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Prolific writer West (Rat Man of Paris, The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, etc.) has found another historical figure to interpret--in a novel more impressive for its range of sexual vocabulary than for its insights or themes. John William Polidori, described elsewhere as ""a pretentious and incompetent young man,"" was indeed Byron's doctor on the famous 1816 flight into exile in Europe. West's Polidori, a cut-rate Boswell, with none of the former's charm or intelligence, has been paid to write it all down. He begins with the landing at Ostend and the tour of the Waterloo battlefield, then continues to Switzerland where he meets the Shelley entourage--which includes the poet, his mistress Mary Godwin, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron resumes an old affair. ""Polly,"" as the poet likes to call him--a play on the name as well as a not-so-subtle hint of the parrotlike nature of his companion's observations--burns with ambition and envy. Alternately fawning and self-righteously indignant, Polidori recounts every sexual escapade, both his and everyone else's; the houseparty antics on the shores of Lake Geneva; his speculations about Byron's real sexual preferences; his chagrin because no one thinks the story he has written is as scary as Godwin's Frankenstein; and his medical knowledge. All this understandably irritates Byron, who leaves Polly behind and flees to Italy. The now-pregnant Claire becomes Polidori's next fixation, though this interest is really fueled by her relationship with Byron. But consummation with her can never be quite the union he longs for with Byron. Back in England and unemployed (he spends all his time hanging round the Shelley household), he commits suicide, telling us how his body is found and what happens to Byron et al. in the future. By relying on a first-person narrative, even beyond death, West has allowed the doctor, dull and tiresome to begin with, to bore us to tears. Quaint words for bodily parts and steamy sex scenes seem inadequate compensation. Poor Polly, poor Byron.

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 1989
Publisher: Doubleday