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Benjamin Markovits: Leaps in the dark

Once a pro basketball player, fêted novelist Benjamin Markovits juggles the claims of action and contemplation. Christina Patterson meets a teller of tall tales

Most boys who aspire to be poets are not known for their prowess on the playing field. Benjamin Markovits, however, is one writer who bucks the trend. The quiet (and extremely tall) American speaks in the precise paragraphs of a Henry James character, but has also played professional basketball. His love of sport was there from the beginning. His love of poetry was born with the discovery, at 12 or 13, of Edith Sitwell's North Atlantic Book of Verse. This sporty male adolescent would go to watch the Chicago Bears and then go home and sigh over Swinburne.

"When we moved to London when I was 14, I discovered this great bookshop in Hampstead," Markovits explains, "in which you could buy 1880 Shelleys with uncut pages for £1." This, clearly, was not your standard 1980s teenager, eschewing books in favour of space invaders or The Smiths. But Markovits didn't come from a standard family. The son of two law professors - his mother is German - he spent his childhood in Texas, London and Berlin. His father, an enthusiastic collector of Victoriana, took his family on regular trips to antique shops and markets. Perhaps it's not surprising that both his offspring developed a passion for the 19th century that stuck.

That passion is evident in all three of Markovits's novels. The Syme Papers, his first, switches between the world of a contemporary academic and a crackpot scientist in 1820s Baltimore. His second novel, Either Side of Winter, is set in a private school in contemporary New York, but has the ponderous and nuanced feel of Edith Wharton or Henry James. His new novel, Imposture (Faber, £10.99), is set in the early 19th-century London of Lord Byron.

Markovits lives, appropriately enough, in a Victorian house in north-west London. The scene, when I arrive just before Christmas, is like a tableau extolling the Victorian values of hearth and home. A huge Christmas tree dominates the room. A real fire burns merrily in the hearth. And there, on a sofa, sits the paterfamilias, cradling his four-week-old baby. The baby is swiftly despatched to his wife, Caroline, who is completing a PhD on Russian aesthetics and the Bloomsbury group.

Markovits's own postgraduate research, he tells me in the quiet of his study, was about Byron and Wordsworth's accounts of how to live. That of his sister, a professor of English at Yale, was on "inaction in 19th-century literature". It's beginning to seem a running theme. "Well, we're not a very histrionic family," he says. "I always thought that much less happened in life than in literature and that most people managed to interest themselves in the daily course of events, even though there weren't any grand climaxes. But maybe that was just the common experience of our childhood."

It was while studying English at Yale that Markovits came across the story of John Cleves Symmes Jr, the 19th-century American scientist who believed that Earth was hollow. Markovits started writing The Syme Papers and, believing a life in sport would be more "real" than a life in academia, went to Germany to play basketball. When he found that the physical demands of the job left little energy for writing, he quit. He'd wanted to follow in the footsteps of his Romantic heroes as a poet, but reality soon struck. "I wasn't going to make a living writing poetry," he explains, "so I decided that I would write novels instead."

The Syme Papers was written while "scooping ice-cream" in Oxford. It was hailed in The Independent on Sunday as " a brilliant book" by a "first-rate talent". Matt Thorne, in this paper, praised Markovits for his "exquisite sympathy for his characters" and "beautiful, dryly humorous prose". The novel, which juxtaposes the musings of a failed academic with an extraordinarily energetic, but also failed, scientist, is a terrific, if rather long, read. But for a novelist who claims to be interested in inaction, isn't it a bit, well, action-packed?

"Yes, it's embarrassingly full of plot," Markovits agrees. "The earlier drafts had less going on and I suppose you could say that the first section is purely academic discovery." In the inaction stakes, however, his second novel, Either Side of Winter, was much nearer the mark. Inspired by a year spent teaching in New York, it offers glimpses into the (largely inner) lives of a group of characters, in four sections: fall, winter, spring and summer.

"I think the spring episode really came through the most successful," says Markovits. "In all the others, even though for most people the book probably seems pretty uneventful, something happens - there's a big gambling debt or a rediscovered daughter or a death by cancer - but only in the spring episode does absolutely nothing happen. Because most books are so eventful, there's a tendency in a certain kind of reader to detach themselves from certain issues in the story because they're not the kinds of things that happen to them. I'd hoped that if I wrote a book in which very little happens, as in their lives, but still there's a continuing thread of interest to keep them occupied, it might seem more intimate and moving."

In this, he triumphantly succeeded. Either Side of Winter is an exquisitely nuanced portrait of relatively ordinary lives. It is also less than half the length of The Syme Papers. Imposture is even shorter. "Well, I think I learnt my lesson," says Markovits with a rueful smile. "Byron's first canto for Don Juan, which he cut, was incredibly long. He got the same money for each canto and you realise that nobody thanks you for the long poem."

The first in a planned trilogy of books about Byron, Imposture focuses on John Polidori, Byron's travelling physician, now fallen on hard times. Polidori, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the philandering poet, is struggling with debt, envy and his belief that he lived "at the wrong end of things", killing "whatever he touched". The book he claims to have written, The Vampyre, is a bestseller, but he is unable to reap the benefits. A young woman, Eliza, is in love with him, but she believes he is Byron - a belief that Polidori chooses not to challenge.

An act of imposture is therefore at the heart of the novel, but it is also how it begins. Returning to a New York school, Imposture opens with a prologue by a fictional Markovits, describing a fellow teacher who "spoke Romantic like a mother tongue" and left him a manuscript, "written in a style nearly two hundred years old". Which, of course, is the text of Imposture.

A series, then of postmodern jokes: "Well, I had a certain amount of information to impart," Markovits explains, "and I didn't want to impart it in the historical novel itself. I wanted to treat it as a contemporary novel that happened to be set 200 years ago. It seemed a suitably Romantic frame... Maybe," he muses, "I'm too naïve to be a proper postmodernist. I'm interested in taking real events and real texts, and seeing if I can weave a story round them so that I can't tell the difference between what's real and what isn't... I just want to make things that are intimate and alive and feel true."

Yet again, he has spectacularly succeeded. Imposture is a tour de force, a mesmerising portrayal (once again) of a life shot through with a sense of failure. Its pastiche prose is pretty much faultless and its central metaphors - not just of imposture, but also of vampirism, the way that certain people suck the life out of others - are handled with delicacy and grace. At the end, Polidori concludes that the trouble with both him and Eliza is "only solitude and an excess of poetry".

For Markovits, it is a combination that has clearly been remarkably productive. "When I was a kid I was always on Byron's side against Wordsworth," he explains, "because Byron always privileged the real world above the imagined one, and Wordsworth didn't. So when Wordsworth crosses the Alps, he decides that actually he's better off imagining them. It always seemed to me nobler to privilege the real thing, but actually," he confides, "I think I'm much more Wordsworthian than Byronic."

Biography: Benjamin Markovits

Benjamin Markovits was born in 1973 in California. He grew up in Texas, London and Berlin. After studying English at Yale, he went to Germany where he played basketball for TG Landshut, a team based near Munich. After a spell writing and "scooping ice-cream" in Oxford, he did an MPhil on the Romantics and then spent a year teaching at a private school in New York. He has published three novels: The Syme Papers, Either Side of Winter and the new Imposture (Faber). He also writes for the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. He lives in north-west London with his wife, Caroline, and new baby, Gwen.