Dr. Polidori's Pilgrimage

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By Louis Bayard,
who is a novelist and reviewer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

IMPOSTURE

By Benjamin Markovits

Norton. 200 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Changing the course of modern horror literature is a piece of cake when you follow these basic steps. First, join a group of bored British expats, stranded by rain in the Villa Diodati over the summer of 1816. Second, when someone suggests it might be fun to write a ghost story, agree, however warily. Important: Do not be unduly famous. Percy Shelley will default right out of the gate; Lord Byron will cough up a fragment of something called "Augustus Darvell" and head straight back to the third canto of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." If you really want to make your mark, you must be the least likely candidate in the room.

Which is to say you must either be Shelley's common-law wife, bearing inside you the seeds of something called "Frankenstein," or a floridly unsuccessful young physician, with a name that might itself have sprung from a horror tale. In the latter case, you will require only a few days to write a short story called "The Vampyre." Later published (without your consent) in New Monthly Magazine, it will be an immediate bestseller, in part because readers assume the unnamed author is Byron. You will understand their confusion. The title character is not the ugly bloodsucker of Eastern European folklore but a suave, pale, charismatic nobleman who topples women like dominoes -- an honest-to-God lady-killer. That twining of gothic and romantic will lay down (for Bram Stoker and countless others) a template of horror every bit as durable as, well, vampires.

You won't live long enough to relish your achievement, but you will, two centuries on, find consolation from Benjamin Markovits, who will fashion from your short life a small masterpiece. Delicate and sinewy and richly felt, "Imposture" is the rare novel of ideas that pulses with real blood.

Meet, then, Dr. John Polidori, "Polly" to his friends. Nineteen, the youngest medical student to have taken a degree at Edinburgh, Polidori is ready to stake a claim on a world that wants little to do with him -- until he's abruptly hired as personal physician to Lord Byron, "the first poet of the age." (This despite the fact that Polly's patients have a nasty way of dying on him.) His destiny at last stands revealed. He will migrate across Europe, villa to villa, communing with great minds and, not incidentally, realizing his own dreams of literary grandeur.

Except he doesn't make quite the impression he'd bargained for. "Amid fresh company," writes Markovits, "he disappeared at once, like salt in solution." And at every moment, he feels "the force of impossible comparisons" with Byron. "Out of [Polly's] own head only dullness flowed. It was as if he were hardly alive, as if he lacked the sense to perceive life, as if nothing that mattered, no feelings of significance, not even lamentation, could touch him. . . . What difference between them, in their clay, in their spiritual soil, produced on the one hand such a harvest, and in his own heart, only dust?"

Byron soon washes his hands of him, but the publication of "The Vampyre" gives Polly another chance to reclaim his destiny. It also sets him in the path of one Eliza Esmond, a governess and, more fatally for all concerned, a "child of books." Mistaking him for Byron, Eliza draws Polly into a clandestine love affair -- one he is loath to end by confessing his true identity. Only gradually does he see that, by drawing from Eliza the life force that has long since departed him, he's become a species of vampire himself.

Just like old Byron, you might say, whose portrait-by-lightning is one of the highlights of "Imposture." Markovits's true sympathies, though, lie not with great men but with those who are "only a tassel on the purse of fame." One by one, he leads them toward moments of authentic tragedy. Eliza's father, a hack writer, spends a single afternoon with the Byron impostor and repents his whole career. "I have hardly touched the world at all," he cries, "I was so frightened of spoiling something."

Most tragic of all is Polly, whose descent may be tracked from his first entry into adulthood. "He was just 'looking out for a position'--a line which, as he soon discovered, he had every opportunity to repeat. After one month, he sometimes added, 'It was only a question of finding something suitable; one didn't want to snatch at first chances.' After two, he professed himself, with a charming modesty, 'Ready for anything.' After three, he used to explain, in a degree of detail that he himself suspected of becoming tedious, the difficulties a young doctor could expect to face, in setting up a practice. After four, he kept silent; he had started to smell of disappointment."

In real life, Polidori stuck it out for another two years after publication of "The Vampyre" and even managed to write a novel and a full-length poem. That he died fully convinced of his failure, however, is incontestable, and Markovits makes this downward progression as moving as it is inevitable. The prose is marvelous -- not a misshapen sentence, not a misplaced emphasis -- but the author's real triumph is to transform a figure from literature's margins into something suspiciously universal. Something that looks an awful lot like us.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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