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Hadrian the Seventh (New York Review Books (Paperback)) Paperback – March 31, 2001
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Make that Pope Hadrian the Seventh. Rolfe offers up a British pontiff who wants to redesign the crucifix, redecorate the Vatican, and canonize capriciously. Hadrian is a little-disguised version of Rolfe, one of English literature's great eccentrics. This was originally published in the early 1900s.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
It is extraordinarily alive, even though it has been buried for twenty years. Up it rises to confront us…Only a first-rate book escapes its date…The book remains a clear and definite book of our epoch, not to be swept aside.
— D.H. Lawrence
Frederick Rolfe alias Baron Corvo is certainly one of the most fascinating of those various literary curiosities of England.
— Saturday Review
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Reading this book, for me, was like rummaging in a linguistic attic, chancing upon a forgotten turn of English or Ancient Greek and smiling wistfully before putting it aside again. Ultimately, this book is, like its author, a curiosity whose "caviare" as D.H. Lawrence puts it on the back cover, can and will be appreciated only by the few with a taste for the peculiar.
If you look up Fr. Rolfe on Wikipedia, you'll find that it lists his occupations as "novelist, artist, fantacist, eccentric." What a grand occupation to have, because it can excuse all kinds of bizarre behavior. Some eccentrics calculatedly draw attention to themselves through their unconventional actions, all the while very slyly knowing what they are doing. These are con-men. Other eccentrics are those who are actually mentally ill, paranoid and self destructive. They sincerely feel they have been maliciously obstructed throughout their lives, and they distrust everybody and blame everybody for their failure to achieve greatness. This novel is the daydream of just such a fellow.
The actual story goes something like this: The protagonist has been dismissed from two schools (through no fault of his own, of course) where he was in training to become a priest of the Catholic Church. He is then forced to endure a hand-to-mouth existence at a variety of endeavors, all of which are terminated by the perfidious actions of others. Then, through an entirely unlikely set of circumstances, he is suddenly accepted into the priesthood and is almost immediately elevated to the position of Pope.
The remainder of the novel is akin to the fantasy anyone might have if imagining "If I were the king of the world." Pope Hadrian breaks up the Vatican treasury to give to the deserving poor, brings peace to the world by persuading all the world leaders to follow his suggestions, and justifies himself against all criticisms of his past actions. Then (Spoiler alert) he dies as a martyr.
I am entirely mystified as to why the English newspaper The Guardian named this as one of the 100 Bast Novels. It is only interesting if one knows the background of the author, as a look into the paranoic personality. Otherwise, it is tedious and pretentious, filled with unnecessarily complex words and sentences intended to impress. It seems to me to be the ravings of a madman, similar to the diatribes sent to newspapers or posted on the internet by various modern killers. Perhaps England was fortunate that Rolfe just expressed his grandiose dreams and paranoia in literature, rather than acting upon his delusions.