Arts & Culture

Radcliffe Fellow Markovits talks about ‘mad, bad, dangerous’ poet

5 min read

George Gordon, Lord Byron died in 1824 at the age of 36 — a short life, but long enough for Byron to become a personage so vivid and controversial that he was arguably the modern era’s first celebrity.

Moody, extravagant, and daring, Byron was in his lifetime a celebrated poet, lover, traveler, rake, and political activist. (He died of fever while fighting in the Greek war of independence.)

His personality was so large that it both attracted and repelled. One contemporary, a former lover clearly on the dark side of the Byronic fence, described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

Those qualities, and the largeness of his personality, earned Bryon a life beyond death, including echoing portraits in poetry, film, and the novel. (One of the novels offers a fictive reason for Byron’s passions and excesses: He was a vampire).

The latest attempt to capture Byron in fiction is from the pen of novelist Benjamin Markovits, a Radcliffe Fellow this year who can be fairly described as sane, good, and interesting to know.

Markovits, a one-time Yale literature undergraduate whose first postcollege job was playing basketball in Europe, has written two installments in a proposed trilogy of novels about Byron. He’ll use his Radcliffe year to work on the third, “Childish Love.”

“In a funny way,” Markovits said of historical novels, “they free you from history.” Free a novelist, that is, from the obligation of layered facts, leaving the writer free to imagine “the emotional landscape” within historical figures.

Markovits gave a talk this week (Sept. 22) titled “Lying about Byron.” He also treated his audience of 60 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium to animated readings from the first two novels in the Byron trilogy. At the end, to impart a sense of Byron himself, Markovits recited from memory minutes and minutes of the poet’s epic narrative poem, “Don Juan.”

By many measures, Markovits is a standout novelist. For one, he’s usually taller than anyone else in the room. For the Radcliffe reading, he showed up dressed in narrow, slouch-waisted slacks that accentuated his height. Completing the outfit was a dark tie, and a suit jacket rumpled enough to underscore his patrician bearing.

For another, Markovits is a standout writer to critics, who so far have praised all his novels, including those about Byron, for their lyrical precision, historical detail, and emotionally accurate interiority.

“The Syme Papers” (2004), his debut novel, tells the story of a 19th-century scientist whose genius is squandered on a bad idea: that the Earth is hollow, and its insides are habitable.

“Fathers and Daughters” (2005) novelizes the high school experience. (Markovits, after six months of basketball and a year at Oxford University, briefly taught at Manhattan’s exclusive Horace Mann School.)

Critics admire the last two novels from the prolific Markovits, a Texas native who makes his home in London. “Imposture” (2007) delivers a portrait of Byron through the eyes of the man who was briefly his personal physician, John William Polidori.

The “imposture” of the book refers to Polidori being mistaken for the heroic Byron, in person and as a writer — a mix-up the young doctor found attractive. In reality, “out of his own head,” Markovits has Polidori admit in the book, “only dullness flowed.”

The second novel in the trilogy is “A Quiet Adjustment” (2008), a telling of the Byron story from the point of view of Annabella Milbanke, a teenage provincial who won the poet’s hand in marriage. Considered then, and now, one of literature’s most unlikely unions, the unhappy marriage lasted 54 weeks.

“I was a villain to marry you,” Markovits has Byron confess to Annabella on their honeymoon. That comes just at the moment it becomes apparent that the poet’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh (who figures prominently in the novel), has more than sisterly interests in the priapic Byron.

One reviewer in the Guardian remarked that Markovits writes in a voice reminiscent of Henry James (a figure who the Radcliffe Fellow this week admitted was a literary inspiration, along with Jane Austen).

In his remarks, Markovits observed of his first novel — about the misguided scientist — that “it’s hard to write geniuses.”

So to write about Byron, he took on the voices of two nongeniuses — the doctor and the wife — who before this had hovered only on literature’s margins. (James made a note to himself to write a story about Annabella, Markovits said, but never did.)

Byron in the trilogy so far is illuminated only by light from the sidelines. It’s a writing technique that Markovits called “a series of orbits, rather than a single trajectory” — a means of drawing nearer and nearer the emotional truth of his luminous subject without being scorched by Byron’s brilliant unfiltered light.

“Lord Byron is not the center of the action ’til the end,” said Markovits of his trilogy — that last of which will focus, at last, on the interiority of the poet himself.

“Lord Byron did himself pretty well,” he added, “so one hesitated to take him on all at once.”