I recently interviewed Ben Markovits for the Independent on Sunday about his new novel, Childish Loves, the final instalment in his Byron trilogy. (The others are Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment.) As always, due to space constraints, a lot of fascinating material doesn’t end up in the piece, so I decided to share more of the conversation here.
We met at Blacks Club in Soho, and I had to wait for half an hour for the photographer to do his thing. Ben asked the photographer many questions about his work, especially as a war photographer, and was very charming. When they had finished, we settled in with a couple of beers and began the interview.
I began by asking about the framing device to the novel, where a fictional academic called Peter Sullivan has written the two previous volumes of the trilogy and much of this one. ‘Benjamin Markovits’ is also a character.
I played pro basketball after college because I thought it might fund my writing and I love basketball and I’d written about the experience in various ways. I’d done some journalism on it and I’d written several drafts of memoirs that I wasn’t happy with.
I wanted something about memoir in the tone of my description of the experience, so it seemed natural to use the false memoir form when I came to write the novel [Playing Days]. And so in a way, Childish Loves grows out of all of that.
I found the device quite destabilising when it comes to reading the passages supposedly by Byron.
Is it? I couldn’t tell whether the games I was playing would reinforce the realism of the Byron narrative or undermine it. Because actually most of the sources say that the thing that Peter wrote is pretty close to what happened. But it undermined it for you?
Little bit, yeah! But not in a bad way. Did the voice come easily?
It’s not truly an academic enterprise. I got into Byron when I was 13 or 14 and I loved reading him and have read him ever since and all through the period of writing this trilogy I’ve read and re-read the letters. I can’t say it came easily… there are a couple of decisions I made. One is not to write the famous burnt memoir, because if you did that it’s sort of a crossword puzzle game. Because we know certain things about the memoir, we know some lines, there are sources we can go to to find out what was in it. It was written at a particular period in his life and would reflect that fact, and the closest you could do was to come up with something that was inferior, obviously.
So what I try to do with Byron’s style is use what was wonderful about that style but put it into a form that he never really used himself, which was the Jane Austen-style, plot-progressive, cumulative novel. He doesn’t do that, right? He tells stories and anecdotes, he goes on riffs, he doesn’t add character to dialogue to event in the way that Austen does. His style is so wonderful and one of the things that attracts me about it is that it’s vivid without being metaphorical. He uses the odd metaphor but basically it’s driven by another source of vividness and that was a lot of fun to get into.
He comes across as quite a nice person…
What’s always strange about it is that on top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that, he could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that’s a very attractive contrast. Somebody who could see quite clearly into the motives of his friends, while at the same time making a huge stink about the fact that he has to come in third at dinner because they haven’t honoured his rank.
I talked to Fiona MacCarthy, and her book [biography] was sold as ‘the gay Byron’ and the book isn’t that. I don’t think she thought he was. He clearly was bisexual and he formed strong attachments to the women in his life and to the men – mostly boys – in his life. If he was gay he was good at forcing it! Also the love of his life seems to have been his sister. I don’t know who you could point to with whom he had a stronger or deeper attachment, and it was clearly sexual.
He asks which Romantic poet I favour and I say I’m a Shelleyan.
Are you an anti-Byron Shelleyan or a pro-Byron Shelleyan?
Pro. Funnily enough, although they’re always linked together, they were not that friendly…
I think for Byron, Shelley wasn’t one of the real intimates. I think they had an intense relationship but in his letters Byron doesn’t usually want to accord Shelley top-buddy status.
I always assumed that Byron liked to think he didn’t value the friendships of letters as much as he valued other kinds of friendships. The people he talks about most warmly were the Scropes and the Hobhouses, people who weren’t in the first instance men of letters, so somewhere in his mind he always relegated Shelley to a writerly friendship, not one of the core.
What do you think about Byron’s work?
The early stuff isn’t great: ‘Child Harold’. But ‘Don Juan’ is a beautiful poem. ‘Beppo’, actually. I would like Beppo to be taught alongside ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as one of the great romantic poems. I think it deserves it.
I haven’t read it…
‘Beppo’ is the one about the Italian woman whose husband is lost at sea. She takes a lover, and then the husband comes back during Carnival and says you’re my wife. And it ends with them all being friends together. It’s about 10 pages and it’s like a mini ‘Don Juan’.
One of the things that happens to a writer who had the kind of success that Byron had with Childe Harold is that you’re stuck reproducing it. The difference between the public perception of him and his real self started to worry him, not just as a human being, but as a writer. What was he doing wrong if he was misrepresenting himself in the ways that his earlier work was? And his response to this was ‘Beppo’. The claim that he wants to make about himself in his early work, all the Byronic hero stuff, is that the way life works is that something terrible happens to you and you never get over it, and that’s the tragedy of life. And in ‘Beppo’, he realises that something terrible happens to you, and you get over it and that’s the tragedy of life. And once he realises that, he can see his way clear to the masterpieces.
Beppo’s great! He talks about, if you go to Italy in Lent, be sure to bring ketchup. Cos otherwise you’ll get really bored of the food. And if you think that this was being done at the same time Shelley was doing the great but century-less ‘Ode to the West Wind’, it’s so astonishingly contemporary and fresh, ‘Beppo’, that it seems a real achievement.
Childish Loves has some affinity with Alan Hollinghurst’s latest – the changing reception over time of a dead poet.
I have read The Stranger’s Child and I know him a little bit – it was funny because the books do have similar themes.
Why does your Faber editor Lee Brackstone have a walk-on part?!
I liked it! How do you feel about that? It seemed funny to me.
This kind of non-fictional fiction allows lots of quiet jokes like that – which are maybe more amusing to the writer than anyone else. You know Lee, but people who don’t probably think I’m making it up. It’s a funny joke that works for the writer and a small circle of readers but for anybody else it doesn’t seem to be a joke at all.
I like the fact in writing this sort of fiction that the pressure on me is to make things more believable in memoir terms rather than make them more believable in fiction terms. The basic premise I have as a writer is that the way things actually happen is generally more interesting than the way I can imagine their happening.
With Playing Days I try to do it, but without winking at the reader at all. I wanted a certain class of reader to just read it as a straight memoir and just assume it was true.
I mention something in the book about being a reviewer and going through people’s backlists and when you do that it’s depressing to see the same house coming up again and again [in their fiction]. The country house, and the relation with the husband, and the mother who acts a certain way, and all these figures who reappear in book after book. And is that the thing that actually happened? Is that the bedrock of true material from which they have made all the fiction and if so, should I be more interested in the true material than the stuff that they’ve imagined? And part of me thinks, yeah, I should be. If someone can tell me what their life is really like, that should be more interesting to me than if someone can make something up about it.
When you ask about this, though, most novelists protest ‘But they’re fictional characters…’
Writers want to say that, don’t they? I’m perfectly happy to answer, if someone wants to know how much is true. It seems a reasonable thing for a reader to ask. Even though I think most writers want to pretend it’s the worst question in the world.
The me-character spends his whole time trying to work out what’s true from Peter Sullivan, so I’ve done it myself. I went to do a reading from A Quiet Adjustment when we were living in Boston. It was a passage about Byron’s relationship with Augusta and someone said to me afterwards, ‘If I’d known he’d slept with his sister I wouldn’t have come,’ ie, I was interested in Byron but when I found out he was such a naughty man…!
A Quiet Adjustment is an Austenian novel with Byron in it…
I think that’s exactly right and that’s part of what I intended. And actually what happens when my character Annabella Milbanke faces up to a whole different world of sexual reality.
Annabella would actually work quite well as an Austenian character and would be rewarded in an Austen novel, whereas in the real world…
She gets screwed in the ass by Byron! And comes to terms with it.
I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. So we might be certain that Byron’s sexual profligacy is a bad thing: too many people, too great an age difference. On the other hand, Peter Sullivan’s response which is almost entire repression doesn’t seem like a healthy attitude towards the business either. And so one of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame in different ways sex acts that we weren’t quite comfortable with.
I think the Edleston [a choirboy Byron met at Cambridge] relationship is really affecting, especially if he didn’t sleep with him. If the limit of their intimacy continually approached the sexual relationship but never actually achieved it, why not?
The other thing that’s confusing is the Romantics romanticised male friendship too, even when we wouldn’t call it sexually driven. The line between what Byron had with Hobhouse, with whom he had a very intimate friendship, and with Edleston isn’t totally clear, although H clearly disapproved of his friendship with E. I have a lot of sympathy for Byron and I hope this is the most sympathetic of the three books towards Byron. That was my intention.
We talk a bit more about Byron versus Shelley.
There are times when it’s hard to tell which of them was the bigger shit, Shelley or Byron. I like this quote from Shelley in which he complains that Byron bargains with Italian peasants for their daughters, which clearly seems to us to be a bad thing to do, except that Shelley’s complaint is that ‘they stink so of garlic that no ordinary Englishman can approach them’. Who’s playing the aristocrat now?
Maybe I should have made more of Shelley. He really appears more in Imposture, but it’s hard enough doing Byron without tackling…!
The trouble with writing great people is that one of the things that makes them great is they’re smarter than you. And that was enough of a challenge with Byron, so I kind of leave [Shelley] for dead before he appears in Childish Loves.
They wrote so much – I never write a letter any more. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you haven’t got a TV. They didn’t waste their brains on Twitter.
I remember hearing that the students in Tiananmen Square were reading Byron and Shelley. I was 14 or something. Not just Shelley the revolutionary, but Byron as well. But a lot of interest is in the life.