, his young traveling physician, who were drawn to measure themselves against Byron’s fame, and both exalted and fatally overwhelmed by the experience?
BM: That’s right. My experience playing minor league ball made a real impression on me. The guys I played with were extraordinarily good, and not even close to making it in the NBA. I also found the experience of being measured on court day in and day out depressing. For months after quitting the game I didn’t pick up a ball. At least, it was only basketball, and I could tell myself during the really quite unhappy months I played that I had a life elsewhere. (It’s also true that I was twenty-two years old, a long way from home, in my first year out of college, etc.) The question I wanted to ask myself in Imposture is, what does it mean to be worse than somebody at writing? Since writing seems to measure the whole of a personality… The Polidori story seemed a good way of approaching this. Why could Byron write better than Polidori? It wasn’t just smarts. There’s that famous Goethe line about Byron and thinking: as soon as he reflects he’s a child. But he had access to something, which may have started out as luck, but turned into something else, some larger relationship to people and things as they are. And for Polidori to be on the wrong side of that relation, and know it and feel it, struck me as very painful, and a good subject for a novel.
JL: In A Quiet Adjustment, it seems that Byron’s wife, who starts off supremely self-confident, feels something similar to Polidori in their unhappy marriage, the sense of measuring herself against Byron’s genius and coming up humiliatingly short. Then at the end of Childish Loves we see Byron himself struggling to live up to his legend, on his ill-fated expedition to liberate Greece. Was it part of your plan for the trilogy to investigate that relation that you describe between Byron and Polidori from these different angles—are they permutations of the same idea of impossible comparisons that’s established in the first volume?
BM: I intended A Quiet Adjustment as a kind of answer to Imposture. Annabella feels what Polidori feels, but unlike Polidori, she manages to make something triumphant out of her sense of her own inferiority—she wins. I like her for that. I meant to show Byron in a more sympathetic light in Childish Loves, and one of the things, I think, that should attract our sympathy is the way he suffers from his own reputation.
In both books I try to play on the reader’s sympathies, and change them, back and forth, over the course of the novel. Annabella begins A Quiet Adjustment prudish, pretentious, clever and innocent but also a little hard to stomach. In the marriage section, she’s treated so badly that it seemed to me very easy to pity and like her, for the way she keeps holding herself upright to be abused by Byron more. And then we have to make up our mind about her again as she turns her righteous sense of injury into a way of taking over [Byron’s half-sister] Augusta’s life. The Byron sections in Childish Loves follow the opposite pattern. We see him at fifteen innocent, childish, touchingly unsure of himself; find him at college an aggressive libertine, and then, on his final journey to Greece, wise (I hope), vain but full of self-awareness, unhappily unsure of himself again… I suppose no one could have lived up to the reputation Byron made for himself. Also, most of us feel that something is more vividly true, when it plays off the contrast between private and public facts, and I wanted to show something of that contrast in my picture of Byron.
JL: I found that the trilogy did just that—created a sense of vivid truth in an impossibly intimate set of portraits of Byron and his circle—and I think your deft handling of period prose style also had much to do with that. In the preface to Imposture, you acknowledge the anachronism of writing in a style 200 years old—“writing against time,” as you put it. How did you manage the seemingly vast difficulties of convincingly ventriloquizing the literary past, and how did your approach to the question of style evolve as you progressed through the trilogy?
BM: Part of the attraction of writing the novels was the language available in the period. The Romantics had a wonderfully detached and precise-sounding vocabulary for emotional concerns. Austen seems to use dozens of words to describe aspects of character: countenance, address, etc. This kind of technical language makes a useful defense against sentimentality.
My interest in the period was always based on the literature. I’m a bad historian, but I figured that if I stuck to the language, the historical details couldn’t go too far wrong. (A woman from the Byron Society in England remarked after a reading that I tended to give my clergymen beards. Apparently, there were no beards at the time. So I searched the online Austen concordance and found no beards. There are beards in Walter Scott.)
I made no particular effort to keep the portrait of Byron consistent from one novel to another. I wanted to show him in different lights, from different angles. In the same way, I tried to use a different version of period language in each book. Imposture was intended to be a kind of handshake between contemporary prose and Romantic prose; I rounded the edges off it. I wanted to write a kind of Romantic novel of ideas, something like Caleb Williams, in which the story takes the form of an argument, whose climax answers a question. Why would Polidori kill himself? I wanted his suicide to have a kind of logical inevitability. The language of the novel was supposed to be brisk, to the point, idea-flavored.
A Quiet Adjustment took its key from Lady Byron’s own journals, which struck me as very Jamesian—they showed the anxieties of an overarticulate mind. James himself, in one of his journals, made a note about the Lady Byron story, which he intended to take up. The Portrait of a Lady, in fact, strikes me as a version of it, with Gilbert Osmond playing the part of Lord Byron, and Madame Merle in the role of Augusta.
Childish Loves presented the challenge of writing in Byron’s own voice, which I’d been working up to, in one way or another, over the course of the trilogy. The trouble with doing Byron of course is that he was very good at doing himself. So there’s a question of what you can add. But he didn’t write fiction. He told anecdotes, made analyses, etc. but he never built character through scene and action. This is what Austen was so good at, and I tried to apply some of the novelist’s craft to Byron’s voice.
JL: In the framing sections of Childish Loves, you (as the narrator) talk about how you went through the books and papers of Peter Sullivan to get a sense of how he wrote these novels; you discovered that he incorporated passages from Byron’s correspondence and diaries, and “saw him again and again take a line from a letter or biography and spin it out into a scene or a piece of analysis.” Quoting Byron’s remark that “Pure invention is but the talent of a liar,” you describe Peter’s method as a kind of “impure invention.” Can you share any more insights about the technique of working with and building on such source materials to recreate the voices of Byron and other historical figures?
BM: My account of the process in the book more or less describes what I do. It leaves something out, though. First I have to work out what story to tell and how to frame it, and details from the biographies and journals are only useful if they help me do that. Sometimes, of course, a passage from the journals can suggest what the story should be. A good example is that bit about the ferry ride in Peak’s Cavern, which Byron described very powerfully in recollection. What’s curious about that passage, though, is that it suggests a sexual awakening story, but in fact, biographically, the awakening that mattered didn’t involve the girl, it involved a man. When I put it like this it probably seems very obvious but it’s only now (I mean, in this reply) that I can identify as clearly as that what was going on in the passage and how to make use of it. Also, I don’t have a very clear memory of what thoughts are in my head while I’m writing, that give shape to the narrative, so to a certain extent I’m tracking backwards here like anybody else.
I’m fairly sure that one of the things I wanted to do in the opening section is present a picture of Byron as innocent and sexually unsure of himself—to contrast it with the picture of him I wanted to paint at university, and afterwards, in Greece. The second part of your question is harder to answer. I don’t know what to make of the talent of impure invention. There are parts of the novel in which I suggest that one of the things impure invention can produce is sympathy, which may be pure and real enough. A friend of mine at a reading in Texas asked me something related—about what lesson we should draw from my attempt in the book to read something biographical into the fictions of Sullivan, and how the reader should apply that lesson to my own pseudo-autobiographical sections. He understood my point to be that you can’t read anything reliably. I’m not sure that is my point, or if that’s the lesson of the book. And after the reading I thought of a better answer to make to him. The novel sets up a fairly straightforward life/work dilemma—each of the characters in the book, all writers, me, Byron and Sullivan, have to choose between well, not perfection of one or the other, but something like it. I’m the only one of them who ends up inclining towards the better life, and I think my argument in the book is that a better life is not only a worthier thing to strive for, but it’s also more interesting, even at the level of work. You know, the questions it asks of us are richer and more complex, etc. Sullivan at one point remarks that he’s lost some respect for writers since taking up fiction himself, because it turns out not to be very difficult to push your characters around, a talent which has done nothing to help him sort out the mess of his own life…
JL: In Byron’s case, though, wouldn’t he have taken the “better life” to be life lived as a work of art—wasn’t he one of the first to attempt that, or the most famous example—and isn’t that the essence of romanticism, of Byronic heroism—to live on a sublime scale, beyond the limits of conventional manners and morality? Had he lived a quieter life, would he really have written better poems? Or by setting yourself in opposition to his example are you suggesting that the Byronic style of life is no longer possible or credible for today’s writer because of the times we live in?
BM: I think there’s something in that. And you’re right, I put the work/life dilemma too simply in my last reply, especially since a decent life probably involves some kind of satisfied relationship to work. But I also wouldn’t want to overstate Byron’s sense of his own life as a work of art. He tends to get mentioned these days for being the first modern celebrity, and people talk about the way he carefully controlled his image (often citing some of the pictures he had painted of himself, and the Thorwaldsen bust). I don’t know much about this side of his biography but I’m not convinced it amounts to anything like image-control. It seems to me perfectly natural for someone to think about how he wants to present himself if he’s being painted, especially if he has some kind of public reputation. Most of us have a face and a pose we tend to adopt for photographs, and I’m not sure that Byron’s posturing (you know, the Albanian dress bit) goes much further than that. His best-selling poems were set in the East, he liked the East, and when Phillips painted him, he dressed up for it. I’m sure the letters he sent back to [his publisher John] Murray were meant to present his life in a certain way, that’s what letters do, but he also wanted to be amusing and intimate, and didn’t take too many pains with them. He let them flow.
The truth is, his life was messy, and I think of him more as someone with an appetite for experience than someone who wanted to frame himself and his life in any particular way. He let himself get involved with women he should have steered clear of, and then had to put up with the inevitable aggravation. He muddled his way into marriage with a woman he should never have married, and then had his wife and kid forcibly removed from him, and not at all on his own terms. He fled England after the separation and dreamed occasionally of moving back but never did. His weight was all over the place—he seemed to be capable of concentrated bursts of discipline, but not long-term steady monotonous self-discipline. Even the heroic death in Greece was botched. He died of a fever, and bad doctoring, instead of a sword or a bullet. I admire him for the Greece adventure, but mostly because you get the sense of someone making the best of a bad job. What’s great about the late poetry is the humorous tolerance it shows for the daily messes people get themselves into. He had a lot to be tolerant of in himself.
What’s strange about him, really, is that he wrote at all. His college set were fast-living, clever, witty, and he doesn’t seem particularly to have shone amongst them. Apart from the fact that he was a lord, and maybe better-looking than the rest, though that only intermittently, because of the weight. And yet he squirrelled himself away to write and published a sequence of poetry collections when he was still in college. Even though he thought his real vocation was politics. Why? All of this suggests to me a certain amount of what we might now call nerdiness. Also, of course, an appetite for being left alone, which we don’t much associate with him now. But there’s that wonderful line of his, which I use somewhere in the book: ‘I only go out to get a fresh appetite for being alone.’ I’m sure there’s some posturing in that, too, but also a measure of truth.
Back to the verse. I once wrote a piece for the Guardian about ‘Beppo,’ which argued that Byron had finally become uncomfortable with the fact that his poetry seemed to misrepresent him—his melancholy, apart from anything else. And ‘Beppo’ was an attempt to redress the balance. He spent the first half of his career saying that the tragedy of life lay in the fact that people can never get over anything. And then the second half proving the reverse: that the real tragedy of life is that people can get over anything. There’s that wonderful couplet in Don Juan: ‘Think you if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife/ He would have written sonnets all his life?’ But it seems to me that this is exactly the challenge that Byron’s career trajectory is headed for: to make ordinary domestic life interesting. Of course, he shirked the challenge by leaving Teresa [Guiccioli] and going to Greece. But he was only thirty-six. What he would have written about if he’d made it to seventy, who knows.
One problem with writing the kind of split narrative I use in Childish Loves is that you’ll get readers who like one and not the other. It goes without saying I’m interested in both—also, that I find the ordinary domestic scene as interesting to write about as the Byronic heroic scene. For what it’s worth, he defended Don Juan to Murray in similar terms: ‘you have so many divine poems, is it nothing to have written a human one?’
JL: Well said, indeed—by both you and Byron! You’ve certainly changed and deepened my idea of Byron, here and in your splendid trilogy. One last question: are you at liberty to say, if only in the vaguest hints, what you’re working on now—and do you expect to return to historical fiction, and the Romantic period in particular, at some point—or should we expect something completely different?
BM: I wouldn’t rule out writing something historical, even Romantic-flavored, in the future, but the next couple books I have in mind are contemporary. The novel I’m working on now is set in America. To write three novels about Byron reminds me of the old Oscar Wilde line, about misfortune and carelessness. What comes next?
Joshua Lustig is a Senior Editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York, and a Contributing Editor at Open Letters Monthly.