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The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography

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One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Ba One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, subtitled "an experiment in biography," is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and sympathy that inspires the biographer's art.


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One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Ba One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, subtitled "an experiment in biography," is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and sympathy that inspires the biographer's art.

30 review for The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Violet wells

    It’s astounding this masterpiece of a book was written in 1934 because even now I can think of only one other book of biographical literature that is so strikingly ground-breaking, so thrillingly compelling in its method of composition – Laurent Binet’s investigation of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich HHhH. There are similarities between the two books – most obviously how both authors forge an intimacy with their reader by narrating not only personal feelings about their subject but also It’s astounding this masterpiece of a book was written in 1934 because even now I can think of only one other book of biographical literature that is so strikingly ground-breaking, so thrillingly compelling in its method of composition – Laurent Binet’s investigation of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich HHhH. There are similarities between the two books – most obviously how both authors forge an intimacy with their reader by narrating not only personal feelings about their subject but also making a kind of detective story of how they sought and found the necessary source material. It’s like we’re taken inside the process of writing biography. There’s no question Symons lucked out with his subject. Frederick Rolfe, also calling himself Baron Corvo, is like a fantastic character from Nabokov. His comic possibilities almost infinite. Rolfe was a failed painter, photographer, musician and priest before becoming a writer. He experienced his troubles and injustices, actual, threatened or imagined, as more relentless, taxing and dramatic than those of other people. Symons’ interest in him begins when a friend lends him one of Rolfe’s novels, Hadrian the Seventh. Symons is so bewitched by the novel that he wants to find out more about its author. Rolfe’s most passionate ambition was to become a Catholic priest. When he was thrown out of the Scots College in Rome due to “erratic behaviour” he never really recovered from his sense of injustice (toward the end of his life, he signed himself Fr. Rolfe, hoping to be mistaken for a priest) and the persecution complex that follows is without question his most compelling and defining trait. He has the persecution complex to end all persecution complexes. In his novel Hadrian the Seventh he exacts his revenge by appointing himself as Pope and slandering all his enemies, a method of revenge he will employ in all his future fiction. Basically if you get on the wrong side of Rolfe you’re going to be lampooned with brilliant flourishes of venomous wit in his next novel! Symons has an early stroke of luck when he procures a series of magazine articles in which a writer vents an incredibly detailed account of Rolfe’s misdemeanours while living in Aberdeen. Rolfe never has any money and is therefore dependent on patrons. But he is also convinced of his genius and so resentful that the world doesn’t provide him with a living. This grievance he will always take out on his benefactors. No matter how promisingly every new relationship begins you just know it’s only a matter of time before his paranoia kicks in and his vituperative tongue will begin lashing out. Of his many eccentricities one that always brings him into conflict with publishers is his refusal to use conventional spelling. There are many examples of this stubbornness in him, a couple that spring to mind being an insistence on spelling public publick and Cyprus Zyprus. No way will he stand down, even if it means scuppering the deal and returning to extreme poverty. Not that Rolfe consists only of comic flaws. He clearly has a rare insight into the medieval mind and a deep insightful feeling for Italian history – one of his books is a biography of the Borgias. He is also clearly charming when he wants to be. He ends his life in Venice, often reduced to sleeping on a boat and going without food for days on end. Symons’ final quest is to find Rolfe’s missing manuscripts, always ornately handwritten on expensive paper and in various coloured inks, as few of his books were published in his lifetime. Symons’ genuine love for Rolfe’s writing means there’s always a tender, sympathetic side to his portrait of Rolfe. Symons sees the comic charlatan in Rolfe but, thanks to his generosity of imagination he also sees genius and it’s this delicately balanced perspective that makes this such a riveting, hysterically funny and moving book. It’s also an awesome achievement how much material Symons managed to gather given that Rolfe was no more of a public figure than you or I at the time he set out on his quest. Rolfe works his consuming charm on Symons just as he bewitched all his patrons. But Symons was the only one he is unable to turn on and slander. And as a result finally a patron is free to help Rolfe get the recognition he deserves. The life of Baron Corvo would make an absolutely fabulous film. The ebook is only £2.20 on Amazon. Some of Rolfe’s books for anyone interested Hadrian the Seventh The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: A Romance of Modern Venice A History of the Borgias Stories Toto Told Me The Venice Letters

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    So I recently read - and loved - Hermit of Peking by Hugh R. Trevor-Roper, a story of the hidden life of the wonderful rascal Edmund Backhouse. On the very first pages and the very last page of that book, the author praises this book by name as his inspiration, his template. And, so, once again, one book leads to another. Yes, the styles are the same: the author of each is presented with some writing by an obscure character, becomes obsessed, and begins a scholarly unraveling of the subject's lif So I recently read - and loved - Hermit of Peking by Hugh R. Trevor-Roper, a story of the hidden life of the wonderful rascal Edmund Backhouse. On the very first pages and the very last page of that book, the author praises this book by name as his inspiration, his template. And, so, once again, one book leads to another. Yes, the styles are the same: the author of each is presented with some writing by an obscure character, becomes obsessed, and begins a scholarly unraveling of the subject's life. But Edmund Backhouse was the more spectacular rascal. Backhouse was a wonderful liar, a forger, a defrauder; and he was able to dupe some very serious people in the process. Corvo - actually Fr. Rolfe - was a scholar and author, and pathologically paranoid. Backhouse charmed almost everyone; Rolfe garnered pity. Too, Trevor-Roper writes with more wit. But maybe it was the subject. Anyhow, the skinny here is that Fr. Wolfe (the Fr. is for Frederick) was an Englishman talented in painting, music and especially literature. He converted to Catholicism and angled for the priesthood. Things didn't work out. He wrote, a lot, about historical figures or veiled autobiography, often using a slew of invented words and old-fashioned spellings. He wrote letters, a lot, sarcastic, threatening letters to collaborators and sponsors. He led a life of poverty* and self-injury. He made friends easily, yet each friendship had a shelf-life, expiring always from Rolfe's sense of betrayal and injustice. He died penniless in Venice. Yes, Death in Venice. He talked . . . though perhaps most of all to the fisher boys. And he gratified the lust of the eye, writes our author. Writing himself, Rolfe offers that there is nothing known to physiculturalists (for giving you "poise" and the organs and figure of a slim young Diadymenos) like rowing standing in the Mode Venetian.** He went rowing a lot. And much of Rolfe's writing, like Melville's, offers plenty of clues as to his sexuality. This might be an appropriate time to note that Quest for Corvo was first published in 1934 and Hermit of Peking forty years later. Both describe their subjects as "sexually abnormal" but both authors kind of dance around the subject, almost as if they are afraid to say it out loud. So, it's hard to say whether the authors are frightened of homosexuality in general or the niche varieties that the subjects favored. We don't know if Rolfe would be classified as a pedophile. Nor do we know if Trevor-Roper was only shocked when he heard about Backhouse's claims of sex with a thousand eunuchs. Symons, here, only says cryptically that there were found with Rolfe's effects letters, drawings and notebooks sufficient to cause a hundred scandals. Trevor-Roper gasped similarly. I bring this up only to note that I imagine if published today these books would have been quite different. One book leads to another, indeed. So I might be tempted to read Hadrian the Seventh by Rolfe which inspired Symons's Quest. But not right away. I was more intrigued by the title of two stories Rolfe wrote: Why Dogs and Cats Always Litigate and About Doing Little, Lavishly. Who knows where they might lead. ______________ *He lived on oranges and oatmeal the author writes. I wanted to include that line, which I found absolutely musical. **I'll save you the Google. Here's Diadymenos:

  3. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    My quest for Corvo was started by accident one summer afternoon in 1925, in the company of Christopher Millard. We were sitting lazily in his little garden, talking of books that miss their just reward of praise and influence...Millard asked: “Have you read Hadrian the Seventh?” I confessed that I never had...and by doing so took the first step on a trail that led into very strange places. By thus serendipitously discovering the Baron Corvo's little known Hadrian the Seventh – a lightly veile My quest for Corvo was started by accident one summer afternoon in 1925, in the company of Christopher Millard. We were sitting lazily in his little garden, talking of books that miss their just reward of praise and influence...Millard asked: “Have you read Hadrian the Seventh?” I confessed that I never had...and by doing so took the first step on a trail that led into very strange places. By thus serendipitously discovering the Baron Corvo's little known Hadrian the Seventh – a lightly veiled, and apparently brilliantly original, autobiography-as-revenge-novel – author A. J. A. Symons found himself obsessed with the idea of tracking down the rest of Corvo's literary works. In a way that seems only possible in 1925 Britain, Symons wrote letters to everyone he thought might have information on, or might be in possession of the works of, this Baron Corvo, and in return, he received countless detailed replies, invitations for tea, and the provision of further names for correspondence. The more that Symons learned about Corvo, the more he realised that he was on the trail of a truly original character; and while at first Symons' interest was solely in tracking down the rest of Corvo's missing novels, he eventually realised that he had assembled the details of a life thoroughly worthy of a popular biography. The subtitle of The Quest for Corvo is “An Experiment in Biography”, and that's the piece that makes this an enduringly fascinating read: in what was apparently a ground-breaking move for the time, Symons relates the details of his “quest”, and by placing himself firmly at the center this biography of another man, and by quoting at length from the letters he received and the interviews he conducted, the whole reads like a fascinating detective story. In this case, truth certainly is stranger than fiction and Symons invented the ideal method to explore a strange and tortured life. Thoroughly enjoyable read. My interest in the early years of the eminent is far less than that which the tradition of biographical writing painfully imposes on its devotees. The facts of infancy may be vital when they refer to a prodigy such as Mozart, interesting when relevant to a rebel such as Shelley, valuable when they show the growth of a man out of his place, as Poe; but in Rolphe's case, I felt like his childhood was by much the least interesting part of his life. “Baron Corvo” was but one of the pen names used by British artist/writer Frederick Rolfe (he did spend time with an Italian countess in his youth, and she may or may not have conferred this lesser baronic title upon him), and at some point after being expelled from the second Catholic seminary he attended, he began signing his letters as “Fr Rolfe” (“Fr” is apparently an accepted shortform for “Frederick”, but he was likely trying to give the impression of having been ordained). Although acknowledged as a talented painter and photographer – for which he was never commercially successful – Rolfe eventually took to writing. And although his literary works were highly praised by those who understood their unique genius, Rolfe was such a prickly, disputant, self-defeating paranoiac that he pretty much scuttled every business deal he managed to make. Throughout his adult life, Rolfe lived barely above subsistence, working in great bursts of energy when he could find a sponsor, but as he would always eventually insult his benefactors or borrow more than he could ever hope to repay, he seemed to spend more of his time writing appeals for money than writing anything publishable. He died – penniless and friendless – at fifty-one in Venice, after having lived his last few months in a borrowed gondola. Much much more happened in Rolfe's life than this bare biography implies. But The Quest for Corvo is equally about Symons' experience, and the twists and turns his investigation took merit their place in the narrative. Again, I was so impressed by how helpful his correspondents were – what lovely manners to sit down and write out everything you remember about someone at a stranger's request – and I was pleased that Symons quoted these letters at length. Here are some impressions of Rolfe, as remembered by his former acquaintances, and I delighted in their turns of phrase. Canon Carmont, who knew Rolfe at Scots College (seminary) in Rome, wrote: There was a sort of ruthless selfishness in him which led him to exploit others, quite regardless of their interest or feelings or advantage. This trait, in small matters, I saw many instances of. He was dressy and particular about his appearance. Church matters were mostly a matter of millinery to him. Temple Scott, who attempted to get Rolfe's translation of Omar Khayyam published, wrote: I found that it was irritating to help him. He curdled the milk of human feeling by an acidity of nature he was unable to sweeten, however he might desire to sweeten it. And I am sure he did so desire. Harry Pirie-Gordon, erstwhile collaborator with and longtime sponsor of Rolfe, wrote: He asserted that he understood in part the language of cats; and events so far bore out his claim, that when, in the moonlight, he muttered his incantations on the lawn, strange cats as well of those of the household abandoned their prowls to rub purringly against his legs. Symons' quest led him to discover a great deal about Corvo/Rolfe – he even attempts a formal psychoanalysis of his subject, which must have been even more intriguing in its day (and especially with Symons' nonjudgmental acceptance of his subject's mostly-repressed homosexuality) – and near the very end of this narrative, Symons has a chance meeting with an extremely wealthy man (Maundy Gregory, who purported to be a member of the Secret Service) and this late-in-the-game benefactor unearthed Rolfe's last two missing novels for him: It was a deep satisfaction to discover (The One and the Many) in the depths of a literary agent's cupboard of unretrieved MSS. It was a deeper satisfaction still to know that every one of the works that had been left and lost in obscurity when Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe died suddenly and alone at Venice had been collected together by sympathetic hands, and that, alone of living men, I had read every line of every one. Nothing was left to be discovered; the Quest was ended. Hail, strange tormented spirit, in whatever hell or heaven has been allotted for your everlasting rest! The Quest for Corvo is a fitting biography of a deserving subject, a genre-busting (in its day) experiment in telling a life story, and an intriguing detective story that reveals quite a bit about Symons (and according to the introduction to my edition, this Symons was a bit of a character himself). Totally satisfying.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Hunter Murphy

    This is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. It's about Frederick Rolfe, a truly odd duck- prickly, brilliant, an Englishman obsessed with becoming a Catholic priest. I was enthralled. The way he lived his life seems almost fictional. Rolfe upset nearly everyone he met. He's just the sort of character who should have a book written about him. This is one of the books you read that sticks to your ribs. It was in parts hysterical and tragic. People like Frederick Rolfe are fascinating This is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. It's about Frederick Rolfe, a truly odd duck- prickly, brilliant, an Englishman obsessed with becoming a Catholic priest. I was enthralled. The way he lived his life seems almost fictional. Rolfe upset nearly everyone he met. He's just the sort of character who should have a book written about him. This is one of the books you read that sticks to your ribs. It was in parts hysterical and tragic. People like Frederick Rolfe are fascinating, and the author, A.J.A. Symons, writes this book almost like a novel, exactly the way it should've been written.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bloodorange

    Stranger, and better, than fiction: The Quest... might appear to be casually conceived (man reads book, man falls in love; man reads book's author's letters, man gets both fascinated and appalled; man decides to write author's biography) and casually written, but at least the latter is not true. Symons, who only takes shape as a character-writer at the very beginning and end of his book, ensures the pacing, timing, findings, sources, and even a mysterious benefactor appear at just the right mome Stranger, and better, than fiction: The Quest... might appear to be casually conceived (man reads book, man falls in love; man reads book's author's letters, man gets both fascinated and appalled; man decides to write author's biography) and casually written, but at least the latter is not true. Symons, who only takes shape as a character-writer at the very beginning and end of his book, ensures the pacing, timing, findings, sources, and even a mysterious benefactor appear at just the right moments in this seemingly nonchalantly crafted story to keep us interested. He also makes discreet, but masterly use of the fashionable modernist techniques; the amateur-detective fiction frame known from The Great Gatsby, for instance; fragmented and conflicting points of view; variety of voices. The books works so fantastically well, in spite of its rather simple premise (find out as much as possible about author; write letters letters letters; reprint received letters letters letters), because of its peculiar subject. The tormented, multitalented, paranoid Frederick Rolfe, a man with an infallible and elaborate self-sabotage mechanism, makes my pet miserable author - Jean Rhys - look like a fully functional, successful person. Highly recommended.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Philipp

    ‘I discovered in one month flat that I could live and drink as much as I liked without working at anything, provided I remained what the locals term a “character”.’ Grant said ‘Hmm,’ and hoped the monologue had come to an end. It hadn’t. ‘I remained a character. I live in this hut. I obtain all my meals free from my many friends who also provide me with my requirements in beer, which, with some self-control, is the only alcohol I allow myself.’ That was probably all a lie, including the part about ‘I discovered in one month flat that I could live and drink as much as I liked without working at anything, provided I remained what the locals term a “character”.’ Grant said ‘Hmm,’ and hoped the monologue had come to an end. It hadn’t. ‘I remained a character. I live in this hut. I obtain all my meals free from my many friends who also provide me with my requirements in beer, which, with some self-control, is the only alcohol I allow myself.’ That was probably all a lie, including the part about being a doctor, thought Grant, but what the hell? Who was he to worry about people lying, anyway? Just the same, he did not like Tydon. From Wake In Fright, Kenneth Cook, 1961. Symon's The Quest for Corvo is a biography of a character. Baron Corvo aka Frederick Rolfe aka Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe was a British writer around the turn of the last century, who died young after a relatively colourful life - he was a staunch catholic who got kicked out of the seminary, he tried to be a painter, he tried to be a writer, he never held a steady job, instead he kept on borrowing money from everyone around him, continuously losing and making friends. Back in the 30s, Symons stumbled over Corvo's most famous novel: Hadrian the Seventh, a novel about a Catholic, disillusioned with Catholics, who surprisingly becomes the pope (it's more of a revenge fantasy than a proper novel, still, I guess Symons loved it?). Symons became enthralled with Corvo, and back then Wikipedia wasn't around, so he started to research, as most of Corvo's friends and contemporaries were still alive. What makes this an experiment in biography is that the reader isn't present with a cut-and-dry linear story of Corvo's life. Instead, you get to read about Symons' pains in research - who he tried to contact, who he talked to, whose letters he received, what these letters contained, and so on. It makes for a surprising detective story, I wonder whether this would have been more fun if I wouldn't have known that these were real people, and real authors - it could have been a Calvino or a Borges experiment. Symons often quotes from Corvo's letters at length, and since Corvo's self-love made him his own worst enemy, we get things that are so fun, you want them tattooed onto someone: I am now simply engaged in dying as slowly and as publicly and as annoyingly to all of you [...] Understandable! What suprised me the most was how Symons' love for Corvo's writing is infectious. You'd think that someone like Symons would get disillusioned after learning that Corvo ripped off friend after friend after friend, always borrowing dozens or hundreds of Pounds, never paying back anything, instead sending insulting letters, then disappearing into hissy fits. But yet, this is Symons on Corvo (aka Rolfe): Some measure of artistic power or sensibility is inherent in all humanity; 'genius' is as good a word as any other to denote those exceptional beings in whom, unaccountably, it rises to full force. And Rolfe was a defeated man of genius. That's what makes this book so interesting; it isn't particularly fun to read (Corvo's style really hasn't survived the test of time), but while you read about Rolfe/Corvo, you end up learning about Symons.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    highly recommended if you are a fr. rolfe fan and want to learn all about the depths of his failsonry, and hell who hasn't obsessed over a unjustly neglected author to the extent that they want to find out everything about him and read all his letters and write his biography. highly recommended if you are a fr. rolfe fan and want to learn all about the depths of his failsonry, and hell who hasn't obsessed over a unjustly neglected author to the extent that they want to find out everything about him and read all his letters and write his biography.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marc Kozak

    A strange little book -- basically the biography of a little-known English writer and eccentric from the turn of the 20th century, as the biographer does his best to track down letters, anecdotes, and any scrap of information he can find about the mysterious and volatile subject. Baron Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) is not a pleasant man. We get the impression that everyone who meets him is instantly intrigued by his talents and apparent genius. Corvo is skilled in many arts, and there are no shortag A strange little book -- basically the biography of a little-known English writer and eccentric from the turn of the 20th century, as the biographer does his best to track down letters, anecdotes, and any scrap of information he can find about the mysterious and volatile subject. Baron Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) is not a pleasant man. We get the impression that everyone who meets him is instantly intrigued by his talents and apparent genius. Corvo is skilled in many arts, and there are no shortage of people who are initially willing to partner with him on some kind of project. However, it becomes quickly clear that Corvo suffers from an extreme persecution complex, is inflexible on just about every detail, and will end up trying to manipulate you to give him money (which he never is able to make or keep). The biggest problem to the casual reader (such as myself) is that you have no real evidence of Corvo's genius, other than to take the word of the people interviewed. I haven't read any of Corvo's books (very few people have), and the random snippets here and there aren't really enough to convey much out of context. So you end up wondering why there's such a fuss about this guy in the first place. He just seems like kind of an asshole. It is easy to feel some pity for him (and the author goes through great pains to do so), but I often wondered why I was reading about him in the first place. That being said, the biographer's obsessive interest in tracking down anyone who might have known Corvo is infectious, and even a rude asshole can be fun to read about, so it's still pretty interesting. I think the "experimental" elements of the biography are overblown - it's set up like a fairly typical biography or documentary. Really the only thing out of the ordinary is the biographer's obsession. There's a point at the end where he notes that he may be the only person in the world who has read or knows certain information about Corvo, which is kind of cool, for whatever that ended up being worth to him. It's also interesting to watch him track down lost or rare manuscripts. In a digital age, you don't often think about published works going missing anymore, but this was in a time where entire books were lost because the author was traveling with it on a boat and the pages got too wet. What a time to be alive. This isn't something I'd easily recommend to anyone, but I mostly enjoyed it, so there you go. I'm happy it exists because it keeps alive the name and works of an author that could have easily been lost to history (which is very romantic), but it's also not anything that's setting the world on fire.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    This groundbreaking 'experimental biography' is a comical but curiously sad portrait of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo. Rolfe was a consummate eccentric who also happened to be a talented writer. A.J.A. Symon's disappointment at not being able to find out anything to speak of about Corvo after reading one of his obscure books led to the 'quest' of the title. Symons was fascinated by Corvo, and we in turn become fascinated as well. Corvo was a tortured soul, given to quarrels and parano This groundbreaking 'experimental biography' is a comical but curiously sad portrait of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo. Rolfe was a consummate eccentric who also happened to be a talented writer. A.J.A. Symon's disappointment at not being able to find out anything to speak of about Corvo after reading one of his obscure books led to the 'quest' of the title. Symons was fascinated by Corvo, and we in turn become fascinated as well. Corvo was a tortured soul, given to quarrels and paranoid delusions. He seemed to have been besieged by the sort of extravagant bad luck that always follows those who feel the world doesn't fully appreciate them. But he was also an charismatic charmer, leading at times a high-rolling life that contrasted sharply with periods of abject poverty. His writing was likewise distinct -- erudite and lavishly ornamental. A noted homosexual, Corvo converted to Catholicism and even aspired to the priesthood, but he was so distracted by other "callings," including an obsession with the Italian Renaissance, that he never manged to become a priest. He was, in short, a fantasist - a man who lived more in a world he created himself than the real world.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kobe Bryant

    This was interesting and all but you have to wonder about a guy who reads a book he likes and decides to spend a decade obsessing over the author

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    an experiment in biography...you can say that again...very strange book

  12. 4 out of 5

    Side Real Press

    There are some authors who I like the ‘idea’ of rather than the reality. What shouldn't be to like about the waspish Ronald Firbank, except that, to me, his 'Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli' (his most decadent book) just seems somewhat silly. Or perhaps Denton Welch who seems to be a bit of a Walter Softy who would be a lot better if he just toughened up a little. I include Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) in this group as although I must admit it is partially amusing to read him There are some authors who I like the ‘idea’ of rather than the reality. What shouldn't be to like about the waspish Ronald Firbank, except that, to me, his 'Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli' (his most decadent book) just seems somewhat silly. Or perhaps Denton Welch who seems to be a bit of a Walter Softy who would be a lot better if he just toughened up a little. I include Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) in this group as although I must admit it is partially amusing to read him sticking the knife into, well, everybody he ever seems to have any dealings with, eventually one has to ask oneself why Rolfe became a Catholic in the first place if he seemed to continually approach, distrust and fall out with them. It seems a tragedy born from his own stupidity and lack of self-awareness. A fool! And yet this is a great read. Why? Because it is the quest in itself that fascinates, and it is Symon’s autobiography. as much as Rolfes biography, as we follow his (Symonds) path to various people and then see how he negotiates them to achieve his biographical ends. We share his pleasure as he pieces together seemingly disparate accounts to form a cohesive whole, the joy of discovering a new lead or cache of letters or, joy of joys, holding an unreleased manuscript by his subject. I have a lot of time for ‘this type of thing’ and admire Symons perspicacity in doing what he did. It is also beautifully written. This edition is enhanced by an introduction by Mark Valentine, an extra piece by Symons (his essay ‘Tradition in Biography’), and illustrated with various photos from the Symons archive held at Leeds University. The first two are interesting (Valentine writes good intros) but the images are less so, being largely photos of documents used by Symons regarding ‘The Quest’ overlaid with images of the writers of them. Corvo-ites are something of a cult unto themselves so they will want it for these extras, but if you are not, then a cheap paperback of this most entertaining book will probably suffice.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Graychin

    Did it hurt or help that I’d never read any of Fr Rolfe’s (that is, Baron Corvo’s) books before I read his peculiar biography? I’d been tempted in the past by a dog-eared copy of Hadrian VII at a local bookshop; I may have to pick it up now. But Symons' semi-famous biography was certainly fascinating. Corvo may have been a freak, but he had his gifts. There was something vaguely Wildean or Beerbohmesque about him. He was particularly good at lampooning and insulting others. Someone ought to comb Did it hurt or help that I’d never read any of Fr Rolfe’s (that is, Baron Corvo’s) books before I read his peculiar biography? I’d been tempted in the past by a dog-eared copy of Hadrian VII at a local bookshop; I may have to pick it up now. But Symons' semi-famous biography was certainly fascinating. Corvo may have been a freak, but he had his gifts. There was something vaguely Wildean or Beerbohmesque about him. He was particularly good at lampooning and insulting others. Someone ought to comb through his various letters and published works and prepare a nice, tidy volume of Baron Corvo’s Selected Invective. I’d sign up for a copy right now.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Styx

    A most extraordinary read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michael Spring

    There’s a great man. Someone decides to write his life story. The profile is set against the times and the achievement is assessed. That at least is the way most biographies work. AJA Symons’ The Quest for Corvo is a different beast. It is partly a detective story, in which the author at the outset hardly knows what might happen. It is partly too, a revelation about the author himself. (Throughout, he readily confesses his likes and dislikes, his prejudices and enthusiasms. He is suspicious about There’s a great man. Someone decides to write his life story. The profile is set against the times and the achievement is assessed. That at least is the way most biographies work. AJA Symons’ The Quest for Corvo is a different beast. It is partly a detective story, in which the author at the outset hardly knows what might happen. It is partly too, a revelation about the author himself. (Throughout, he readily confesses his likes and dislikes, his prejudices and enthusiasms. He is suspicious about someone who refuses some ‘very good hock’.) What’s more, the whole book comes about – not through the enthusiasm of one individual for another - but through an accident. A friend mentions a long-ignored novel that he likes. Symons reads it, determines to find out more about its author, and the biography – and the detective story - begins. His subject is the enigmatic, difficult, vitriolic – but sometimes charming and disarmingly talented – Frederick Rolfe, a man who had been disappointed in his hopes of becoming a Catholic priest. The long-ignored novel is his ‘Hadrian the Seventh’ which is about a man who, disappointed in his hopes of becoming a Catholic priest, is given a second chance, and, with amazing rapidity, becomes Pope. The combination of wish-fulfilment and revenge is alarming, but readers of course, would have been ignorant of the author’s history, and DH Lawrence was apparently among the book’s admirers. However the first edition failed to sell even the 600 copies at which point Fr. Rolfe (Fr. for Frederick, of course) would have benefited from royalties. The reality of the existence of Fr. Rolfe (he sometimes called himself Baron Corvo, claiming to have been awarded the title by an Italian benefactor) was in distinct contrast to his alter ego’s fictional history from his novel. He painted, but somehow contrived never to be paid for his work. He wrote, but without receiving any financial reward, usually destroying his own hopes and aspirations on the basis of imagined insults or other crimes against him. He had many friends and benefactors, almost all of whom he alienated through a mixture of personal derision and petty revenge, for calumnies and slights which had never existed, except in his own mind. He had money at times, but the moment it was in his hand, it was spent on luxuries. In his final collapse from grace and polite society, with another gift from a benefactor, he cut a swathe through the homosexuals of Venice’s gondolier community, before dying in that remarkable city in a cold garret from which he issued his last pathetic letters (“Just five pounds!”) to those he had insulted and spurned. Rolfe died, in the act of removing his boots, in Venice in 1913, aged 53. The Quest for Corvo is a remarkable story of paranoia and waste, told in the most lively style by an admiring dilettante who cannot love the individual, even though he can find much to admire amongst the books which Rolfe left behind, and which, sadly and ironically, became a cult success only after this biographer’s appreciation appeared in print.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jose

    This book is mostly famous as an example of how to write a proper biography . Rather than chronologically narrating the life of Frederic Rolfe a.k.a "Baron Corvo", the author follows his own progress and correspondence in search of the Baron's life details. The subject of the book itself is one of those late victorian characters that simply had to confront a new reality driven by capitalism and not just church or aristocratic patronage. Frederic Rolfe was a delusional, tragic man with a talent This book is mostly famous as an example of how to write a proper biography . Rather than chronologically narrating the life of Frederic Rolfe a.k.a "Baron Corvo", the author follows his own progress and correspondence in search of the Baron's life details. The subject of the book itself is one of those late victorian characters that simply had to confront a new reality driven by capitalism and not just church or aristocratic patronage. Frederic Rolfe was a delusional, tragic man with a talent for writing and a deep seated paranoia. He attempted to become a priest for all the wrong reasons and was quickly expelled and dismissed as a superficial spendthrift . He cursed at all those who tried to help him, begged and buggered around in Venice till funds ran out. Then he died alone and poor as a rat. He refused moral judgment while dispensing it in abundance. But his writings, mostly "Hadrian the VII" and "Tales that Toto told me" caused enough impression on enough people to merit Mr. Simmons "quest" for Corvo. It is interesting to see how the author seems to need to justify the life of this hard working parasite again and again based on his literary merits. The author cannot conceal his passion for the subject and it becomes contagious. May be he saw in Fr. Rolfe a twin soul. I haven't read the books Rolfe wrote but I am afraid that they might have lost whatever glow they had in their time. Some of the neologisms he created and the language he used might have been dazzling a century ago. Today, I am afraid it might be almost incomprehensible in its rancid archaism. I admit I am judging it a priori but somehow I have no interest in finding out if I am right or wrong.

  17. 4 out of 5

    DoctorM

    A wonderfully-done biography of Fr. Rolfe, the author of the classic "Hadrian VII"--- as fine a bit of Edwardian eccentricity and ecclesiastical fantasy as you'll ever find. Rolfe was a failed seminarian and mythomaniac who wrote a book about how a snobbish, conflicted, brilliant Englishman (oddly, a failed seminarian who looks just like Rolfe himself) is suddenly, inexplicably made Pope...and saves Europe for Catholicism before being martyred. Rolfe spent his life playing roles--- the Italian n A wonderfully-done biography of Fr. Rolfe, the author of the classic "Hadrian VII"--- as fine a bit of Edwardian eccentricity and ecclesiastical fantasy as you'll ever find. Rolfe was a failed seminarian and mythomaniac who wrote a book about how a snobbish, conflicted, brilliant Englishman (oddly, a failed seminarian who looks just like Rolfe himself) is suddenly, inexplicably made Pope...and saves Europe for Catholicism before being martyred. Rolfe spent his life playing roles--- the Italian nobleman ("Baron Corvo"), the Decadent author, the Catholic obsessive, the Englishman-in-Venice, the lover of antique literature and handsome boys. Symons catches him in all his hothouse glory as a wonderfully arcane, sorely underappreciated minor gem. Very much a lovely read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Lopez

    I started this book two nights ago and didn't go to sleep until I finished it! I don't want to ruin it for anyone so won't explain except to say that it's truly astonishing and -- quite literally -- impossible to put down. I started this book two nights ago and didn't go to sleep until I finished it! I don't want to ruin it for anyone so won't explain except to say that it's truly astonishing and -- quite literally -- impossible to put down.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tosh

    A great weird biography on an even weirder subject matter for a biographer. Probably THE example for anyone who is interested in writing biographies.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rupert

    Beautiful writing and magically oddball subject. Corvo would have fit in very well in modern day Baltimore.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This is a gem of a book, a fascinating quest for the truth about a most unusual man.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Steve R

    ReadingThe Duchess of Jermyn Street after watching its television adaptation, The Duchess of Duke Street, I encountered an offhand phrase 'to go off on a Quest for Corvo' type of exploration. Intrigued, I eventually procured a copy of this 1934 work, which intriguingly is subtitled 'An Experiment in Biography'. For such it is, and the 'experiment' it respresents is indeed the most attractive feature of the entire work. Symons encountered the work of Frederick Rolfe (1860 - 1913) through a friend' ReadingThe Duchess of Jermyn Street after watching its television adaptation, The Duchess of Duke Street, I encountered an offhand phrase 'to go off on a Quest for Corvo' type of exploration. Intrigued, I eventually procured a copy of this 1934 work, which intriguingly is subtitled 'An Experiment in Biography'. For such it is, and the 'experiment' it respresents is indeed the most attractive feature of the entire work. Symons encountered the work of Frederick Rolfe (1860 - 1913) through a friend's suggestion of a novel of by Rolfe as an as yet unrecognized fictional works of high merit, and read his Hadrian the Seventh. Thoroughly enthused, he was then given a package of letters from Rolfe, all of which begged, demanded, beseeched or otherwise importuned financial assistance. The stark contrast between the elegant, sophisticated writing of the novel and the abject depravity of the latter caused him to begin his quest to discover what this man was really all about. Unfortunately, at least for me, the answer would appear to be 'not much'. Rolfe left his Dissenting family in his teens, later became a Catholic, tried to become a priest, but was asked to leave the college where he studied to be such; tried to be a painter, but ended up quarrelling with his supposed-benefactor-turned-inveterate enemy and then tried to be a writer, even completing several novels, a history of the Borgia family, a translation of a Greek poet, and several medieval or Renaissance romances. A large portion of his work is frankly autobiographical, and its overwhelming attraction seems to have been his excessively florid use of vocabulary and evocation of atmosphere. Unfortunately for Rolfe (who fancifully referred to himself as Baron Corvo, presumably from a grant of the title from a one-time English-Italian Duchess benefactor), the majority of these works never saw print, and his total income from them over the years amounted to less than 200 pounds. At the seminary school, at Aberdeen, at Holywell, and then in both London and Venice, he seems to have followed the same pattern in his interpersonal relations: at first the warm enthusiasm of friendship, then a minor disagreement, then an escalation to outright vitriolic antipathy, mostly on the part of Rolfe, for perceived injustices and, almost always, lack of financial support. If it had been once or twice that such relations fell apart, one could probably take a 'plague on both your houses' approach, but when it happens on more than a dozen occasions with a virtually unchanging pattern of eventual unbridled hatred on the part of Rolfe, one senses something was not quite right in the persona of the author himself. Symons puts this paranoia down to his latent homosexuality, although the lack of any concrete proof throughout his painstakingly fine researches makes one wonder. It has been my experience that sometimes certain people just don't know, or even care to learn, how to get along with others. Still, to read again and again how his enemies were thought to be pursuing him in such a hostile manner makes one, after a while, lose whatever sympathy one may have initially felt for the artist under the irritating discomfort one feels for the man. Frederick Rolfe was a truly idiosyncratic, talented figure, but one whom it is much easier to admire for his works than it is to respect as a man. Thus, it is Symons 'experiment' that is the true treasure I believe to exist in this work: particularly in its first half, consisting as it does of numerous letters and encapsulations of conversations with those who knew Rolfe whom Symons tracked down. Thus the reader is allowed to develop his or her own conclusions regarding the subject at hand, rather than being presented with a finished analysis. Truly, an interesting way of going about his presentation, and one can only wish that he'd chosen as his subject one more congenial to human sympathy. Not bad.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Martin

    Poor Baron Corvo. I see much (too much?) of myself in him: talented, but not talented enough; attempting to make a career in so many vocations only to fail—partially by fate, partially from others, and somewhat because of his own faults—but blaming *all of it* on someone else. Indeed, I've known several people who reek of Baron Corvo. Even his affected name, with a peerage he almost certainly didn't receive, CORVO, reminds me of myself. To say, "I feel like Baron Corvo" is also a very Baron Corv Poor Baron Corvo. I see much (too much?) of myself in him: talented, but not talented enough; attempting to make a career in so many vocations only to fail—partially by fate, partially from others, and somewhat because of his own faults—but blaming *all of it* on someone else. Indeed, I've known several people who reek of Baron Corvo. Even his affected name, with a peerage he almost certainly didn't receive, CORVO, reminds me of myself. To say, "I feel like Baron Corvo" is also a very Baron Corvo thing to say: it captures his (1) arrogance and (2) martyr complex. What a little bitch the man was. However, with the distance of decades, and the filter of a biographer, Frederick Rolfe can be cast into a sympathetic figure; it helps that his biographer, A.J.A. Symons, is a true apologist. Symons' biography reads like a thriller at first. He fills the first 40 pages with enrapturing vignettes of a shadowy author, whom Symons discovers piecemeal. He pursues the question "Who is Baron Corvo" like an archaeologist looking for a pharaoh's sarcophagus, finding one interesting cup after another, but never quite digging up the mummy. These parts make for the best reading, because once Symons finds the mummy—the subject of his choosing—it's fairly dull stuff. The middle portion of the biography is supplemented by letters, quoted in full, by Baron Corvo and his correspondents. I think I know why Symons did this: he was worried the letters might appear nowhere else, and he wanted to defend Rolfe's reputation by being transparent about his dealings. Well, time has brought forth all of his works and all of his letters. To quote them in full is tedious and boring, and Symons does little to contextualise them. This middle section sags like a sumo titties. The book picks up at the end, however, when Symons returns to being a biographer, as opposed to a quoter of letters and novel passages. Perhaps Symons' most admirable trait is his schoolboy-like enthusiasm for Corvo's writing. He spares no expense when finding adjectives of awe to describe Corvo's peculiar writing style, from his gorgeous neologisms to his petulant obsession for using the suffix "ick" where "ic" would suffice ("pedantick," "manick," "prophetick"). After reading Corvo, I too want to coin new words willy-nilly by shoving Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes together like I'm a linguistic Dr Frankenstein. Some words about this edition: the paperback barely gets the job done. The photos are few, and they're in black-and-white. A bit bland for a man with technicolour panache. The font size is subatomic, and the damage done to my eyes by squinting at it is irreversible. Even worse, the typeface becomes smaller when Symons quotes letters and passages. The result is criminal and constant. Keep a magnifying glass nearby when you're reading this fucker, and brace yourself for bifocals when you're finished. Someone should send a very uncouth letter to whoever typeset this, because it's misanthropically done. Verbum ultimum: Rolfe was clearly a sociopath...possibly a schizophrenic. He took wrongs, however slight, and made them targeted genocides upon his person. He saw no profits from any of his books. He had dodgy publishers, but he didn't help himself by being a cuntius maximus to do business with. He was tender, though. He committed no true sin, and in his eyes he believed himself blameless, so one can't fault him for being anything more than insufferable. When he was accused once of selfishness he said, with the confusion of one who knows not his own faults, "Selfish? Yes, selfish. The selfishness of a square peg in a round hole." The statement's beauty doesn't need explication. His epitaph was equally thoughtful: "Pray for the repose of his soul. He was so tired." We have all known a Rolfe in our time, for better or worse.

  24. 5 out of 5

    SB

    A fascinating account of an obscure late-Victorian literary crank written in a 'meta' but disarmingly no-frills and unpretentious style. Symons calls it an 'experiment' and it must be acknowledged that it has proved entirely successful and influential in the long run (as the popularity of latter day incarnations like Binet's HHhH demonstrates). The book's elusive subject is Frederick Rolfe (a.k.a. Baron Corvo for a short period), the author of (among other things) Hadrian the Seventh, a novel abo A fascinating account of an obscure late-Victorian literary crank written in a 'meta' but disarmingly no-frills and unpretentious style. Symons calls it an 'experiment' and it must be acknowledged that it has proved entirely successful and influential in the long run (as the popularity of latter day incarnations like Binet's HHhH demonstrates). The book's elusive subject is Frederick Rolfe (a.k.a. Baron Corvo for a short period), the author of (among other things) Hadrian the Seventh, a novel about a newly-minted young pope with decidedly ultramontane views and a passion for chainsmoking. If that sounds remarkably like the plot of the hit (ish) HBO show The Young Pope it is because Rolfe was always destined to be the sort of writer who people praise and nick ideas from only to ultimately shove him aside and abandon him to the dustbin of footnotes-of-footnotes. Not that Rolfe - while alive - was not an impossibly bitchy drama queen with a sadistic streak who alienated anyone who actually did try to help him. He most certainly was that and other, worse, things, but there is nevertheless a genuine and poignant tragedy to his life (cut short in his early fifties by a stroke) which Symons evokes with full force and passion.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Way more entertaining than a book written 80 years ago, about an unknown author who wrote books over 100 years ago, and who was a bit of a nut to boot, has any right to be. Corvo, or actually Frederick Rolfe, certainly had some kind of mental illness and spend most of his life alienating people and finding enemies everywhere. But he wrote a couple (purportedly!) amazing books and one of them led AJA Symons on a quest to find out more about this misguided genius. This book is both an exploration o Way more entertaining than a book written 80 years ago, about an unknown author who wrote books over 100 years ago, and who was a bit of a nut to boot, has any right to be. Corvo, or actually Frederick Rolfe, certainly had some kind of mental illness and spend most of his life alienating people and finding enemies everywhere. But he wrote a couple (purportedly!) amazing books and one of them led AJA Symons on a quest to find out more about this misguided genius. This book is both an exploration of Corvo's life and a description of Symons' quest for information. So Symons describes the interactions he has with friends and relatives of Rolfe, in trying to get information, including missing manuscripts for books he wrote. He describes in charming detail the letter exchanges he had, and in getting a rich sponsor to help him on his quest. Lots of fun - no really! Certainly a book I wish I had in ebook form, so I could look up all the quaint words used, both by Symons and by Rolfe. Of the latter, he enjoyed making up words, so probably even that wouldn't have helped! But I recommend this book highly, even if it didn't kindle any desire to read any of Rolfe's work.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

    In pursuit of its subject this biography runs like a detective novel. It's aim is to piece together the unknown sojourn of the author Fredrick Rolfe, whose death in Venice in 1913 mirrored Thomas Mann's novel and whose love for Italy might be discerned in many of von Gloeden's photographs composed around that time. The mystery Symons really wants to answer focuses on Rolfe's mental state, the paranoid anger and misanthropic rage that sank so much of his career, and so spectacularly. Along the wa In pursuit of its subject this biography runs like a detective novel. It's aim is to piece together the unknown sojourn of the author Fredrick Rolfe, whose death in Venice in 1913 mirrored Thomas Mann's novel and whose love for Italy might be discerned in many of von Gloeden's photographs composed around that time. The mystery Symons really wants to answer focuses on Rolfe's mental state, the paranoid anger and misanthropic rage that sank so much of his career, and so spectacularly. Along the way Symon's discusses Rolfe's sexuality in a clinical but surprisingly frank way, considering that this was published in 1934 as homophobia reached high tide in the Western world. It is this discussion, toward the end, that provokes the most thought, for Symons inadvertently raises a question that may not have occurred to any writer of his era: was Rolfe's anger at those around him, though seemingly irrational, actually in some sense rational? By the end of the book I went from deploring Rolfe's vicious behavior to seeing it in a much wider social context. And perhaps that is the sign of a work well done.

  27. 4 out of 5

    alx

    so continues my quest to hunt down all the books to which a.s. byatt wrote introductions/afterwords (or even one-liner reviews, prominently featured on book covers) & construct a sort of para-oeuvre ... previous finds have included elizabeth bowen's the house in paris, penelope fitzgerald's the blue flower, and willa cather's the professor's house. i understand the appeal of this one & how novel it must have been for its time; it's like a literary detective mystery in the vein of binet's HHhH (a so continues my quest to hunt down all the books to which a.s. byatt wrote introductions/afterwords (or even one-liner reviews, prominently featured on book covers) & construct a sort of para-oeuvre ... previous finds have included elizabeth bowen's the house in paris, penelope fitzgerald's the blue flower, and willa cather's the professor's house. i understand the appeal of this one & how novel it must have been for its time; it's like a literary detective mystery in the vein of binet's HHhH (as another reviewer has pointed out) or dyer's out of sheer rage. but i'd much rather have reread those works; after a while i tired of reading about rolfe & his unceasing persecution complex, and couldn't summon much interest in his dilettantish dabblings in religion, painting, literature etc. i actually would have preferred if symons had gone All Out Experimental/Meta and brought himself even more obtrusively into the picture, to tell us what kept him on this breadcrumb trail of rolfe-related documents & ephemera, what resonated with his own experiences, rather than burdening the text with too many lengthy quotations.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Walker

    I made a regrettable - embarrassing, even - mistake when I started reading this on my Kindle: I neither checked the date of publication, nor the genre. I read the first third of this marvellous biography under the illusion that this was some Borgesian or Lem-ian fake biography of a writer who never lived; but the story began to repeat itself - Corvo making a friend, leeching money off said friend, then, feeling somehow betrayed, turning against the friend - so much that I thought, "Who would eve I made a regrettable - embarrassing, even - mistake when I started reading this on my Kindle: I neither checked the date of publication, nor the genre. I read the first third of this marvellous biography under the illusion that this was some Borgesian or Lem-ian fake biography of a writer who never lived; but the story began to repeat itself - Corvo making a friend, leeching money off said friend, then, feeling somehow betrayed, turning against the friend - so much that I thought, "Who would ever make this stuff up?" So finally I paused my reading and looked back at the bibliographic detail, and yes - Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) really existed (and I'd never heard of him despite the amazing pieces of literature he crafted!) and the biography I was then reading had been written roughly eighty years ago. That explained so much! Given that I've never read a word of Corvo's, this was a remarkably engaging biography, with a turn towards the end straight out of a thriller. Definitely worth persevering with, and I'm glad to have read it (even though it took me quite a while!).

  29. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Curran

    Published in 1937, this self-declared ‘experiment in biography’ is arguably the literary predecessor to a familiar genre of modern day television documentary: the ones where a celebrity goes on “a journey to discover” their ancestry, or “what lies at the heart of Trump’s America”, or “where peas grow” - whatever the subject happens to be - the idea being that the facts are revealed to the viewer as they are revealed to the presenter. It must also (I presume) have provided a model for Jonathan Co Published in 1937, this self-declared ‘experiment in biography’ is arguably the literary predecessor to a familiar genre of modern day television documentary: the ones where a celebrity goes on “a journey to discover” their ancestry, or “what lies at the heart of Trump’s America”, or “where peas grow” - whatever the subject happens to be - the idea being that the facts are revealed to the viewer as they are revealed to the presenter. It must also (I presume) have provided a model for Jonathan Coe’s brilliant and eccentric B.S. Johnson biography, LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT. The ‘journey’ in this case begins when A.J.A. Symons is given a copy of a novel by Baron Corvo and is sufficiently bowled-over to begin seeking out the details of the author’s life. What follows is a literary detective story, where the author chases the family and friends of his quarry create a complete picture. While the method is ahead of its time I found the language dull and thought the lengthy quotations from letters and articles scuppered the pace. One to admire rather than wholly enjoy, for me at least.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jay Rothermel

    With a century's retrospect, Rolfe was an unappreciated artist who never found a place for himself in life where his craft could be rewarded. But damn, it must have been a misery to know him. Unfit for adulthood or providing for himself, he imposed on acquaintances, then rained down calumny on them when they got sick of his resentments and paranoia. You can't help some people. The book does signify the triump of Symons after over a decade of patient scholarship. "....It was a deeper satisfaction s With a century's retrospect, Rolfe was an unappreciated artist who never found a place for himself in life where his craft could be rewarded. But damn, it must have been a misery to know him. Unfit for adulthood or providing for himself, he imposed on acquaintances, then rained down calumny on them when they got sick of his resentments and paranoia. You can't help some people. The book does signify the triump of Symons after over a decade of patient scholarship. "....It was a deeper satisfaction still to know that every one of the works which had been left and lost in obscurity when Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe died suddenly and alone at Venice had been collected together by sympathetic hands, and that, alone of living men, I had read every line of every one. Nothing was left to be discovered; the Quest was ended. Hail, strange tormented spirit, in whatever hell or heaven has been allotted for your everlasting rest!"

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