Suicidal Piston Device

Susan Eilenberg

  • Imposture by Benjamin Markovits
    Faber, 200 pp, £10.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23332 8

He could dig no deeper than a grave, six feet perhaps of fractured soil, before the battering instrument began to turn upon itself. [It] sought to bury its body in the reluctant ground . . . Sam had passed the point of all his purposes . . . There was a kind of frantic joy to his desperation, as if the fury of failure itself offered some violent relief to his great disappointments; as if disaster proved its own reward in the end . . . The machine had begun to break itself apart, inwardly consumed, outwardly dissipated, by its own desires. The wheels caught and slipped in the violence of their endeavours; drill and auger jolted and shook as they struck home, stuck in bedrock, and could not shake free. The body of the whole began to heave and shudder as if it sought relief from its own intentions.

Benjamin Markovits, The Syme Papers

Poor Bunbury died this afternoon.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

If everyone says Tom did it when the man who did it was Will, the result is what one calls an error, and Will is done out of his due. If while everyone says Tom did it you see Will and hail him as Tom, error cancels error and Will has his credit again. Describe all possible values for that credit.

Let Tom be Lord Byron. Let Will be Dr Polidori. Let the deed of errant authorship be the writing of The Vampyre (1819). Do the values for Polidori converge or diverge? If the sum of those values exists, is it real, irrational, imaginary?

In April 1819 there arrived in London a tale of uncertain origins. It was published by Henry Colburn in the New Monthly Magazine under Byron’s name. John William Polidori, Byron’s former physician, claimed it as his own and threatened a lawsuit to recover the rights to it; Byron disclaimed authorship. The magazine promised to correct its error and to compensate Polidori, but the correction was botched and the compensation minimal. The magazine’s editor and publisher quarrelled, and Polidori ended up accused of counterfeiting Byron’s work with the intention of exploiting the poet’s name for financial gain. The tale was a hit despite or even in part because of the scandal. The association with Byron would have been enough to make any tale a bestseller. But, though no masterpiece, The Vampyre isn’t bad, and readers’ enjoyment and admiration were as genuine as their confusion.

Even after it was established that Polidori had written The Vampyre to a plan of Byron’s invented (and then abandoned) during the same horror-writing game at the Villa Diodati house party at which Mary Godwin conceived Frankenstein, Byron’s friends found the episode infuriating. John Cam Hobhouse recorded his vexation:

I have got into a correspondence with Polidori about ‘The Vampyre’, which he wrote and got vamped up, and then attributed to Lord Byron. I knew it was Polidori’s. Murray sent me a letter from the editor of it, giving up Polidori. I wrote to Polidori about it; he returned for answer that he had never said the tale was Byron’s, it was entirely his own. There appears a letter in the papers attributing only the groundwork to Lord Byron, and not the tale in its present form. I remonstrated with the doctor on this, and now he sends an insolent letter.

It is now generally believed that Polidori was innocent of misrepresentation. But he was not the kind of man to inspire the confidence he craved. Hobhouse’s contempt derived from what he had seen of Polidori in 1816, during the months following Byron’s flight from England after his separation from his wife. Feeling ‘as if an Elephant had trodden’ on his heart, complaining of ‘giddiness and faintness’ (‘which is so like a fine lady, that I am rather ashamed of the disorder’), and hoping to lose weight, Byron had hired the very young Polidori (who two years earlier had taken his medical degree at Edinburgh, aged 19) to accompany him as his travelling physician. The arrangement lasted a summer before Byron decided the doctor wasn’t worth the trouble he caused. Polidori had managed to offend, insult, defy, inconvenience or annoy nearly everyone in Byron’s circle and many outside it too.

Had his background been glossier and his skin thicker, Polidori’s life might have developed differently. Handsome, intelligent and talented, an authority on somnambulism, a tragic poet, and soon to be author of the surprisingly readable Ernestus Berchtold, Polidori might have grown into a major fiction writer had he not taken prussic acid in 1821 after a disastrous run of losses at gambling. But, as Hobhouse noted, ‘he does not answer to Madame de Staël’s definition of a happy man, whose capacities are squared with his inclinations . . . He is anything but an amiable man, and has a most unmeasured ambition, as well as inordinate vanity; the true ingredients of misery.’ Polidori wanted to be acknowledged as Byron’s friend and equal and sulked and squalled with malicious envy when he wasn’t. He resented the social eclipse he suffered in Byron’s presence: ‘We went, and were graciously received,’ he wrote in the journal he kept to collect materials for a commissioned memoir of Byron that he would never write, ‘Lord B as himself, I as a tassel to the purse of merit.’ And: ‘LB’s name was alone mentioned; mine, like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.’

Certainly he was too young for Byron’s company. Undoubtedly he was too silly. He was unnecessarily rude to Hobhouse. He challenged Shelley, of whom he was jealous, to a duel. He beat the apothecary when the magnesia wasn’t right, broke the man’s glasses, and was fined 12 florins for the damage. He was clumsy; he was awkward. Rushing to be gallant to Mary Godwin, he tumbled off a wall and sprained his ankle so badly that he hobbled through the rest of his tour. He accidentally lamed a horse, accidentally on purpose hit Byron with an oar while rowing, brawled with carters, prattled of ‘prussic acid, oil of amber, blowing into veins, suffocating by charcoal and compounding poisons’, proved ‘more likely to incur diseases than to cure them’, made and had to be rescued from an attempt at suicide.

Though grieving for his marriage and his daughter and his half-sister (‘I breathe lead’), Byron had been tolerant, had even been generous, for as long as he could stand it, for as long as he could endure having his forbearance flung back in his face. When Byron tenderly carried the lame doctor in his arms after his tumble off the wall and fetched him a pillow, Polidori had sneered: ‘Well, I did not believe you had so much feeling.’ At last his ‘eternal nonsense, and tracasseries, and emptiness, and ill humour, and vanity’ became too much to bear.

Parting with Byron did not put an end to the trouble Polidori caused the poet. They met again and then again that autumn and winter on their parallel travels through Switzerland and into Italy. Polidori was lonely and lost and importunate to be taken on again, and required to be extricated from jail after brawling with the Austrian army of occupation over the height of the hat on the head of the soldier sitting by him at the theatre. (Mollified by Byron’s title, the Austrians contented themselves with throwing Polidori out of the city.) Byron wrote to his friends in England of these adventures, remarking: ‘I tell you all this because in England, by some kind mistake his squabbles may be set down to me.’ Polidori, meanwhile, weeping with rage and fantasising revenge against the provocatively hatted officer and the governor, flounced off to find himself new patients, who promptly died. ‘Dr Polidori has, just now, no more patients, because his patients are no more,’ Byron observed. The poet nevertheless continued, from a safe and pitying distance, his intermittent exertions on Polidori’s resentful behalf.

Writing to his father, Polidori tried to put the best face possible on his split with Byron: ‘We have parted, finding that our tempers did not agree. He proposed it, and it was settled. There was no immediate cause, but a continued series of slight quarrels. I believe the fault, if any, has been on my part; I am not accustomed to have a master, and therefore my conduct was not free and easy.’ It was all bravado. The loss of Byron’s company was a serious blow. Leaving the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, Polidori had moped and limped and bumbled and despaired. ‘Afraid all day my dog was poisoned; which grieved me so, at seeing it vomit, that I wept,’ he wrote in his journal. The dog survived, only to be lost some pages later, as Polidori failed to notice it had fallen in exhaustion and been left behind in the mountains. When the dog surfaces one last time, then vanishes from the journal’s pages, it seems entirely in keeping with the tenor of Polidori’s life.

Benjamin Markovits sets his novel Imposture in the period between the publication of The Vampyre and Polidori’s suicide, glancing back again and again to the hopeful beginning of Polidori’s tour and then the unhappy weeks on Lake Geneva and in Milan, to fashion an alternative route to Polidori’s death some five years later. Markovits makes much of the similarities between Polidori and Byron. It is not enough that both were handsome literary men who limped, loved their sisters, felt cursed, and talked of suicide; Markovits turns Polidori into the mirror in which Byron indulges his narcissism and Byron into the figure who realises Polidori’s forbidden erotic desire. ‘You might almost be brothers,’ Byron’s Augusta remarks. That a young man made unhappy by what his father calls ‘the force of impossible comparisons’ should be tempted to exchange one identity for another, even for that of the lord he has fictionalised as a vampire, is an irresistible notion.

The chief imposture in this telling is not the literary misrepresentation Hobhouse suspected, although it is out of Polidori’s irritable declaration that he wrote The Vampyre that Markovits develops his plot. Markovits’s Polidori snatches not at Byron’s audience or even his literary reputation but at his vital substance. Eliza Esmond, the lonely sister of a young woman who danced with Byron on the eve of his final departure from England, sees a tall, dark and handsome young man using his copy of the New Monthly Magazine as an umbrella as he stands angrily in the rain outside the publisher’s locked door, where he has gone to complain about the unauthorised printing of his story. She has spied him once before, standing at another door, one to Byron’s rooms; having mistaken him for Byron then and accordingly admired him, she believes she is in the presence of Byron (incognito) now. To whom else, after all, would the ‘I’ of his ‘I don’t mind ruining it; I wrote it’ refer? She determines to be fascinated. She pretends she is the charming sister who had danced with Byron in 1816; she pursues the Byronic seduction that her wiser sister had refused. ‘This, she thought, is what being in love is like. You can recognise it most clearly by the little cold ticking of calculation in your thoughts: perhaps I can change my life.’

It is not hard to understand why Eliza should want to change her life. She is the unhappy counterpart to Polidori, her appetites, like his own, starved by their own finicky greed. Her social position is as ambiguous as his and as vulnerable to manipulation and rebuff. The delusions she inhabits are only just capacious enough to contain her as ‘the heroine of her own romance, the sweet, abused child making her way untainted through the world’. This idea of herself she will defend with sour rage. ‘Eliza’s capable of believing anything she thinks, and she thinks a great deal,’ her father remarks. In Polidori, seen in appealingly pitiable miniature from across the width of a theatre, she recognises ‘a creature of her own imagination’, only better because real, at least conforming to her idea of what the real must be.

Polidori is at first innocently and then less innocently flattered by Eliza’s attention. He finds it sweet for many reasons to receive such attention as has never come his way before, to find himself at last, without (for once) any contrivance, in Byron’s shoes. He has not invited Eliza’s misunderstanding, but neither does he at once correct her mistake, and soon he is in active though increasingly uneasy collusion with the imposture she has begun. Against his intentions he finds himself falling in love with her. She reminds him of the sister he misses entirely too much. He admires the serene acceptance he imagines he sees in her, ‘the courage to confine herself to a life lived narrowly in her imagination’. Gazing in Jamesian fashion one Sunday afternoon across the green of Bagnigge Wells at Eliza in the company of her father, a man of humbly ‘unpublished imagination’, Polidori sees or thinks he sees in them a homely acceptance of failure. He is moved at these ‘loving and hapless people, their warm exchange of sympathies and failures’, moved by their ‘easy assumption of their insignificance’. He watches Mr Esmond buy a syllabub and accidentally knock it over in the dust. As Eliza affectionately scolds and scrabbles, Mr Esmond blows at the dirty pudding. To Polidori it seems that ‘something in the way Mr Esmond protected it betokened a man stubbornly making himself contented with a treat he had spoiled himself.’ The innocence of that pudding and its cherishing speaks to something in Polidori. And so he resists the temptation to confess himself no Byron in order to exercise for a little longer ‘the powers he had of giving joy’.

Those powers fail abruptly. Full of love and wishing for nothing more than an ordinary marriage with this all too ordinary girl who has allowed him to bring her happiness and admitted to him that she is not the sister she pretended to be, Polidori reciprocates her honesty. He tells her he also has been pretending to be someone he is not. The result is catastrophic. She had fallen in love with the man she saw once standing by Byron’s window, ‘astonishingly handsome, a picture of suppressed vitality’. She had fallen in love because ‘the way he turned abruptly back indoors struck her almost as a casual display of power.’ She fell in love with and meant to be ruined by the man she thought had written The Vampyre and seduced or ravished innumerable women, but as for the man who did write The Vampyre, the astonishingly handsome man who stood one morning in Byron’s window, the one who sat with her delighted father, consented to elope with her, bought her a green silk gown for a ball, offered her marriage – as for him, if he is not Byron, then he has abused her innocence and she hates him.

‘What do you mean, Eliza? It’s only me.’ She heard him insist on the line, like a fly buzzing away and settling forever on the same spot: ‘It’s only me.’

‘But I don’t know you,’ she said. ‘I don’t know any Doctor Polidori.’

He was almost shouting now himself. ‘But you fell in love with me. With me! Standing in the balcony window, three years ago.’ She didn’t answer him, and he began at last to repeat himself with the quieter petulance of resignation, ‘You fell in love with me.’

In his representation of the psychopathy of failure Markovits is extraordinarily perceptive and extraordinarily evocative. It is possible to believe that he has understood the historical Polidori better than Polidori ever understood himself. Markovits’s Polidori feels himself to be deadly at worst, empty or unreal at best. ‘I kill whatever I touch, I have always killed whatever I touch,’ the fatal doctor thinks, his love only imperfectly distinguishable from pity or his pity from self-pity. He has somehow mislaid everything in his life that matters to him – mislaid or rejected or destroyed, incapable of receiving what he most requires. The boundaries of his being have failed. His life is not his life; he himself has no life; he is undead, a parasite on the energies, the perceptions, the lives, the names of others. His father warned him of ‘the force of impossible comparisons’, but comparisons, likenesses, impossibilities are now his sole substance. He is a double, a reflection, no more; without a mirror in which to see his emaciation, he forgets to eat. When he listens within, he is unconvinced by his faint passions, then puzzled by his internal silence. When he speaks, ‘one heard the soft echo of inattention.’ He wonders: ‘what was the source of this absence, if absence could have a source?’

The unreality, the neediness that afflicts Polidori and to some extent Eliza too has its obverse in a generalised and tactophobia-inducing creepiness. The world of Imposture is a world of itches, frets, frictions, peeves, irritations, twitches, prickles, stickiness, tickles and chafes. We are made aware of the feel of stray hairs trapped and tugged at in a ribbon, the sound of a clock that ‘ticked audibly, like a throat that will not swallow’, the odour of lemon and cream gone sour in a mouth. As always in a Markovits novel, a woman (Eliza) has ‘wriggling lips’, which, though I can’t quite picture them, sounds creepy to me. (Eliza also exhibits a ‘restlessness of her small breasts’, which I can’t picture either.) It takes only a few pages of this before one begins to feel a horror of bodies and an urgent wish to escape from one’s skin. Straightforward emptiness has considerable relative appeal.

There are moments when one might almost be in an early Anita Brookner novel, shuddering at the cruelty of the laughing world – were it not for the sensation that one might almost be in Mansfield Park or The Wings of the Dove instead. Strongest of all is the illusion that one is still reading one or more likely both of Markovits’s earlier novels, The Syme Papers and Either Side of Winter (known to American readers as Fathers and Daughters). The thin-skinned, excessively intellectual, somewhat paranoid characters feel familiar; their obsessions and their delusions and their meditations on failure we have encountered before. Markovits must surely be teasing us, for instance, with a figure glimpsed in a convention crowd in The Syme Papers. Before he submerges again, we see a ‘specimen from Yale, tall and loud, with swinging elbows and a sharp cane, Mr Polidori. His tongue stuck in his cheek as he spoke, his words came out half-chewed.’ The signal Markovits sends is as slight as a tickle, and perhaps as frivolous: it may signal only the fact of its signalling. Given Markovits’s fondness for puzzles of identity and paradoxes of self-referentiality it can be hard to know. His novels point towards one another ceaselessly, each one serving as scaffold or double or frame or allegory or falsework or mirror for the others. The effect is to suggest a single huge project, distributed among apparently discrete fictions in fractal fashion, on the varieties of emptiness, its icons repeated on every scale, a fabulous toy, a great fable-making gizmo.

What Markovits means finally to do with this project he may not yet know himself. (Or perhaps, considering how The Syme Papers predicts Imposture, he may.) The whole thing bears a disconcerting resemblance to the suicidal double-compression piston device described at the head of this essay, whose purpose was to dig beneath the surface of the earth to test whether the planet consists of hollow spheres nested in an arrangement not altogether dissimilar to that of the book that describes it. (When at Syme’s climax Sam Syme digs a hole for his piston, seeking the point of triple eclipse that he hopes will prove the Earth’s hollowness, what he finds at the bottom is a pile of dead kittens.) The double-compression piston effect returns under an alias in Either Side of Winter, as ‘depression’ which ‘is also the instrument of depression, a tool that serves in digging into itself, a deepening device’. And it takes human form in suicidal Polidori, who is a double-compression piston all by himself.

Much of the pleasure of a Markovits novel lies in the acuteness of its observation, the subtlety of its expression, the ingenuity of its form. Once you begin marking brilliant passages or noting curious structures, it can be hard to stop. Certainly not everything about Markovits’s novels works, nor everything about this one, either: Imposture’s romantic catastrophe in particular, though sad enough, would be sadder still if it did not bring inevitably to mind The Importance of Being Earnest; nor is it possible to suspend disbelief over a father so humble and so pure-minded that he feels gratitude when his daughter announces she has taken up with Byron. But the novels puzzle chiefly because they are puzzles, conundrums, intricate, ingenious, witty; and because conundrums, whatever else they may do, don’t sum.