Monday, 7 March 2011

Penguin no. 291: The Quest for Corvo
by A.J.A. Symons

"His favourite image for himself was the crab, which beneath its hard crust has a very tender core, which approaches its objective by oblique movements, and. when roused, pinches and rends with its enormous claws; but the tarantula spider seems an apter comparison for him as he watched and waited, expectant of the next benefactor. Unsuspecting, Mr. Justin walked into his web."

I have to start by saying this is a fascinating and entertaining book. I couldn't recommend it more highly; it is the kind of gem that makes a random walk through this collection of old books seem like an adventure. I know that if my book buying was more title- or author- focused, I would never have discovered it: I had never heard of Baron Corvo, or of Symons, who died young without producing any other major work. It is only the undiscriminating purchase of every old Penguin I come across that delivered it into my hands.

This quest concerns the search for information. It begins unexpectedly when Symons is lent a book, Hadrian the Seventh, written by Frederick Rolfe, an author of whom he had never heard, and who also went by the name Baron Corvo, amongst others. He found the book remarkable:
"It seemed to me then, it still seems to me, one of the most extraordinary achievements in English literature: a minor achievement, doubtless, but nevertheless a feat of writing difficult to parallel; original, witty, obviously the work of a born man of letters, full of masterly phrases and scenes, almost flabbergasting in its revelation of a vivid and profoundly unusual personality."
His interest was quickened, and he felt amazed that he had never heard of this man who was capable of writing such a book. This was the puzzle he set out to solve.

In the author's words, this book is 'an experiment in Biography'. The conventional linear approach, in which the subject's story is synthesized from various sources and told chronologically, is eschewed in favour of a format which focuses on the research itself. So instead of telling us the story of Baron Corvo's life, his story is of the search: a portrait of the man as he came to understand him, and how he found his information.

He begins his quest knowing very little, but eager to discover more. He writes a few letters; some of the replies supply a few pieces of the puzzle or suggest directions for further enquiries. He assiduously follows all leads, sometimes through letters, sometimes in person. The story is revealed haphazardly, new pieces of information lack the explaining context, and this only heightens the intrigue. Slowly, and with persistence, a substantial part of the picture is revealed, the fundamental pattern of the writer's life is exposed, and his forgotten manuscripts are tracked down. It is research and biography-writing structured as detective fiction.

We know from early on that the emerging picture will be heartbreaking, for Rolfe is revealed as a flawed genius, and his own worst enemy. Each successive chapter simply builds this picture up, layer by layer. He was a man with a genuine and unique talent, who laboured under delusions of plots and persecutions, and who invariably quarrelled with almost every friend, patron and collaborator he ever had, and then vindictively wasted his talent on bombarding them with haughty satirical letters or maligning them in correspondence directed to employers, friends, neighbours . Each of his novels had a strong autobiographical element, either as a fictional re-writing of his life according to his dreams, or in the settling of old scores.

As a counter, there is something heartwarming about the way so many trusting individuals were willing to help him, and to continue helping him even as he verbally attacked them. But he took advantage of these trusting souls, unquestioningly believing that an artist is entitled to the support of others. And so the allusion in the quote above to the tarantula spider awaiting his victims. These fundamental flaws in his makeup bequeathed to Rolfe a sad and bitter life of failure and penury, and an early death alone and friendless in Venice.

That we know the ending from the start doesn't in any way mar the enjoyment of the book. The story is in the detail, the repeated pattern. And so it becomes a book not only about Rolfe and his life's work, and not only about the process of research, but also about Symons, his quest and his deepening understanding of his subject, and about human nature and psychology. Much of Rolfe's story is told in excerpts from letters, and so we get a series of fragmentary first-hand accounts of the writer. Many of the individuals mentioned have interesting stories of their own, including Vyvyan Holland, Maundy Gregory and Shane Leslie.

In the end Symons' quest was more successful than could be anticipated:
"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."
There is much more in this book than I have even hinted at here. It was a fascinating book to read.


  1. This does sound fascinating. I guess the quote could also be applied to your own Penguin paperback quest.

  2. It was fascinating; the book I'm reading now seems a little bland by comparison. And you're right - trying to locate each of these books does seem like a quest or perhaps a game. There are these unwritten rules - like never paying too much for each individual book. And we end up planning holidays and days out around the search. I sometimes wonder what we'll do when we've found them all.

  3. I delighted in the eccentricities of the characters in this one-off book. Corvo, himself I was not too keen on; he seems to have been a most ungrateful recipient of his various benefactors' help, constantly writing begging letters and then snubbing or falling out with people. His life was a shipwreck of relationships.
    A great find in a second-hand book shop in Glasgow.

  4. Hi Jim,

    I agree - it is a fascinating book. If you ever come across The Unspeakable Skipton (Penguin no. 1529 by Pamela Hansford Johnson, C.P. Snow's wife), that is worth reading as well. It is a fictional retelling of Rolfe's story, though given a modern setting.



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