Every authoritative sentence of The Poet and the Vampyre intrigues
Unpromising subject matter is gold in hands of academic alchemist
The Claudio Arrau of biographical writers
The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott Pegasus Books Dist by W.W.Norton www.pegasusbooks.us Publicity Claiborne Hancock 504-2824 email@example.com $28.95 Release Date September 15 2014As you can tell from the above fumbling subheads, it is hard to say why perfection is good, because it goes far beyond words, even if words are its means. Stott appears to be some kind of all knowing, all understanding walking dictionary of a human being, whose pen can take what others would see as mundane matter and transform it into universality, transcending the unique and turning it into the common interior experience of us all.
One doesn’t just read Stott’s account of this handful of literary travelers, one experiences and “relates” to every line, because he masterfully manages to turn what might otherwise seem a remote time and place and social venue – the events are two hundred years past – and make it as real as a film script, full of the same present attitudes and unpredictable provocations as might incite our responses today in front of a movie screen.
In the case of the diabolical Byron, around whom the tale is built, his disgracefully arrogant and unfeeling treatment of Claire, the mother of his child Allegra, to whom he seems to feel both unbridled attraction and personal disdain, is so unjust and inhumane that one wonders if the great poet had any genuine humanity at the core of his being, despite his virtuosic pen. He sounds like the most sociopathic of artists, one whose dedication to his art and his personal foibles at the expense of all around him arises not just from talent but from utter lack of feeling for the rest of humanity as anything more than servants to his cause.
Meanwhile the clever angle of this book is that it is told mostly from the point of view of the lesser talented who orbit the great poet, either as an employed physician, John Polidori, who accompanies him as he sets out for Switzerland to escape his creditors, never to return to Britain, or Claire, whose intelligence Byron ignores in making her simply one of the horde of wombs he deposits his superiority in, and then casts off.
Shelley and Mary figure large enough in the pages of this marvelous book but what carries us along is not the gilded bad behavior of Byron but the predicament of Polidori, who is tormented by an unslaked thirst for fame on his own account which disrupts his relationship with Byron and eventually ruins his life, even though he is quite able as a novelist and even as a physician.
In other words it is not just the marvelous command of words that Stott shows in this superbly written book which holds one’s attention and makes one fear it ever coming to an end, but the fact that it deals with human frailty and folly and the vulnerability of ordinary mortals, not just the antics of the renowned and the rich (Byron was both) with whom they associated at their peril.
If our fumbling attempt to grasp and convey the merits of this wonderful book seems in disarray and half baked that is fine, because it will serve as exemplifying the exact polar opposite of the book, whose virtues are impossible for a lesser writer than the great and irreplaceable Stott to convey short of simply quoting some passages from it, which we will now do, using a camera.
Truth as discreet jest
Did you catch the drollery of this account of impulsive and variable minds and natures encountering each other and life? This is the gentle humor of a tale of human foibles in action when written with magisterial but tolerant deadpan by a grandmaster of language who with breathtaking accuracy encapsulates their interior workings in describing their exterior antics. There is no need for explicit scenes and dialogue when one or two words can suffice, a feat of compression which explains as much as it observes and in itself evokes the rueful chuckle of sad recognition that there but for the Grace of God go we.
For the truth about people described in precisely the right word or words can as we all know be gently amusing as well as satisfying intellectually. This is so because if it is perfectly apt, if it is so penetrating a reflection of human nature that is so often contrary to the rules and ideals of good behavior, that we both laugh at and love the person described, if it is so right in tone, then one accepts it with joyful recognition at its inconsistency and is moved by it to amusement as well as empathy just as one unquestioningly receives, admires and and is moved by fine music. (What the hell are you talking about? Please fix. -Ed)
Thus this great tale turns into a vivid celebration of the poignant reality that we are all in the same world boat together, subject to the same whims and delusions and sufferings and yearnings and joys as the literary actors on these well wrought pages.
In this way the book is as much a masterpiece as the works of anyone in the uniquely talented group whose adventures Stott describes so well. Like masters of the piano such as Rubinstein or Arrau this artist of biography can take the manuscripts of other people’s lives and turn them into beautiful music, a symphony where every phrase is absorbing and moving.