The Magazine

Symons Said

On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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My quest for Symons—A. J. A. Symons, that is—began when, many years ago, I first read that strange novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904). Written by the so-called Baron Corvo, and admired by D. H. Lawrence, among others, the book opens with a magnificent description of a hack writer suffering from writer’s block:

In mind he was tired, worn out, by years of hope deferred, of loneliness, of unrewarded toil. In body he was almost prostrate by the pain of an arm on the tenth day of vaccination. Bodily pain stung him like a personal affront. “Some one will have to be made miserable for this,” he once said during the throes of a toothache. He was no stranger to mental fatigue; but, when to that was added corporeal anguish, he came near  collapse. His capacity for work was constricted: the mere sight of his writing materials filled him with disgust. But, because he had a horror of being discovered in a state of inaction, after breakfast he sat down as usual and tried to write. Dazed in a torrent of ideas, he painfully halted for words: stumbling in a maze of words, he frequently lost the thread of his argument: now and then, in sheer exhaustion, his pen remained immobile.

 After two hours, the writer—his name is George Arthur Rose—looks “askance” at his manuscript: “He had written no more than fourteen lines; and these were deformed by erasures of words and sentences, by substitutions and additions. He struck an upward line from left to right across the sheet: laid down his pen. .  .  . He could not work.”

Anyone who writes, or tries to write, will recognize Rose’s anxiety, disgust, and weary resignation. But mirabile dictu, this Grub Street washout is about to undergo an utterly astonishing, almost miraculous transformation: By the middle of chapter three, George Arthur Rose will find himself ordained a Roman Catholic priest and then, in short order, elected Pope. He takes the name Hadrian the Seventh.

What happens during his papacy is fantastic, occasionally comic, sometimes touching. Corvo’s prose, reflecting Rose’s new life, quickly grows theologically baroque, even fustian at times, but never releases the reader until the book’s shocking finale. In truth, Hadrian the Seventh is a novel like no other, with a George Gissing-like power rather than, as one might imagine, a Ronald Firbankian campiness. 

But who was this Baron Corvo? According to my thrift-shop paperback, he was actually Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913), a minor literary figure of the fin de siècle, which didn’t tell me much. An even fuller answer, I was informed, could be found in the tantalizingly titled The Quest for Corvo by someone named A. J. A. Symons. On a trip to New York, I scoured half-a-dozen used bookstores before I found a copy of the first American edition, published in 1934. It cost only $2, mainly because of “bad covers,” as a penciled note inside succinctly summed up the worn spine and loose binding. I took a break from my slow-going dissertation and settled down for a bit of rest and recreation. 

Subtitled “An Experiment in Biography,” The Quest for Corvo opens with a much quieter hook than Hadrian the Seventh, but it seizes the reader’s attention nonetheless:

My quest for Corvo was started by accident one summer afternoon in 1925, in the company of Christopher Millard. We were sitting lazily in his little garden, talking of books that miss their just reward of praise and influence. I mentioned Wylder’s Hand, by Le Fanu, a masterpiece of plot, and the Fantastic Fables of Ambrose Bierce. After a pause, without commenting on my examples, Millard asked: “Have you read Hadrian the Seventh?” I confessed that I never had; and to my surprise he offered to lend me his copy—to my surprise, for my companion lent his books seldom and reluctantly. But, knowing the range of his knowledge of out-of-the-way literature, I accepted without hesitating; and by doing so took the first step on a trail that led into very strange places.