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The Quest for Corvo : An Experiment in Biography (1934)

par A. J. A. Symons

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5281035,302 (4.05)30
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 be priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, sutitled 'an experiment in biography', is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and sympathy that inspires the biographer's art.… (plus d'informations)
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Symons' quest to discover as much as he could about the life and work of eccentric English writer (and much else) Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, is quite a detective story, and more remarkable for the quaintness of it all--corresponding by mail and waiting weeks for a reply, and no Google. This is a real treat for a book lover, even if you haven't yet read Rolfe's work. In fact, maybe it's better if you haven't read Rolfe yet, since this book will serve as a great guide to doing so. You'll discover that most of Rolfe's books are veiled, idealized versions of his own life. He emerges as an exceedingly strange, sometimes pitiable, sometimes easy to scorn, man who managed to live for 53 years mostly in his own head--and on other people's money. It is certainly a unique story, and it does make me want to read Rolfe--or, to please his ghost, perhaps I should call him Baron Corvo. Symons, who would die at 41 after partial paralysis and a brain tumor, is an engaging character himself, as are those he speaks to or corresponds with about Rolfe. It all makes for an engaging picture of Britain between the wars. Some sort of post-script by the publisher (Valancourt for my ebook edition) about the evolution of Rolfe's reputation after this book was published, way back in 1934, would have been very welcome and made this book more valuable. But, there's always Google...or perhaps you're reading a better version. ( )
1 voter datrappert | Nov 28, 2020 |
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!). ( )
1 voter soylentgreen23 | Jul 17, 2019 |
An amazing jaunt through sorting and the sordid. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
TL;DR: A biography of the impossibly self-important Frederick Rolfe, self-styled baron Corvo, author of the weird Catholic fanfic Hadrian the Seventh. Orignally published in 1934, it's a riveting read, and a truly marvellous collage, postmodern-avant-la-lettre. A feat of infectious enthusiasm.

This was a blast. Immensely entertaining. Such a page-turner that I enjoyed pacing myself and reading it over the span of several weeks rather than speed-reading through it all at once.

A basic piece of advice for writing non-fiction texts is that they should present the information and the conclusions straight-up; it is a rookie mistake to tell the readers how the author became intrigued by the subject, how they amassed and digested all the information, and how they came to form the conclusions they did. But Symons did write his biography of Frederick Rolfe like that, intentionally so, and the end result is a romp, unputdownable once you’ve fallen victim to Symons’ infectious enthusiasm. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Symons’ quest starts with him coming across one of Rolfe’s novels (through an eccentric friend), and his initial curiosity about the man rapidly spins out of control. For indeed, Rolfe was a very strange, eccentric man, full of intentionally odd principles, and above all very eager to take offence. That, coupled with his unwavering expectation that an artist (literator, photographer, painter) such as himself ought to be financially supported by various maecenases, caused him to cycle through various kind friends/supporters who he inevitably antagonises and subsequently excoriates. He spent most of his life in abject penury, wearing the same clothes for months (and sometimes years) on end. At times, he survived off cadging four, five meals a week while calligraphying his (largely unpublishable) manuscripts out in the open, in a leaky gondola. To Rolfe’s mind, the cause of his suffering was his friends' perfidy and his publishers' niggardly and uncultured attitudes. The real blame of course lay with Rolfe’s bull-headed refusal to compromise, and his great delight in being seen to take offence, as well as in publicly wallowing in blame-shifting. An impossible character he was, and a fascinating person to learn about.

And the learning process is fascinating, indeed. Initially, Symons only has the novel and a few of Rolfe’s weird letters to go on, but in writing to the various family members, frenemies and acquaintances he receives long letters in reply, brimming with odd anecdotes and conflicting accounts: everyone Symons writes to admits that Rolfe was the weirdest person they knew, and are only too keen to illustrate his behaviour. Many of these letters Symons quotes extensively, or even shares in full, and they are a joy to behold, because Rolfe’s correspondence is always fascinating to read aloud to whoever happens to be around: in non-financial matters, his letters are jewels of eccentricity and weird erudition; about payments and pecuniary benefits (supposedly due to him), Rolfe’s congenital peremptoriness and invidious insults are too cocky and self-absorbed to believe.

By comparing others’ accounts with Rolfe’s carefully misremembered and obnoxiously erudite version(s), Symons develops this biography as a series of intriguing mysteries -- a journey of discovery in which his readers are welcome to join. One correspondent leads Symons on to another, conflicting accounts cry out for a resolution, lacunae in the biography can only be filled by tracking down the right correspondent -- if they are still alive! The end result reads like a bibliophilic Dan Brown mystery (though much more engaging): fast-paced little chapters that each contribute a precisely-placed clue to solve the overarching mystery: how did Rolfe end up the way he did, and what happened to all his unpublished manuscripts?

And as with any regular historical mystery thriller, Symons discovers along the way that there exist other people like him, the occasional fan or admirer of Rolfe's who has spent part of their life tracking down letters and collecting his works. A loosely ordered secret society, if you will. Because of course there is.

In short: A very intriguing look at the life of a stubbornly smug and obsessively eccentric author from the turn of the century, presented as a shared journey of discovery. One of the best books I read this year. ( )
2 voter Petroglyph | Jan 2, 2017 |
A.J.A.Symons is an interesting character - "bizarre and baroque" - himself as described in the short introduction by his brother. It is unsurprising that he should have taken an interest in Fr.Rolfe who also used the pseudonym "Baron Corvo" (Rolfe would have asserted that he had been bestowed with this title).

The "Quest" referred to is to discover the character and background of the man who wrote "Hadrian the Seventh". It is not essential to read Hadrian first as early in Symon's book there is a short précis of that book but this may spoil the enjoyment if you do intend to read it later.

A story of detection and to me some sadness that a man (Rolfe) of so much talent did not receive due recognition in his time.

I suggest that the subtitle on the cover - "Genius or charlatan" - is misleading. Had Rolfe lived today in the era of mass pulp fiction, when even "Celebrities" may become published authors, I hope his painfully acquired erudition would have received due recognition.

Fr.Rolfe was a flawed character but who can say they are not? ( )
  supersnake | Nov 10, 2015 |
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Nom de l'auteur(e)RôleType d'auteurŒuvre ?Statut
Symons, A. J. A.auteur(e) principal(e)toutes les éditionsconfirmé
Birkett, NormanIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Byatt, A. S.Introductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Leslie, ShaneIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
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My quest for Corvo was started by accident one summer afternoon in 1925, in the company of Christopher Millard.
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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 Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to be priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, sutitled '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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823.8 — Literature English English fiction Victorian period 1837-1900

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