Benjamin Markovits The Syme Papers Reviewed by Katie Dean

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The Syme Papers

Benjamin Markovits

Faber and Faber

UK Trade Paperback First

ISBN 0-571-21790-7

Publication Date: 02-19-2004

Pages 495; Price; £12.99

Date Reviewed: 12-04-04

Reviewed by: Katie Dean © 2004



General Fiction, Science Fiction

'The Syme Papers' is essentially a novel about broken dreams. It traces the lives of two men, Dr Douglas Pitt, a research fellow from contemporary Texas and his subject, Samuel Highgate Syme, an eighteenth-century American scientist. Both men share common characteristics; they each have a dream, a desire to leave something to posterity, but in the end each is forced to confront the fact that their dreams will never be realized.

Benjamin Markovits possesses remarkable powers of description that he puts to excellent use in 'The Syme Papers'. The research he has carried out is palpable, but these two factors in conjunction with one another, can become overpowering. There is a tendency to force upon the reader minutely detailed accounts of geological experiments and history. Such a wealth of knowledge excites admiration for the author's thoroughness and underlines the obsessive natures of the novel's three main protagonists. However, it also risks alienating the less scientifically minded reader.

'The Syme Papers' is not a page-turner in the conventional sense. It lacks pace and is at bottom a rather unremarkable story. The fact that it remains a compelling novel is due largely to the sympathy we, as readers, feel for the characters involved. Markovits paints his main protagonists with feeling and realism. His characters are flawed, but their flaws are those of normal people, exacting the interest and compassion that we would feel for those around us. Once again, it is Markovits' talent for describing, in minute detail, the feelings and actions of his characters that brings them to life. Markovits injects sufficient humour and compassion to allow the us as readers to see a little of ourselves in his characters. Douglas Pitt tells his own story in his own words, exhibiting a strong sense of self-awareness, despite his inability to address what he knows to be his character flaws. Sam Syme is viewed alternately through the eyes of Douglas Pitt, his biographer, and Friedrich Muller, Syme's colleague, both only too happy to point out Syme's foibles as well as his more loveable characteristics.

The bare bones of the story appear rather dry at first. This is an account of the painstaking process of academic research. It is portrayed with extreme realism and, as it unfolds, tells another story, that of the scientific endeavours of the geologist Sam Syme. From the start we know that Syme's research failed to attract the acclaim that it was due. In all probability the man broke new ground in his field, but his name remained unrecognized both during and after his lifetime. Douglas Pitt, Syme's biographer seeks to redress this and in so doing to make his own name as a scientific historian. There is a clever parallel in the lives of these two men and Markovits plays with this throughout the novel. We know that Syme's quest for glory failed and we suspect that Pitt's will be similarly unsuccessful, but Markovits allows sufficient doubt of the outcome to persuade the reader to continue hoping for a happy ending right up to the final paragraph. Indeed, the ending may be a little unexpected, but is neither disappointing nor sad.

On the face of it, 'The Syme Papers' promises little. However, it delivers a great deal. It is testimony to Markovits' talent as a writer that he can turn an unremarkable story about very ordinary, perhaps even unappealing characters into a compelling read. He injects failure and disappointment with humour and ultimately asks us to question our own goals in life and our conception of success and happiness.