BYRON by Frederic Raphael


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Biography as epigrammatic monologue: a brief life of Byron so relentlessly packed with puns, quips, conceits, and worldly-wicked bons mots that it threatens to sink from an overload of wit. Raphael (The Glittering Prizes, Oxbridge Blues) has read all the standard sources and compressed them into a single 200-page burst that is both eloquent and a bit tiresome. It is also steadily elliptic and allusive, so newcomers to Byron will have to do some homework if they want to follow Raphael's fast-moving recitative. Like it or not, the performance is distinctive. May Gray, the servant girl who probably managed the poet's sexual initiation ""was pious by day and a devil by night. Cant and cunt revealed their proximity very early in Byron's life."" Byron's ""under-look,"" full of smoldering melancholy, ""which would have been more ham than Hamlet in anyone but an accredited celebrity, made every virgin feel like a potential adulteress and every adulteress a vulnerable virgin."" Apropos of Byron's wife, Annabella Milbanke, ""the prospect of possession was unalluring for one whose experience of the sex was of sex with the experienced."" Raphael spends considerably more time on the erotic vicissitudes, rather than the poetic achievement, of Byron's career, which is understandable enough. And he quotes very little of Byron's eminently quotable prose, so busy is he passing apothegmatic judgment on his subject (""Byron, even at his most affectionate, was disposed to wear his coat of arms, no less than his heart, upon his sleeve""). Still, Raphael's assessments are often shrewd and amusing; so we're willing--up to a point--to let him talk. A sometimes engaging, sometimes irritating curiosity.

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 1982
Publisher: Thames & Hudson--dist. by Norton