Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons (1934)

Corvo top 

Baron Curso - A K A Frederick Rolfe (1860 to 1913, born England, died in Italy) published Hadrian the Seventh in 1904

Alphonse James Albert Symons (1900 to 1941, England, the son of Russian Jewish Immigrants, remembered primarily for this book
Not long ago I read and posted upon a book that will doubtless become required reading for those interested in the art of literary biography, The Long Pursuit:  The Romantic Biography by Richard Holmes.  Holmes taught a Masters class in writing biographies for years at the University of East Angelia.  For that he prepared a list of what he considered "canon status" biographical works that he wanted his students, all aspiring biographers, to read.  Among the seven from the 20th century was The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons.  I fell in love with this book five pages in!

The Quest for Corvo is widely regarded as one of the best of literary biographies.  Symons has given the world a biography of the author of Hadrian the Seventh written in exquisite prose.  His every sentence is a polished gem.  We also see how he came to write the biography and his methods of research.

Hadrian the Seventh is the story of how a sexually depraved poverty stricken Englishmen became pope and ended up dying in abject poverty in Venice.

Symons was given lots of papers and a copy of Hadrian the Seventh by a friend.  On reading the novel he was determined to find out all he could about the author.  He discovered both a con man and a genius, living from borrowing money and art projects and some money from writing.  He was Gay and the book is considered an early GLBT classic.  We follow along as Symons contacts through letters initially friends and family of Corso.  He had assumed the title Baron, claiming with no substantiation he had been awarded the honor, and tried to live like royalty.  He died in the gutters of the bad side of Venice.

This book is worth reading just for the prose style, the many people we meet and for an appreciation of how hard serious biographical research in pre-internet days.  I guess no more books like this will probably be written, more the pity.

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