Benjamin Markovits is not the first to take on failed novelist, failed diarist, and failed physician John Polidori: Paul West had a go at him in the more extravagant Lord Byron's Doctor (1989). Like West, Markovits is ultimately more concerned with Byron than with Polidori--in fact, he's purportedly writing two more novels on the subject. While Imposture thus joins the already quite extensive list of novels about or featuring Byron*, its fascination with all kinds of fakery (fake identities, authorial fakery, etc.) also allies it with recent novels like Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake or John Banville's Shroud.
Appropriately enough, Imposture opens with a nod to early nineteenth-century novelistic conventions. The novel we are about to read is supposedly transcribed from a manuscript, written by a now-dead English teacher who had concealed his real identity behind the name of Peter Pattieson--that is, one of Sir Walter Scott's narrators. The transcriber in question signs the preface "Benjamin Markovits." In other words, the "glamour of imposture" (xix) begins quite quickly: the "real" author impersonates the editor of a fictional author's novel, and the fictional author himself is impersonating the antiquarian who "collects" the stories that make up Tales of My Landlord. Moreover, Imposture is itself an imposture, a pastiche written "in a style nearly two hundred years old" (xx). Much as the preface reenacts Scott (driven to fiction after Byron usurped his status as the age's bestselling poet), the novel fictionalizes not just Scott's and Byron's historical moment, but also their writing--an imposture of total historical immersion, as it were. Or so the preface claims, in any event. (I'll return to this point at the end.)
Polidori's problem, at the beginning of the novel, is that publisher Henry Colburn has committed an act of commercial imposture: he has affixed Byron's name to The Vampyre (itself an imposture of sorts, given its autobiographical and Byronic overtones). In trying to claim The Vampyre, the impecunious Polidori implicitly hopes to reclaim himself and explicitly hopes to gain some very necessary cash. Instead, by telling the truth--"I wrote it" (3)--Polidori winds up impersonating Byron himself. The young woman to whom he tells this truth, Eliza, herself impersonates a lady, and plots to "carry on an intrigue" (41) with the man she now believes is Byron. Of course, she thinks, in order to romance her, "Byron" must pretend to be someone other than Byron, but her aristocratic employers would "see through any pretence of imposture he put on, and recognize him for what he was: the greatest, most beautiful, most scandalous poet of his age" (40). It's as though Polidori has "glamour" in its older, magical sense; for Eliza, Polidori-pretending-to-be-Byron could not be anyone other than Byron, for his very public self shines through no matter what. Except, of course, that "Byron"...isn't. But even Byron, tellingly, adores imposture, "the false authentic" (72)--the "verisimilitude" (72) of history, much like the historical novel.
Eliza is a nod to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century nightmare of the bad female reader, who constructs her life out of fragments appropriated uncritically from fiction and poetry. When Polidori asks Eliza for her "history," she ignores the mundane, dreary realities of her life in favor of "the heroines of Byron's eastern tales," whose lives she desires to overwrite her own (89). As Polidori thoughtfully observes later on, "[s]he was a girl who made things up, who lived, privately and powerfully, in the court of her own imagination" (111); in that way, she is his logical counterpart, the woman who matches "his own passion for dressing up" (111). Both romance in general and Byronism in particular enable a temporary escape from drudgery and personal failure. When Eliza finally realizes that she has lost her virtue to an imposter, she mentally turns herself into "the innocent abused, a creature with a pedigree almost as long and honourable as lovers'" (192)--a moment of sentimental narrative that only temporarily conceals the harsher realities of extramarital sexual encounters in the early nineteenth century.
When it comes to Polidori, though, his apparent ability to vanish into Byron--an early case of celebrity impersonation--is less an achievement than it is a sign of his own emptiness. Polidori, who has an unfailing knack for killing his patients (as a doctor, he is, indeed, an imposter), spends the novel hovering on the brink of death himself, so "frail" that "his arm strained under his own half-weight" (80). As he concludes after consummating his relationship with Eliza, "[h]e was the vampyre, he understood that for the first time; whatever he touched he corrupted. He had no life of his own" (193). If we read Polidori's figurative vampirism as something more than self-pity, his "imposture" is less postmodern playfulness than it is something far more sinister--the "glamour of imposture" as something poisonous to both the performer and the performed. A conclusion which, if taken to its logical extremes, might make us wonder about the historical novel as its own form of vampirism, infecting the past with the preoccupations with the present.
Yet this novel is an imposter in an additional sense: it is not, in fact, a pastiche. Here, for example, is the real Polidori:
Aubrey began to attach himself more and more to Ianthe; her innocence, so contrasted with all the affected virtues of the women among whom he had sought for his vision of romance, won his heart; and while he ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl, still he found himself more and more attached to the almost fairy form before him. He would tear himself at times from her, and, forming a plan for some antiquarian research, he would depart, determined not to return until his object was attained; but he always found it impossible to fix his attention upon the ruins around him, whilst in his mind he retained an image that seemed alone the rightful possessor of his thoughts. Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had [known]. She always seemed to part from him with reluctance; but it was because she had no longer any one with whom she could visit her favourite haunts, whilst her guardian was occupied in sketching or uncovering some fragment which had yet escaped the destructive hand of time. She had appealed to her parents on the subject of Vampyres, and they both, with several present, affirmed their existence, pale with horror at the very name. Soon after, Aubrey determined to proceed upon one of his excursions, which was to detain him for a few hours; when they heard the name of the place, they all at once begged of him not to return at night, as he must necessarily pass through a wood, where no Greek would ever remain, after the day had closed, upon any consideration. They described it as the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies, and denounced the most heavy evils as impending upon him who dared to cross their path. Aubrey made light of their representations, and tried to laugh them out of the idea; but when he saw them shudder at his daring thus to mock a superior, infernal power, the very name of which apparently made their blood freeze, he was silent. (John Poldori, The Vampyre)
And here's a random paragraph from Markovits:
'You didn't dare,' Eliza reproached her, not without admiration. She lay on her side, her chin propped up on her elbow. The older woman stretched out on her back; her face, still flushed from dancing, just beneath her sister's. The soft fine hairs of her skin shifted in Eliza's breath. How young Beatrice looked, in spite of her twenty-two years, in spite of her recent motherhood. She had the shape of someone still forming, the unripe figure that suggests the lines it will grow into. Eliza, by contrast, looked as if she were already retracting, at sixteen. Her figure was good, but spare rather than green. The bone of her collar pronounced how little she could live on, how much she could do without. Her smell was dry, too, like dead petals, while Beatrice filled her bed in the stewed richness of spent energies. Eliza stroked her hair away from her forehead, then wiped the sweat of it against her own cheek; after all, his might have touched Bea's perspiringly. 'You didn't dare,' she repeated. (21)
Markovits shows no sign of emulating Polidori's conventionally Romantic-era stylistic tics, such as hyperbaton, the rolling compound sentences, the lengthy parentheses, or the presence of both dramatic and grammatical punctuation. He avoids archaic vocabulary. The occasional paragraph-long excursion aside, his sentences are relatively short. (And Markovits certainly doesn't share Polidori's own particular fondness for the coordinating conjunction.) In other words, Markovits does not even attempt to create the illusion of early nineteenth-century prose style, which leaves the reader in an interesting position. If, on the one hand, the novel was supposed to be a pastiche, then at that level it indubitably fails. If, on the other, "Benjamin Markovits" (the fictionalized editor of the text "authored" by Pattieson/Sullivan) can't recognize a non-pastiche when he sees it, then he too is an imposter. The second theory, obviously, is the more attractive.
*--It's odd (or perhaps it isn't odd?) that Byron, whose critical reputation has probably fallen the most of any member of the Romantic Big Six, nevertheless still provides grist for the novelist's mill. (There are far fewer people lining up to write novels about Wordsworth, although he has been known to put in the occasional appearance.) Has Byron's life swamped his poetry?