On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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:
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: