The Syme Papers, by Benjamin Markovits

The loneliness of the long-term student
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The Independent Culture

Bob Dylan's strange new film, Masked & Anonymous, features newscasters who report the discovery that the centre of the Earth is hollow, full of "the sound of suffering souls". Coincidentally, Benjamin Markovits' astonishing debut novel concerns a 19th-century scientist, Samuel Highgate Syme, who purports to believe that the Earth is hollow and habitable, containing solid concentric spheres, one within the other. To prove this theory, he petitions the US Congress to fund his proposed exploration of the hollow.

Bob Dylan's strange new film, Masked & Anonymous, features newscasters who report the discovery that the centre of the Earth is hollow, full of "the sound of suffering souls". Coincidentally, Benjamin Markovits' astonishing debut novel concerns a 19th-century scientist, Samuel Highgate Syme, who purports to believe that the Earth is hollow and habitable, containing solid concentric spheres, one within the other. To prove this theory, he petitions the US Congress to fund his proposed exploration of the hollow.

For Markovits' other main character, research student Douglas Pitt, this petition is a joke taken too far, a distraction from what he sees as the scientist's great unheralded discovery of the theory of continental drift. Having decided to make the rehabilitation of Syme his life's work, Pitt is forced to ignore the scientist's failings and convince himself he has uncovered a lost genius.

Pitt is a diligent research student, but also something of a lost cause; one of those sad souls trapped in the stacks of the Bodleian or, as for much of the early part of this novel, the British Library. He has little to look forward to beyond his packed lunch, yet there is something heroic in his self-delusion. When he discovers a manuscript by a German scientist, Friedrich Muller, who spent 1821 with Syme, Pitt convinces himself it will provide the ammunition he needs to convince the academy of Syme's brilliance.

The dual narrative switches between Muller's manuscript and the contemporary story: always a tricky device, the danger being that one strand proves much more compelling. But Markovits avoids this pitfall by giving the reader large chunks of each story rather than flipping back and forth.

Pitt's only sin is to choose the wrong person to champion. While many classic novels are about the perils of a bad marriage, this is about the dangers of a poor subject. Markovits presents a wilful self-abnegation, as Pitt prays that his act of devotion will bring recognition for Syme, and perhaps some small honour for the man who rediscovered him.

Comedies about academia tend to confine themselves to campuses and sexual misadventure. The Syme Papers is a much darker entertainment, concerned with lives squandered and the loneliness of the long-term student. Markovits has set himself a hard task by exploring failure within a milieu that can usually only be brought to life through an imported sense of success and adventure.

Neither Pitt nor Syme is an especially romantic figure, both devoting their lives to quixotic quests that bring only derision and unhappiness.

The reason why the novel works so well is that Markovits has an exquisite sympathy for his characters and writes beautiful, dryly humorous prose, revealing an incredible breadth of reading.

It is a dense read, but one of delightful clarity, and should be perused by anyone who has ever considered a career in academia.

Matt Thorne's novel 'Child Star' is published by Phoenix

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