His middle-aged hero wakes up in hospital. He has fallen on to rocks and suffers total amnesia. Luckily, the most accessible of all great writers, Shakespeare - for it is he, though he is never named - happens to be occupying the next bed. He gives the hero a name, William, and the first clue to recovering his memories of the sexual obsession that has all but destroyed him. Shakespeare's sonnets establish him as the expert on the subject.
Encouraged by his psychiatrist, William begins to write, and slowly reconstructs his past life. Other Williams, Wordsworth and Yeats, fill in with quotations. William is not entirely solipsistic about names: John Donne, with his misogynistic spleen, and John Ruskin, with his lech for young Rose La Touche, supply material too. But it is William Hazlitt who emerges as the dominant voice in William's story, and their identities become indistinguishable.
Both are failed painters, critics of Shakespeare, gritty, accomplished essayists and political dissidents: Hazlitt just after the French Revolution, Bate's William during the Thatcher years. Neither notices the inconsistency between his radicalism and his contempt for the working-class family he lodges with. Neither sees how exploitative is his craze for the daughter of the house - Sarah Walker, in both cases - who brings his breakfast, cleans his room and services him sexually while keeping her clothes on.
Hazlitt is little read now. His Liber Amoris, the account of his relationship with Sarah published in 1823, was widely derided. But it is a horribly powerful piece of writing which the 1990s William can reproduce verbatim as his own experience. 1820s, 1990s: same difference. Our William is quite unaffected by feminist thinking about sex or literature in the intervening years. But we must not mistake William for Bate.
While Hazlitt was visiting Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District, he tried to rape a Keswick woman and flogged her when she fought him off. The local people were furious. By Coleridge's account, 200 men on horseback hunted him through the woods around Keswick. He was lucky to get away alive, supplied with money and clothes by Wordsworth, and wearing Coleridge's shoes. It was the end of his very short friendship with both poets.
Our William makes his own literary excursion to the Lakes. But it is the woman who sexually attacks him, of course. He edits out his own brutality though he can't quite edit out his absurdity. Occasionally, a dry comment from his ex-wife further undermines his unreliable narrative. Bate makes his reader work hard to distinguish the different chronological layers.
Sarah is the novel's witty central metaphor. She is life itself, never to be experienced in the raw but only through the fabric of a language already written for us when we are born. Writers, far from being sources of humane wisdom, are nastier and more deceitful than average; habitual readers the more deceived. Even when we know that, there is no escaping the primacy of the book. The cure for love is another love. But there is no cure for writers and readers, condemned to glimpse reality for ever through a haze of quotations.