"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, June 25, 2011

O'Brien's Novel Take on a Childe's Life

Byron in LoveByron in Love by Edna O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edna O’Brien’s writing style perplexes me. I remember being mystified by it when I read her excellent novel House of Splendid Isolation. I felt this disconnect again while reading Byron in Love. I was impressed with the tightness of the plot and the lack of excess in her prose. The trade off is I tended to feel a bit detached and unemotional while reading this book. At times, Ms. O’Brien’s poise and restraint as a novelist unduly bridled the sauciness of Byron’s story.

When I read Ms. O’Brien, I feel like I’m staring in through a mildly warped window at the characters. The scene appears slightly blurred and the sounds are a bit muffled. It is like O’Brien has me off to the side, watching from a discreet distance--as one might do when witnessing a couple argue in public. It’s a compelling style, but not the one I would pick for a biography of Lord Byron--especially one that is delivered like a novel. Yet I still feel this is a great book.

O’Brien’s unvarnished recounting of Byron’s scandals, as well as his chauvinism, challenged me (though I retain my affinity for him). I don’t believe one can take a serious look at Byron without acknowledging his great failures as a father and husband. But it also makes me consider one of the callous byproducts of traditional marriage culture. No child should ever be termed “illegitimate”, even when born out of wedlock to irresponsible parents.

This book also reminded me--as any objective biography of Byron should--of the rampant and abrasive hypocrisy that emanates from intensely heterosexual cultures. Byron could have been subjected to the death penalty for his homosexual liaisons. But when he engaged in heterosexual adultery, he was just fitting in. Ms. O’Brien brings this harsh double standard into sharp relief.

My chief complaint with this book is grammatical. O’Brien’s abrupt shifts between present and past tense annoyed me. Given her abilities and authorial maturity, I have to think the shifts were deliberate. I just found them acutely distracting. Other than that, I don’t have anything much to fault, except my lingering sense of disconnectedness with Byron in Love.

I’ll sum it up with an analogy. I love the musical Les Miserables. I also love composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But even on his best day, providing his finest work, I cannot imagine Mr. Sondheim musicalizing Les Miz to my satisfaction. There is simply an incongruity between his style and the way my heart yearns to experience that story. This also sums up why I didn’t fall head over heels for Ms. O’Brien’s take on Byron, though I found the book excellent. In any case, I feel the definitive portrayal of Byron was written long ago, though its main character is a childe called Harold.

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