The Syme Papers by Benjamin Markovits

A buffoon in pursuit of a not-quite genius
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The Independent Culture


This first novel by Benjamin Markovits signals the arrival of a first-rate talent. The Syme Papers is an academic romance reminiscent of A S Byatt's Possession, with an inkhorn intelligence that will appeal to book-lovers everywhere.

Douglas Pitt is trying to prove that a 19th-century American scientist called Syme inspired theory of continental drift. It's not clear, however, whether Syme was quite the genius that Pitt needs him to be. He discovers a journal in which a German scientist called Friedrich Müller recorded a year spent in Syme's company. The journal becomes a significant part of the narrative in its own right (like Byatt in Possession, Markovits excels at aping 19th-century speech patterns).

Pitt embodies a mismatch of mediocrity and overblown ambition: like Salieri, he can appreciate genius, yet he is an antiheroic buffoon with pretensions as a wordsmith. Markovits has fashioned a brilliant book from a base character.

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