By Benjamin Markovits
Faber & Faber, £14,99
Lady Caroline Lamb famously called Lord Byron "mad, bad and dangerous to know". How bad? How dangerous? These are the questions at the heart of Benjamin Markovits' trilogy about Byron. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Childish Loves is how different it is from the first two novels. How different and how much better.
It is really two novels in one. First, there is the story of Peter Pattieson, a sad, troubled school teacher who left a number of unpublished manuscripts to his former colleague, a now successful young writer, Benjamin Markovits. Markovits supervises their publication as the first two novels in the trilogy. The first was Imposture (2007), a novel about Byron's strange friendship with Dr Polidori, who looked like Byron, wrote like Byron and - like Byron - had a disturbingly close relationship with his sister. The second, A Quiet Adjustment (2008), tells of Byron's disastrous marriage, with rumours of marital violence and incest.
Markovits is intrigued by Pattieson, who becomes the elusive Gatsby/Kurtz/Harry Lime figure in the novel. There was something about the difficult teacher which made others keep away from him. What is the relation between these novels and a tormented, perhaps even deviant life? Now Markovits is dealing with the last manuscripts Pattieson sent and at the same time trying to get to the heart of the mystery of his old colleague who committed suicide.
The second novel in Childish Loves is another story of Byron, again with more than a hint of scandal. This story-within-a-story (called Childish Loves) is about homosexual love bordering on violence. How close is this, Markovits wonders, as he turns detective, to scandals about Pattieson's own life and an alleged affair with a schoolboy?
The book moves between this and Markovits' travels round present-day America, trying to solve the mystery of Peter Pattieson. This is what sets Childish Loves apart from the two early books. In Imposture, Pattieson, a fascinating character, is relegated to a knowing prologue. He is missing altogether from the second novel. But in the third novel, both Markovits and Pattieson take centre stage. Markovits is in the doldrums. He is married, with a young daughter and seems stuck in his writing, somehow caught between America and London where he met and married his wife. He is honest about his melancholy. He needs to get out more, to get a life - even if it's Pattieson's. The role of literary sleuth appeals to him and this gives a new energy to Markovits' writing. He even allows some characters to take a dig at the dryness of the earlier novels.
Childish Loves is just as clever and playful as the other books in the trilogy. Peter Pattieson, for example, is named after the narrator of Walter Scott's novels. So what we have here is a novel pretending to be an unpublished novel by someone named after a literary character. But there is nothing academic about it. This novel is full of life, moving, at times disturbing and a terrific read.