Monday, August 12, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE QUEST FOR CORVO” by A. J. A. Symons (first published 1934)

There are some books that have an enduring reputation among connoisseurs and that continue to be published, even though they have never had a huge mass audience. “Caviar to the general” as Bill Shakespeare would have put it.

One such is A.J.A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, which is subtitled An Experiment in Biography.

In 1925, says Symons in his opening paragraph, his friend the antiquarian Christopher Millard introduced Symons to Frederick William Rolfe’s novel Hadrian the Seventh (published in 1904). That novel and Symons’ book are still the best-remembered things about Rolfe. Hadrian the Seventh is essentially a fantasy about an Englishman who unexpectedly, and in a very short time, becomes pope and proceeds to shake up the papacy in unprecedented – but oddly ineffectual – ways, before being assassinated by a fanatical Ulster Protestant. In the late 1960s, long after Symons’ time, the novel was dramatized rather unimaginatively by Peter Luke. I remember seeing a performance of the play at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre when I was a teenager.

Reading Hadrian the Seventh effectively set Symons off on his quest to find out more about Rolfe, the self-styled “Baron Corvo”. The Quest for Corvo is not a biography of Rolfe, but literally an account of Symons’ search for the remains of Rolfe and for materials about Rolfe. Most of Rolfe’s work had either never been published, or had not been reprinted from its first limited and small-circulation editions, at the time that Symons was writing. This was less than two decades after Rolfe’s death.

Symons (1900-1941) writes in the first person, thrusts himself into the foreground of his narrative, and makes his quest itself the main focus of his book, rather than the man after whose life he is questing. In 1934, this was a very modern and indeed pioneering way to write about somebody, quite at odds with the way biographies tended to be written up to that time. As a result The Quest for Corvo has sometimes, a little misleadingly, been called a “postmodern” work, because it adopts an approach and a method that became commonplace only decades after it was written. (The world is now awash with books called “In Search Of…” this person or “The Quest For…” that person.)

Re-reading The Quest for Corvo, I am once again struck by the justness of Symonds’ judgements on Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913).

Rolfe was the son of English Protestant parents, rather evangelical, the sort whom Anglicans used to call “dissenters” or “non-conformists”. Rolfe was homosexual by inclination and appears to have misread his lack of interest in women as a sign that he had a vocation for the Catholic priesthood. So he converted to Catholicism and trained to be a priest. But his misbehaviour (presumably of a sexual nature) caused him to be expelled successively from two Catholic seminaries, Oscott College near Manchester and Scots College in Rome. He never reached ordination. Nevertheless, Frederick Rolfe took to signing himself “Fr. Rolfe” with the obvious intention of deceiving people into thinking that he really was a priest.

Rolfe, by Symons’ account, quarrelled with nearly everybody who associated with him, including (or perhaps especially) with those who attempted to help him in some way. After failure in a succession of jobs – writing on commission, painting church decorations – he ended up in Venice, writing pornographic letters and attempting to lure a wealthy patron to Italy by promising to procure boys for him. In his early fifties, he died of a heart attack while attempting to lace his shoes.

Symons describes Rolfe as “paranoiac” and says that in some sense all his writings were revenge fantasies, wish-fulfilment fantasies, or a combination of both. This is certainly true of Hadrian the Seventh, in which somebody who never made it to the priesthood gets his imaginative revenge by promoting himself to pope. The novel’s main character is clearly a self-portrait by Rolfe and the novel is filled with that main character’s systematically correcting all the slights he has been offered in life, promoting his friends and demoting his enemies.

Two things dominated my response to The Quest for Corvo.

The first had to do with Rolfe’s attitude to religion.

Rolfe fancied himself as an artist, and his response to Catholicism was a purely aesthetic “camp” one. Symons notes that when studying in the two seminaries he attended, Rolfe would look away or fall silent or stop taking notes whenever lecturing clergy laid out the church’s teachings on sexual morality. He was, in effect, the ultimate smells-and-bells Decadent-era Catholic convert, all incense and vestments and absolutely no moral sense. Like many such, he saw the Protestantism in which he had been raised as a vulgar thing, not worthy of refined sensibilities such as his. The Ulster Protestant in his most famous novel is a crude boor.

As The Quest for Corvo makes clear, Catholic clergy who came into contact with Rolfe usually treated him with great kindness and consideration until he became absolutely impossible. On one occasion something mean was done against him, which involved a priest. This was when Rolfe’s name was taken off the title page of a book upon which he and Father Robert Hugh Benson had collaborated. (Like Rolfe, Father Benson was both a writer and a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism – indeed Benson’s father was the Archbishop of Canterbury.) According to Symons, however, the decision to remove Rolfe’s name was the publishers’ decision, not Benson’s. I should add here that Symons, writing in the early 1930s, seems to have been unaware that Rolfe’s and Benson’s relationship was much closer than he knew. While there is no suggestion of a physical relationship between them, it is now known that Rolfe and Benson exchanged passionate letters for a year or so. The letters were duly destroyed by Benson’s family after Benson’s death.

The second thing that surprised me about The Quest for Corvo was my discovery that Rolfe really was a serious writer. Given that he did not move into literature until the late 1890s, when he was already in his thirties, he wrote a great deal Рa history of the Borgias, translations of Omar Khayyam and Maleager, a volume of short stories and three novels apart from Hadrian the Seventh, even if the style of all of them was recherché, rococo, over-laden with obscure epithets of his own devising, in a word, camp.

He was an unpleasant and impossible man, but he was not idle.

I must add two end-notes to this little appreciation. One is trivial. Frequently in The Quest for Corvo, Symons characterizes Rolfe as “queer”. He clearly means the word in the old sense of “odd, eccentric, out-of-the-way”, but given that this is one of the more frequent insult words for homosexuals, it can be jarring to encounter it in the text.

The second is the result of my inevitable researches after I reconsider something I have previously read. Looking up Frederick Rolfe on the internet, I note that at least half-a-dozen sites that mention him are specifically gay ones. Rolfe (especially in his later Venice years) is now being hailed as a pioneer gay writer, and there is much aestheticizing over his last and most explicit novel The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, which was only published first in 1934, over twenty years after his death, and then in an expurgated version. I can’t deny that Rolfe really was a gay writer, but I think Symons’ estimation of the man is both more robust and more convincing than what such sites are offering.

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