cover image Lord Bryron's Doctor

Lord Bryron's Doctor

Paul West. Doubleday Books, $19.95 (277pp) ISBN 978-0-385-26129-6

West's gifts as a writer are considerable ( Rat Man of Paris ; The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests ). But this engorged and fussy novel, based on the diary of Byron's personal physician, John William Polidori, may lose some fans. Though initially amusing in its outrageously Rabelaisian bawdry, the overwrought period style soon palls. Polidori, who wrote The Vampyre , was commissioned by Byron's publisher to keep a diary on the poet, which was considered too scurrilous to print at the time (it was published in 1911). West's version of the diary provides raucous accounts of the two men's sexual escapades as they journey to Italy. They join Percy and Mary Shelley at the Villa Diodati, followed by Byron's mistress Claire Clairmont. The latter begins an affair with Polidori and bears a child that may be his, not Byron's. Treated with affectionate contempt by Byron, Polidori was intrigued by ``the flesh and its rampages,'' and has a prurient as well as remedial interest in the generative organs and their diseases. One of the novel's best rendered scenes is the account of his suicide at age 26, by drinking a cocktail of poisons. On the whole, however, this novel is notable more as a curiosity than as a literary achievement. (Sept.)