A little over a third of the way into Paul Kerschen’s debut historical novel, “The Warm South,” a character asks poet John Keats, “But you must know Mrs. Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’?”
As everyone today knows, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel features a man using science to give life to inanimate flesh. The plot of “Frankenstein” is a useful lens through which to view “The Warm South,” because Kerschen himself becomes a Dr. Frankenstein here, using literature (rather than science) as an exhumer, a reanimator, a life-giver.
The book is an alternative history in which Kerschen imagines what might have been if Keats didn’t die of tuberculosis at the tender age of 25 on Feb. 23, 1821. One can almost envision Kerschen collecting his “instruments of life,” as Victor Frankenstein did on that fateful night, so that he “might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing.”
Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, though, Kerschen needed no electricity, no chemistry, no alchemy to give Keats a second life, just some printed words to infuse a spark of being: “He died,” the book begins. “But they turned the lock on his bones and shut the ghost inside. Everything had to go on as before. He discovered the persistence of walls, the dominion of furniture. Look long enough into the ceiling and the ceiling ends up inside of you.”
Kerschen’s gem-like, crystalline prose is the book’s best feature; consider this early description of Italy at daybreak: “A Roman morning is a glass bead on the horizon, pearl-gray to start, then stained by lower lights. Blue rises from the roofs, flat white follows and in a flash of gold the sun mounts the sky and divides the world into light and shade. Knife-sharp shadows cut the piazzas, a lesson in perspective: things stand as they stand.”
With a poet’s eye, Kerschen describes all sorts of “stuff” in penetrating detail — a human skull on a desk, rock shapes on the shore and the sun throwing “laughing light on the water.” As Keats says to Shelley in the book, “There is so much stuff in a novel — such a need of objects to get the plot under way.”
When she sends him a copy of her “Frankenstein,” she includes a note: “You find here a Story which I own is full of Stuff — but perhaps you will discover among the Stuff some Matter.”
The plot that gets underway in “The Warm South” is full of both stuff and matter. It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare, replete with political intrigue, missed connections, gender-swapping disguises and a nested play, as well as deep themes and foundational questions about the imperfect, porous skins that are never quite able to encase and separate art from politics, life, love and duty.
Kerschen’s revived Keats becomes a part of Percy and Mary Shelley’s circle of expats, gets reacquainted with his medical roots and befriends some student revolutionaries. Kerschen makes bold choices throughout: Keats fixates his attention on a woman other than his muse, Fanny Brawne; writes a seemingly political play and reevaluates his “thoughts on nightingales.” Few writers, particularly few debut novelists, would have the guts to alter the opinions of one of the English language’s most revered poets, especially opinions expressed in one of that poet’s most iconic poems, “Ode to a Nightingale.”
The speaker of that ode writes, “O for a beaker full of the warm South!” In the book, Kerschen gives us more than a beaker-full of that mystical Mediterranean beauty. He seems well acquainted not only with Keats and his circle but also with the Italian landscapes and piazzas, that region’s moist air and harsh light.
Are his words able to live up to those of Keats? Of course not. There is an understanding that while Kerschen dauntlessly writes in the voice of Keats — not just dialogue but also snippets of poems, plays, letters — he can’t quite mimic the poet’s lyrical magic. Who could? Keats was at the height of his powers just before he died, having written his six great odes throughout 1819. One cannot expect a Keats of a Kerschen, which is no stain on the author.
As if in an admission of this fact, Kerschen writes, “Whose talents are perfect? Each of us struggles against fate, against his own limited powers.”
Cleverly, Kerschen builds this inevitable failing into the plot, lessening the blow of his own limited powers. The novel’s conceit sees Keats changed once he has been returned to life, writing “strange letters, and stranger verses.” Thus, when Kerschen, whose sentence-level craftsmanship is praise-worthy, still manages to fall short of the genius of Keats, there is a built-in reason why.
I only wish he had been bolder in trying to showcase the philosophical side of Keats — the Keats of “negative capability,” of the chameleon poet, of the “mansion of many apartments,” of “T wang dillo dee.” Much of the masterwork of Keats exists in his missives as in his verses.
That said, Kerschen does a fine job imagining a life for Keats, one well worth reading, but this second life, unsurprisingly, could never be as grand as the life Keats would have likely enacted for himself. And therein lies the tragedy at the core of the book: As much as Keats was robbed of a full life, we were robbed as well. For what would have come after the odes? We can never know.
We suspect it wouldn’t have gone exactly as Kerschen describes it, yet we linger with his book. We want to be in close proximity to Keats, even if it must be a Frankensteined Keats we don’t quite recognize. We want, as Kerschen puts it, “to touch the warm thing a moment more.” O for a beaker full of “The Warm South.”
Roundabout Press: 347 pp., $25
Malone is a writer based in Southern California. His work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere.