not myself goes home to myself

—John Keats

In The Warm South, novelist Paul Kerschen performs a resurrection. The body is that of John Keats, dead at age twenty-five of tuberculosis. Dying in 1821, Keats had written his greatest poetry in the concentrated three-year period immediately preceding. He died on a medically-prescribed trip to Rome with his friend, painter Joseph Severn, leaving behind an outstanding invitation to visit Pisa from Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley and an outstanding engagement to his London fiancée, Fanny Brawne.

The Warm South restores Keats from his deadly illness and threads his loose ends into a narrative around all of Keats’s selves: the writer, the aesthete, the friend, the lover, and the surgeon. Keats returns to the medical work that he had abandoned. He grows close with the Shelleys and clashes with Lord Byron. He gets involved, tentatively, in the tumultuous politics of 1820s Italy. He agonizes over his tortuous engagement. And he does write again, though what he writes is one of the great surprises of the novel.

The Warm South may seem an unfashionable book in that it does not proclaim its immediate political or sociological relevance. Yet Europe’s political tumult in the 1820s, in Kerschen’s portrayal, comes to resemble our own, with an old elite increasingly dislodged but no clear progressive force ascendant. And Keats, a dislocated (in several ways) soul who possessed the same “negative capability” which he ascribed to Shakespeare, stands partly withdrawn from the events around him, struggling to find a place in which he and his work can contribute. Keats’s answer to that problem in The Warm South is circuitous, pained, and not without strife, but ultimately affirmative.

I spoke to Paul Kerschen regarding the inspiration for his novel and how he shaped the resurrected Keats.

 

David Auerbach: You clearly took joy in writing your version of Keats. Is The Warm South fan fiction of a sort?

Paul Kerschen: No doubt! There must also be a touch of Frankenstein in my resurrecting him for my own purposes. I gained and lost a great deal over the course of writing, but whatever the endpoint, it did at least start from a felt intimacy with Keats’s own words, and perhaps in that respect it isn’t too much worse a distortion than other kinds of reading.

 

Why Keats?

For me at least, Keats is one of those writers where the felt affinity is so personal and idiosyncratic that you're always surprised to find it so broadly shared. His poetry is almost wholly guileless, and that lack of guile makes him very vulnerable—he’s always risking failure of the most open and embarrassing kind. We have the odes, of course, and the other perfect short pieces that show up in anthologies, but next to those are so many failed experiments and false starts—in part because of his early death, but also because his gifts were often in a different key from the themes he tried to take up. In that sense he’s the total opposite of a poet like Yeats, where the technical and rhetorical command is so broad and complete that however you respond to him personally, you never question why he’s in the canon.

I first thought of attempting a novel about Keats a long time ago, on my first reading of “Hyperion.” That poem is one of his astonishing failures; if he’d somehow managed to complete it, we’d think of it as a worthy footnote to Milton, but his temperament was fatal to the project in a much more interesting way. It’s staged as an allegorical revolution, like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, in which a new order is supposed to overthrow the old tyrants, but Keats never gets to the actual point of conflict because he’s too caught up in the suffering of the fallen Titans. Their pains are superhuman, described as lavishly as his other poems describe sensory pleasure, and are obviously informed by his knowledge of medical science. I’d never read anything like it. It’s easy to point out where the poem is derivative of Paradise Lost, but that hushed communion with suffering is a quality all its own, and it completely enraptured me, all the more because it was tied to failure. It seemed so modern; in my private mental library it might sit next to Kafka, another fragmentary writer whose presence in the canon can still surprise when it so often seems he’s speaking to you alone. Before I knew anything else about my own book, I knew I wanted to follow that thread.

 

For readers with only casual familiarity with Keats and the Romantic era, what is important to know about them in grappling with your novel?

I hope that a casual familiarity will get them pretty far! At any rate, I didn’t want specialized knowledge to be an admissions requirement, and one of the pleasant challenges of writing historical fiction is to have the book disclose its own world without its intermediary stance becoming too obvious. Of course there are some things the book isn’t allowed to telegraph, most obviously its own counterfactuality; it might head off some confusion to be clear that it picks up in February 1821, at the point where, according to the biographies and Wikipedia, Keats has expired. Likewise worth a note might be the politics of the time, which seemed very much as desperate as our own. Napoleon’s defeat had installed reactionary absolute monarchies across the continent, with an Austrian police state to back them up, and in Britain the same conservative ministers who had overseen George III’s dotage were now confronting nationwide protests from a working class displaced by industrialization and suffering postwar famine, culminating in the infamous armed massacre at Peterloo. The later part of the century would bring about Italian unification and the British reform bills, but in 1821, the path seemed long indeed.

 

How did you conceive of Keats’s (rather eventful) further adventures?

To start with, I had biography to hang my hat on. Shelley really had hoped for Keats to join him in Pisa, and Keats really had exhausted his own and his friends’ money in getting to Italy and had nothing to draw on in the event of a recovery. When I thought of him abroad, I thought of his letters from an 1818 walking tour of Scotland and Ireland. These show him to be an eager and curious traveler, always alive to the people around him; even a rather awful description from the Irish countryside of “a squalid old woman squat like an ape half starved” concludes with the thought, “What a thing would be the history of her life and sensations.” That passage may not be the most enlightened, but there’s still a curiosity there, in which he seems to go beyond his time. When you read period travelogues from the Mediterranean, the British are always admiring the picturesque past and repelled by the inhabitants at present. A traveler like Byron might get caught up in the romance of a popular revolt, but generally the Italian population is seen as the degraded remnant of a once-great race. I hoped that Keats might see more and do more, that he might enter the life of Italy as others wouldn’t—and of course, without money at his disposal, the plot could more easily compel him to do so.

The other presiding puzzle to work out was Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne. This is the most agonizingly incomplete part of the present-day legend of Keats; his literary achievement is secure for us, but the thwarted love story is pure tragedy. The pull of having Keats immediately return to England and marry Fanny had to be resisted, since that would make for a very short book. As a counterweight I use Keats’s own ambivalence about women and marriage, which shows up in so many of his letters (including the passage you quote below) and threads the fear of constraint through every profession of desire. This fear shows the most glaring gap in his otherwise broad sympathies; I do think it was a quality of youth that he might have outgrown with a more settled position in life, and the novel does its best to test that hypothesis. To that end, there needed to be several prominent women in the book, with well-defined stories of their own. There’s Mary Shelley, as you bring up below, but also a purely fictional adolescent Italian girl, and later in the book, Fanny Brawne herself takes on a more active role. I’m not sure the book’s structure allows it to pass the Bechdel test even so, but it was intended to be in that spirit.

 

How did you research the book?

I’m lucky to work at a university that provides me a library card and a network tunnel to the Oxford English Dictionary. Biographies of Keats and other figures in the book were of course essential, though I don’t directly relate any of those events. There’s something uneasy in a novel about a well-attested historical figure—the fiction never seems to get room to breathe, there’s always an offstage prompter whispering cues for the next scene. I suspect some dark connection to market pressures that favor nonfiction over fiction. Anyhow, I knew from the beginning that this book would have to be entirely counterfactual, picking up at the moment of Keats’s biographical death. But that layer of unreality had to be painted over a plausibly worked-up background.

As with any book on a period, there are a few dozen volumes behind it on Italy in the nineteenth century, the expatriates of note who lived there, medical practice of the day and so on. I also spent a lot of time reading primary sources as a kind of immersion course. Travel literature from the period is excellent at catching attitudes of the day, and then there were all the letters, diaries and articles, some by people who appear as characters in the book, some not. Most of what I read was British, though there are details in Stendhal’s Rome, Naples and Florence so good I had to steal them. Much of my concern was just to get a better intuition for the English of the time. When intuition needed to be checked, both the OED and Google Ngrams were very helpful.

 

How did you go about trying to capture Keats’s voice?

Voice is a hard quality to pin down, and it’s a lucky thing that third-person fiction gives you so many ways to fudge it. The closest thing to outright pastiche would be letters written by this version of Keats (the verse being an entirely separate audacity); there I was relying entirely on my reading, trying to match the speed of Keats’s epistolary mind. I don’t know anyone else whose letters make so many lateral jumps. The dialogue also had to hew close to primary sources, or give the effect of doing so. The third-person narration, on the other hand, had more freedom of movement and could pick up more or less inflection from the nineteenth century and what I imagine to be Keats’s own mode of speech, as the passage required. As far as those qualities of temperament that aren’t just a matter of speech patterns, I had good advice from my spouse to the effect that I should remember what I loved about Keats, why I had originally wanted to write about him, and not omit to make it joyful. So I did my best to keep hold of his sympathy and generosity, the attention to suffering that isn’t separate from delight in the sensory world; and also his sometimes-thin skin, coming from his sensitivity to disadvantage.

I can’t claim that my character is a drop-in replacement for Keats as he was, and one blessing of the counterfactual conceit is that I don’t quite have to do that. The character starts the book having just been to the underworld and back, and apart from anything else he’s a bit older than any biographical Keats we know. Our legend of Keats is that of a gifted boy, and his detractors also saw his emotional openness as infantile: Byron grousing about “Johnny Keats’s piss-a-bed poetry” or Yeats’s cutting description of him as a schoolboy at a sweet-shop window. He was young, but I do think his vulnerability was a stance deliberately chosen, and one that took great courage. So one question the novel takes on is what happens when that stance is carried through the end of youth into maturity—and that question took on weight over time, since the writing took several years longer than I expected and ended up covering the end of my own youth as well. (I’m long past Keats’s twenty-five, but I do think people grew up faster then.) By the end of it, the original figure of Keats in my mind was completely overwritten by the character in the book, and I fear he’s likely to stay that way. Which is a cause for some regret, but it couldn’t have been helped.

You also offer what is presumably a (mostly) non-counterfactual portrait of Percy and Mary Shelley’s marriage at a difficult point. How did you conceptualize their marriage, and how did you think Keats’s intercession could affect their marriage?

I think of those difficulties as a matter of blindness: Percy unable to see the toll that his poetic and amatory enthusiasms exact, and Mary’s depressions dropping like a veil to close off the surrounding world. Probably the darkest point in their shared biography was the death of their one-year-old daughter Clara on the initial journey to Italy, which Percy had insisted they make in great haste during a fatally hot summer. In her grief, Mary withdrew from Percy, who began to seek physical comfort elsewhere; at the same time she began to write Mathilda, in which the character of Woodville is a version of Shelley made so angelic as not to be a very successful fiction—perhaps blindness of a different sort. When Keats enters the midst of this, his role is not to perform any particular intercessory action so much as to offer an alternative example of attention and care. Not that Keats always behaves as a paragon himself. But he is clear-eyed, and by virtue of being awake to what others don’t see, he might drop the scales from their eyes as well.

 

Keats and Mary Shelley in particular seem nearly polar in both their creative and emotional orientation, to the extent that Keats nearly seems to wilt in some of his encounters with her. What was it like to throw them together? Keats does seem to grow from his encounter with Mary; does she grow from her encounter with him?

Mary is a formidable opposite number for Keats, and certainly one of his teachers; between his unease around women, his distrust of systematic philosophy, and the generally suspect status of prose fiction at the time, she gives him plenty of new ground to cover. What he has to offer her in turn is close, I think, to one of the morally deep themes in his later poetry, which is the interdependence of opposites, and in particular the inseparability of joy and grief. Both characters are melancholics, but Keats’s melancholy conceives a path toward reintegration with the world rather than simply blotting it out. I hoped this could be a gift both to Mary and to others who encounter him.

De Quincey, who was no fan of Keats, wrote that “Had there been no such thing as literature, Keats would have dwindled into a cipher.” Even he later said he was being unfair, but I do feel there is a sense in which literature itself activated Keats’s talents in a way that it did not Wordsworth, say. Is it fair to read The Warm South as a story of Keats being removed from “literature” and set adrift?

It certainly starts that way; magicking away Keats’s illness doesn’t remove the other pressures that seemed to be telling him life as a writer was foreclosed. The 1820 book of poems that we think of as his crowning success was published as a somewhat desperate act, capped with an epic poem he hadn’t been able to finish; after the disastrous reception of Endymion, he had no reason to hope that his future work would fall on gentler ears. I agree with you and De Quincey that Keats wasn’t a polymath or man of action in the way of many of his contemporaries. His extended life was always going to have to lead him back to writing, and the challenge was to find a path that would afford sufficient surprise along the way.

 

In Italy, Keats confronts both medicine and politics. Are these directions that you wanted Keats to go in from the outset, or did the material arise from your idea of what sort of person Keats would become had he lived?

The other figures that Keats compares to the poet, or finds similarly admirable, are the physician and the philosopher. All are working for the betterment of mankind, and since philosophy for Keats is an Enlightenment philosophy treating questions of freedom and justice, politics is a natural extension of that domain. Medicine is important for exploring his character, since it brings out questions of sympathy and suffering, but it was also motivated as a matter of practical necessity. In the last two years of Keats’s life, we see him throw out a number of more or less plausible, and more or less desperate, ideas about what next to do with himself; he imagined going to sea, studying in Edinburgh, becoming a journalist, but the only practical avenue open to him was one of the relatively menial medical professions of the day. It was a lucky arrangement that the novel’s plot could put him to this labor in the university town of Pisa, since that allowed the political content to be naturally folded in. As a matter of pure sociology, it’s fascinating how many nineteenth-century revolutionaries were also medical students.

 

Keats’s sensitivity is greatly on display in the novel. But I sometimes thought of Keats’s more impetuous qualities, those that made him write: “I equally dislike the favour of the public with the love of a woman. They are both a cloying treacle to the wings of Independence. I shall ever consider them (People) as debtors to me for verses, not myself to them for admiration—which I can do without... but this pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than anything else could—so I will indulge it.” I heard less of this side of Keats in the novel. Is it something he outgrew, or is it a result of his changed circumstances?

Keats in this novel is definitely furnished with less bravado than appears in that letter, and I’d say a combination of age and circumstance accounts for it. When I think of the effects of his illness, an anecdote comes to mind that Maria Gisborne told of visiting him at Leigh Hunt’s; the conversation turned to a particular singer’s technique of indefinitely prolonging his breath, and Keats replied, scarcely audibly, that such a performance “must in some degree be painful to the hearer; as when a diver descends into the depths of the sea you feel an apprehension lest he never rise again.” He was silenced by having the breath stolen from his lungs, and although the novel works to undo that silencing, the image of the hushed voice stayed with me and made it hard to have the character speak as confidently as the historical Keats in the letter. Toward the middle of the book, I would say that his impetuosity and pride comes out in a series of unexpected decisions, and in writing a play incomprehensibly far ahead of its time, he lets the favor of the public go hang. But at this point he is older, and more given to action than programmatic statement.

 

The resurrected Keats is not, at first blush, as consumed by poetic inspiration as the Keats we know from his final years. When inspiration does strike him in Rome, he composes a fragment of a play in the blank verse style of Shakespeare and Chapman. Yet the lines themselves are a close adaptation of the opening of Georg Büchner’s Dantons Tod, a play which Büchner would write ten years after the setting of your novel (and which wouldn’t be performed until the twentieth century), and in contemporary German prose. By what mechanism does such a Menardian process occur? What was your own inspiration for it?

There was no way around having Keats write something over the course of the novel. If the life were Shelley’s or Byron’s, I might have caught them up in adventures having nothing to do with literature as such, but a Keats who ceased to write would cease to be recognizable as Keats, so much so that I couldn’t see how to duck incorporating an actual text. It was beyond my powers to invent something from whole cloth; the only strings to my bow were pastiche and a knowledge of later history. It wouldn’t have worked to pull something from the later British canon; a poem by Browning, say, would have remained too much itself for reattribution. So that left translation as an avenue where invention was possible but constrained. The essential thing was not to have too much liberty, as Wordsworth puts it.

You mention Borges, and calling a work into being before its time doubtless implies some kind of Borgesian conceit in which the progress of artworks can take place independently of particular creators, so that a work prevented from appearing along one avenue will find a way to manifest elsewhere. Not that I believe in the literal truth of that assertion—literary history is contingent and path-dependent as anything else—but for the novel’s purposes it’s enough to present the scenario, because fiction here lets you have it both ways. The symmetry of having Keats live past his allotted time in order to summon up something unborn is what drew me. The implications of that symmetry I’m not entirely in a position to explain.

 

Why Büchner? Why Dantons Tod?

The piece had to be something misunderstood in its own time. The book’s whole premise might be a deus ex machina, but to give Keats a public scene of artistic triumph after saving him from death would have been an intolerable dishonesty. If he is to survive and adopt his contemporaries’ political interests, then he can’t simply imitate them; he has to leapfrog them and return with something that anticipates a much later avant-garde. Büchner was a committed revolutionary who refused to paint any heroes into his play of the French Revolution; the integrity in that stance is that it refuses false consolation. As in King Lear, as in Beckett, bleakness is applied so impartially that it seems to evoke the selfless sublime toward which the Romantics aspired, in a very different key. There are also the biographical parallels: Büchner also had medical training which led him to pay particular attention to the body, and sometimes lends a Keatsian sensuality to his rough-cut prose; he died of disease even younger than Keats, at twenty-three; and they had a common ancestor in Shakespearean drama. Like most of his generation, Keats would have liked to write theater as much, or more, than lyric; the brief, impressive fragment of King Stephen is perhaps our best clue as to where he might next have gone, and Büchner’s prose drama gave just the right framework to try that mode on a larger scale.

 

Since Jackson Bate’s seminal essay, Keats has been celebrated for the characteristic he observed in Shakespeare, his “negative capability.” Do you think that trait makes itself felt in your chronicle? Has it mutated in the matured Keats?

I think of negative capability in connection with another famous passage from the letters, on how the poetic character has no self of its own, but becomes every successive object that it contemplates. That abrogation of the ego, and willingness to accept particulars without rushing to assign concepts, is key to how Keats encounters the world in this book, in part because it goes hand in hand with the interdependence of opposites. I don’t know how much that trait mutates, since there’s something timeless about it, and its integration into one’s life is always partial insofar as intuitions without concepts are blind. As a matter of form, it’s interesting that Keats’s mature narrative works tend not to have villains; that was one stumbling block with the epic form in “Hyperion,” and in a poem like “Lamia,” the monster is drawn as sympathetically as anyone else. There’s a suspension of judgment that seems important to expressing negative capability in fiction, and I also wanted The Warm South to be a book without an antagonist, at least not one who appears onstage.

 

Long after Keats’s death, Joseph Severn wrote: “By degrees it began to be deemed needful that the young poet should go to Italy, even to preserve his life. This was at last accomplished, but too late; and now that I am reviewing all the progress of his illness from his first symptoms, I cannot but think his life might have been preserved by an Italian sojourn, if it had been adopted in time, and if circumstances had been improved as they presented themselves. And, further, if he had had the good fortune to go to America, which he partly contemplated before the death of his younger brother, not only would his life and health have been preserved, but his early fame would have been insured.” In some ways, your novel bears out the first half of his speculations. Were you ever tempted to send Keats to America? As an American, what do you feel to be your relation to the continental tradition which you treat, in which America is mostly but not entirely absent?

In Keats’s last years, he entertained several passing plans for travel, including North and even South America. I toyed with the idea, but demurred in the end because sending Keats to America in 1821 would have distanced him from literature far more radically than anything he experiences in Italy. Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers gives an excellent picture of the punishing frontier conditions that George Keats faced; I also can’t help thinking of Henry James’s essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne, with its brutal judgment on the America of Hawthorne’s time: “One might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it becomes a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense . . . no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, no parsonages, not thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools . . . especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or French imagination, would probably be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say.”

That catalog is elitist to the point of parody, and includes many things that Keats had no access to in or out of Europe. At the same time, to the extent I understand James’s secret or joke, Keats wasn’t a figure I couldn’t let in on it; he’s such an essentially English writer, and America would be somehow more fatal to his Englishness than Italy was. Not that I see in America the vacuity that James describes—except, perhaps, in that void which can open when American fiction becomes too insular and turns in too absolutely on the subject of itself. The American mind at its best is omnivorous, and the parts of the tradition that give me happiness and hope are those that look outward: everything from Melville’s voyages to the new books in translation that appear every week. I suppose my own backward glance at the European continent is a small attempt to help that outward turn along.

 

To emphasize the depth of the English tradition which The Warm South inhabits, it quotes from Shakespeare’s perennially unpopular play Cymbeline. I quoted from Cymbeline in my own book Bitwise:
“This fierce abridgement
Hath to it circumstantial branches which
Distinction should be rich in.”
I was surprised to see that you make use of it as well. What does Cymbeline mean to you, and what does it signal for Keats in The Warm South? (For me it is, among other things, Shakespeare setting himself the challenge of trying to wrench meaning from the most preposterous, overstuffed, and artificial plot he could conjure.)

Those are great lines, and you’re dead right about plot and meaning in that play. I use Cymbeline around the midpoint of the book, at the point where it executes a kind of flip away from historical realism toward new conventions. This wasn’t an intentional progression, but since the early part of the book is closer to verifiable history, it seemed bound to verisimilitude in a way that holds less strongly later, once we’ve sailed out farther from the shores of actuality. At that point the strangeness of late Shakespeare, that mystical way the sense of reconciliation hangs free from the welter of events, became a guiding star. Lytton Strachey thought that Cymbeline showed a playwright who was “bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams,” and while I wouldn’t use those words, he’s right that the tight coupling of plot and meaning in the tragedies has come loose in favor of some more mysterious and, in its way, more purely poetic mechanism.

 

Yet Keats engages the world as well by returning to surgery in The Warm South. Do you work as something other than a writer?

I’m not a professional writer, in the sense that I don’t teach or write journalism for a living. I studied both literature and fiction writing academically, but after finishing the degrees it seemed like continuing on that path would throw up too many impediments to the day-to-day work of getting books written. So I switched to writing software as a day job. Of course it’s a mark of privilege that I was able to do so; my father is an aerospace engineer and I grew up around computers, assuming I’d also end up in engineering or science. But software development does sit more easily alongside a writing practice than many other things I could imagine doing, and I think people no longer take the dual career as so much of a novelty. It’s like the doctor writers or lawyer writers of past decades: professions that involve specialized training but also call on a more generalized know-how, at least in the best case. Our intellectual culture has its stratifications, but there’s no direct equivalent to those nineteenth-century critics who blasted Keats for daring to publish while working as a hospital dresser.

 

David Auerbach is the author of Bitwise: A Life in Code (Pantheon). His writing has ap­peared in The Times Literary Supplement, MIT Technology Review, Tablet, The Nation, The Daily Beast, n+1, and Bookforum, among many other publications. He previously worked as a software engineer at Google and Microsoft. He has lectured around the world on technology, literature, philosophy, and stupidity. He lives in New York City.

Paul Kerschen was born in 1978 and grew up in Arizona. He studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received an Iowa Arts Fellowship and Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship, and earned a doctorate in English literature at UC Berkeley. He has written for Music & Literature, The Times Literary Supplement, and others. The Drowned Library (Foxhead, 2011) is a collection of short fiction. The Warm South is his first novel. He lives in California.