Friday, April 25, 2008
Byron in Italy
Our book today is Byron in Italy by Peter Quennell, a slim and powerful account of the years the poet spent traveling after his scandalous behavior (alluded to in our last entry, in what is quickly degenerating into Stevereadsbyron) prompted English society to denounce him (most famously at Lady Jersey's party in 1816, in which he was 'cut' by an entire room full of people who only two years ago couldn't invite him out often enough) and England to become too bittersweet a place for him to live.
Byron is a gigantic subject, and Quennell's approach, giving precise detail to one segment of the life, is the most rewarding approach (this book can be seen as a sequel to his earlier work Byron, the Years of Fame, but it can be read entirely separate from that book). Rewarding, but also damn frustrating at times - despite the copious letters and jottings the poet left posterity, he remains maddeningly elusive. In scene after scene, anecdote after anecdote, as you read four or five accounts of one event or outburst, you'll find most of the details lining up toward some kind of unified picture - only to get the disconcerting impression that Byron himself is looking out of that picture's frame, at you, with a mocking smile on his face, as if to say, I wasn't really here; all of this bored me so.
Quennell's book makes its peace with this unsettling impression by piling on the facts and moving straight ahead - and this also is much the best tactic (Quennell's books are uniformly excellent - his biography of Hogarth remained the best work on the subject for sixty years, until it was gently but firmly supplanted in 1997 by Jenny Uglow's own Hogarth book). Here we have Byron and his entourage making their way from Venice to Ravenna to Pisa to Genoa, constantly squabbling and braying and pausing to sleep with the locals.
Byron is only 28 at the time, and he's the constant center in a never-stalling whirlwind of interpersonal drama, played out by the famous cast of characters we meet here again in Quennell's book. There's steadfast friend John Cam Hobhouse; there's opportunistic rogue Edward Trelawney; there's the poet Shelley and his wife; and of course there's poor miserable Doctor Polidori, so pathetically in love with the indifferent Byron. At one point Polidori whines to Byron that he can do anything that Byron can do, is just as good a man. To which Byron responds - you very much get the impression he's listing the first three things (from a very long list) that come to his mind - with three things he can do that Polidori cannot: "I can swim across that river - I can snuff out that candle with a pistol-shot at a distance of twenty paces - and I have written a poem of which fourteen thousand copies were sold in one day." It's a wonder Polidori had the nerve to speak at all.
Quennell is wonderful in giving the reader a sense of what Italy - and most specifically Venice - might have meant to the bitter and aching Byron:
Having touched the rock bottom of gloom and agony, his spirits bounded up again toward the surface, and burst into the sunshine of an ordinary sensual life. To his surprise, he had discovered that he could still enjoy himself.
Of course, even in Venice, where he eventually installed himself, his hangers-on, his mistresses, and his various captive animals in the great, foreboding Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal, there were impediments to complete enjoyment - foremost being the presence of his own countrymen. In one letter (not in Quennell's book, but still worth quoting!), Byron's mixed tone of contempt and humor is captured perfectly:
Mr. Hobhouse is gone to Naples: I should have run down there too for a week, but for the quantity of English whom I have heard of there. I prefer hating them at a distance; unless an earthquake, or a good real eruption of Vesuvius, were insured to reconcile me to their vicinity.
(Indeed, though Quennell is busy telling the facts of his story, it bears mentioning here that the letters of no other poet in the world are as much sheer fun to read as Lord Byron's - Auden thought them the best introduction students could have to Byron's verse, and reading even a small quantity of them handily demonstrates why: they glow with life).
For all his straightforward narrative intentions, however, Quennell is at his best when digressing to talk about poetry, human nature, and the creative arts. He says of Byron that he possessed "a peculiar degree of self-awareness (a quality very different from self-knowledge)," and he digs deep into the motivations behind the poet's famous excesses:
In every artist's nature, more or less acutely developed, there exists the impulse, which has been conveniently, if perhaps not very accurately, entitled la nostalgie de la boue. With love of order coexists a feeling for disorder; with desire for clarity, propriety, and delicate distinctions - lacking which a work of art cannot emerge from chaos - goes a taste for the kind of experience that is gross but lively. So rarefied is the atmosphere in which art is born that the artist, when he transfers his attention from art to life, often chooses to breathe a steamy and relaxing climate, the air of the brothel, the crowded restaurant, the smoke-fogged drinking party.
In other words, occasionally every great poet must have sex with a double-jointed Romanian.
(Byron himself, naturally, could be eloquent on the subject of his own creative drives, as in another ex cathedra letter:
I am glad you like it [Childe Harold]; it is a fine, indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies. I should many a good day have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.
All of Byron's famous mistresses are here - the terrifying, imperious Marianna Segati, the serene and oddly alluring Countess Teresa Guiccioli (in order to approximate the Venetian pronunciation of her last name, try to imagine what a hissing snake would sound like if it were drowning in its own spittle - that, or dirty water sluicing very quickly through a tangled grating), and Shelley is here too, an otherworldly creature whose fascination with what it might feel like to die seemed entirely to lack the awareness that once you succeeded in feeling it, you couldn't come back and talk about it. And Mary Shelley is here, faithful in the full knowledge of how fruitless her faithfulness was.
And most of all there is Byron himself, dressing like a Renaissance prince, rising late and singing to please nobody but himself (and working - the young poetasters who fashion themselves on Byron would do well to note how fast and steadily the pages flew from Italy to London during this period), lazily smarter than everybody around him and beginning to feel like a parody of himself. That Byron is Quennell's greatest portrait, and it deserves readers.