BYRON by Benita Eisler

BYRON

Child of Passion, Fool of Fame

KIRKUS REVIEW

This new life of the 19th-century’s most notorious literary celebrity successfully revivifies the poet for our times—albeit not without applying a few shocks. Eisler (O’Keefe and Stieglitz: An American Romance, 1991, etc.) has found in Byron a subject well-fitted to her ability to take frank measure of transgression. In an effective opening vignette, Eisler recreates the contentious scene, after his untimely death at war with revolutionaries in Greece, when Byron’s associates in England collectively burned his shocking memoirs. Then, as if reconstituting those lost recollections, Eisler reconstructs his experiences, however sensational, as closely as possible—without, however, overindulging in speculation of the “he must have felt” variety. While she ably handles Byron’s erotically charged youth and school days, the author comes into her own when handling the heart of his story: his sexual affairs—including the notorious liaison with his own half-sister—conducted in Regency London and then in Italian exile; his travels in Greece, the Levant, and Europe with the Shelleys and others; and above all, his ambitious poetic productions, which would transfix all Europe. In part through close readings of his verses, Eisler captures the urgency of his homosexual loves and the viciousness with which he turned on his wife. While Eisler occasionally crosses the line into the lurid, her reporting, rendered in beautiful prose, seems accurate, even when she argues that Byron, himself molested as a child, molested children in turn. It helps that she also emphasizes Byron’s wider sensuality—exploring his shame over his lameness, his weight issues, and his compulsive athleticism—and the absurdly complex money issues that dogged him. In such contexts, Byron’s wild sexual adventures seem only a part of a lifestyle that was so far ahead of its time as to be not just modern, but perhaps even postmodern. Occasional local crimes of sensationalism, then, contribute to the singular virtue of this volume: it’s the rare doorstop of a literary biography that’s also a legitimate page-turner. (16 pages photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 19th, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-41299-9
Page count: 800pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2000




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