Benjamin Markovits
The Syme Papers

By Alastair Sooke

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

The story is told by an American academic called Douglas Pitt, at work on a book he hopes will earn him the respect of his colleagues and wife in a shabby King's Cross bedsit. Pitt's field is the history of scientific ideas; when we meet him, he is studying geology in a bid to prove that an unknown 19th-century American scientist called Samuel Highgate Syme inspired AL Wegener's theory of continental drift. It soon becomes unclear, though, if Syme was quite the genius that Pitt needs him to be, since his 'opium theories' – particularly of the 'hollow spheres', which imagines the Earth's core as an 'onion of concentric metallic spheres' – seem mad.

Ehen he discovers a journal in which a German scientist called Friedrich Müller recorded a year spent in Syme's company, Pitt hopes that his breakthrough has arrived. 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), and Pitt's voice soon competes with that of Müller. These different parts of the narrative are like the concentric spheres of Syme's theory, greased by the prose, interlinked, and revolving with a lubricious spin.

But Pitt's warped character is most engaging. Pitt embodies a mismatch of mediocrity and overblown ambition: although he can appreciate genius, he is an antiheroic buffoon with pretensions as a wordsmith. 'I am nothing if not literary,' he says; and while his mannered verbiage and low-grade puns constitute a kind of cod-literary patter, Markovits ironizes his narrator by subtly undermining the gravitas of his 'rolling oratorio'. Pitt's voice chugs and huffs, spewing words in a thick fog of exhaust; Markovits' prose, powered by a quality writer's engine, purrs.

As his name suggests, Pitt is a scholarly 'digger', scraping around in the dirt for precious ideas like 'a careful caterpillar going over old leaves again, again'. While all of us may be in the gutter, 'rare' is the man, says Pitt, 'who rummages about him in the muck'. Pitt is obsessed with 'muck' to the point of anal-fixation – he aims for a 'fleck of fecal matter' that stains the loo's porcelain bowl when he 'pees' – and 'digging' soon becomes a dirty word. Pitt prefers 'muddy texts' over clarity and coherence, just as he likes syme because he was a 'muddy' child. He even 'feeds' on ink's 'black blood' like some bibliomaniac vampire. Ink in The Syme Papers becomes a dirty medium – tacky, black, and somehow obscene. It is as if the entire novel is a midden of fictive bullshit piled up by this 'pitt-bull' of a narrator.

In an old Freudian equivalence, however, Pitt's mucky verbal excretion is synonymous with Markovits's golden style. Pitt wants to prove that Syme's ideas lodged like 'grit' in Wegener's brain to produce his 'pearl' of inspiration; similarly, Pitt's 'grit', as it were, becomes Markovits's 'pearl'. It is worth excavating the dense prose of The Syme Papers to find the diamonds embedded in the inky coal-face of words on every page. 'Where was the gold in this grit?' asks Pitt of Syme's moonbeam theories and showman's experiments. It is not a question we need ask Markovits, however, who has fashioned a brilliant book from a base character.
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