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52 Books #23: The Quest for Corvo

July 2, 2011


Baron Corvo was one of the several pen names of the writer, aesthete and would-be churchman Frederick Rolfe (1860–1913), a man who redefines the phrase “his own worst enemy”. In The Quest for Corvo (New York Review Books), biographer A.J.A. Symons describes two lives: that of his subject, the mercurial Rolfe, and also Symons’s own as he corresponds with Rolfe’s nearest and not very dearest: benefactors, moneylenders and collaborators, all of whose relationships with the ersatz Baron foundered because of his fiercely self-serving and antagonistic attitudes.

After completing his education, Rolfe travelled to Rome where he expected to be ordained as a priest, but was rejected, to his fury. He drew on this experience for his novel Hadrian the Seventh, in which a very thinly disguised version of himself is not only accepted into the priesthood but elevated — not at all to his surprise — to Pope. This he published under one of his pseudonyms, the entirely misleading “Fr. Rolfe”, purportedly an abbreviation of his given name, Frederick, but clearly intended to suggest ‘Father’, and that he had in fact been invested into the church after all.

In his writing career, Rolfe/Corvo came to rely on donations and temporary sponsorships for his money (marvellously, whichever bright spark curated his Wikipedia page — which boasts a great picture of the Baron looking the very embodiment of the world ‘languid’ — grinds an unexpected axe by describing Rolfe as “liv[ing] in the era before the welfare state”). In almost every single instance, however, he repays his benefactor by rounding on him, making unconscionable demands, pursuing unwinnable legal suits, and acting in general like a cross between Frasier Crane and a pantomime villain.

Symons reports the various inept skulduggeries of his subject fairly straightfaced, though the cover of this book could simply be a picture of one raised eyebrow. What appeals most about what he calls his “experiment in biography” is that it presents the biographer’s workings, as it were — the scaffolding of correspondences, meetings, and even fallings-out — which are usually smothered and, at best, only alluded to in the acknowledgements pages of such books.

There’s the makings of a Wildean/Williams-ian epithet in this story — “only those most in need of the kindess of strangers can dismiss them so peremptorily” — and the reader, much as he senses Symons doing, comes to roll his eyes as Rolfe sends another of his grand epistles rehashing his bad decisions as bad luck or maledictions against him. This book tells two equally engaging and wry stories: that of the ultimate self-made man, and that of the ultimate self-sabotaging one.

Other reading in Week #23:

Arthur Rimbaud (trans. John Ashbery) Illuminations (Carcanet)

Shlomo Sand The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso)

Linda Grant When I Lived in Modern Times (Granta)


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