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Conversations With Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After HisLordship's Death by Amanda Prantera (Atheneum: $15.95; 174 pp.)

August 30, 1987| Carolly Erickson | Historian Erickson is at work on her ninth nonfiction book, a biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie. and

Rake, rogue, rapscallion and all-around Romantic: Byron was the bad boy of his era, and its most charismatic celebrity.

He belonged to that age which was not yet Victorian and no longer purely Georgian, the interim known as the Regency, presided over by the tasteful voluptuary George IV.

Like the rotund monarch, Byron was a connoisseur of women, and his conquests were legion.

Women sought him out, attracted by his poetry, his handsome features and by what they called his "smoldering under-look." His amatory history excited scandal in his own time, particularly his liaison with the married Caroline Lamb, his own star-crossed marriage to Annabelle Milbanke, who left him shortly after their daughter was born, and his intimacy with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.

But which of his many loves did he love best, and was this favorite a woman or a man?

In her brief and fanciful novel, "Conversations With Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship's Death," Amanda Prantera poses this question, and arrives, after much high-tech literary detective work, at a startling conclusion.

In the novel, a research project is under way in Artificial Intelligence, or rather Cognitive Emulation. A computer program has been written that contains every known piece of information about Byron's life and works--where he went, what he ate, all his recorded states of feeling.

To this store of data are added "moodiness parameters," intended to replicate Byron's degrees of sympathy, irritability, boredom or anxiety about certain subjects and events. Beyond this, the programmers have given their "brainchild Harold" a "richly structured semantics of the self," which, to the astonishment of the researchers, begins to function more and more as an ego.

The computer scientists, with the aid of a literary researcher named Anna, begin to query the program, hoping that it will connect its many fragments of information in new and provocative ways--ways human scholars have overlooked--and arrive at new insights about the poet. In particular, they hope that the program, which they christen LB, can confirm the conjecture that Byron wrote his love poems "To Thyrza" to his Cambridge acquaintance John Edleston.

The research takes a strange turn when the program begins to worry, as Byron did, about getting fat, and then proceeds to go into "output only" mode, "browsing along of its own accord printing out reams of what looked to be a fairly good approximation to unspoken thoughts."

So begins the interior monologue of the LB programs, Prantera's window into Byron's thoughts, and our key to unlocking the mystery of the Thyrza poems, and to discovering the identity of Byron's greatest love.

Prantera is adept at imitating Byron's witty, quicksilver style, and Byron-lovers will savor her many references to and echoes of passages from his letters. She catches the playfulness, the staccato rhythms, the jokey alliteration of the originals, along with something of the poet's concision.

"Clubbed though one of them was," Prantera has LB reminisce about his early days at Cambridge, "he was going to find his feet in this place."

Here is LB's memory of the poet's initial encounter with Edleston: "He entered the Chapel; the voice rang out; he looked up in wonder, the other looked up--not in wonderment, but anyway he looked up; their eyes met, stayed fixed for so long that before either of them realized what they were about they were committed, and that was that. Plop, and the seal was in the wax."

"Conversations With Lord Byron" is a light comedic turn, not a literary meditation; it captures the often overlooked sunlit side of Byron's nature, and in particular his love of the absurd, and leaves the celebrated darker depths alone. Despite the novel's title, there is nothing perverse here.

There is much about love, however, and about Byron's Gargantuan lusts. "He had certainly loved," LB muses. "Intensely. And often. It was by way of compensation, no doubt, that he'd been granted one leg that didn't work, and another member set somewhat higher up that worked so admirably well."

As to the mystery surrounding Edleston, Prantera's imaginative solution is part farce, part tragedy, and her evocation of adolescent infatuation amid the charm and chaos of early 19th-Century Cambridge is affecting and well-realized. Toward the end of the novel, the plot turns come so thick and fast, and insult credulity so emphatically, that the reader is tempted to cry, with the LB program, "Imploro pace!" But all in all, "Conversations With Lord Byron" is good fun, and a caveat to investigators into Cognitive Emulation.

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