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.

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