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The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – March 31, 2001
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"Symons's biography of a little-known writer named Frederick Rolfe is unique in biographical literature in bringing the reader in on how the biographer knows what he knows about his subject; and in owning up to what he doesn't know or feels cannot be known. 'The Quest for Corvo' is biography in the form of a detective story, and as such it is riveting....The surest formula for a masterpiece biography—of which there are not that many—is an extraordinary human being writing about a great one. In 'The Quest for Corvo' we have an utterly charming man writing on a madly eccentric one....A slender book, an odd book, a completely original book, [it] also represents a new method of writing biography that has never been copied." —Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
A.J.A. Symons (1900-1941) pursued a wide variety of projects in his short life, writing and editing works on the verse of the 1890s, the history of the Nonesuch Press, and critical studies of various figures of note. He is remembered for his groundbreaking biography of the bizarre genius Baron Corvo and for his own eccentric hobbies, as chronicled in a biography written by his brother, the mystery novelist Julian Symons.
A S Byatt is renowned internationally for her novels and short stories. Her novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet,The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman. Her most recent novel, The Children’s Book was published in 2009.
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Top Customer Reviews
This edition features a beautiful cover and paper stock (as do all NYRB editions) and an intelligent and thoughtful introduction (which, unfortunately, they do not always).
Frederic Rolfe was a delusional, tragic man with a talent for writing and a deep seated paranoia. He attempted to become a priest for all the wrong reasons and was quickly expelled and dismissed as a superficial spendthrift . He cursed at all those who tried to help him, begged and buggered around in Venice till funds ran out. Then he died alone and poor as a rat. He refused moral judgment while dispensing it in abundance. But his writings, mostly "Hadrian the VII" and "Tales that Toto told me" caused enough impression on enough people to merit Mr. Simmons "quest" for Corvo. It is interesting to see how the author seems to need to justify the life of this hard working parasite again and again based on his literary merits. The author cannot conceal his passion for the subject and it becomes contagious. May be he saw in Fr. Rolfe a twin soul. I haven't read the books Rolfe wrote but I am afraid that they might have lost whatever glow they had in their time. Some of the neologisms he created and the language he used might have been dazzling a century ago. Today, I am afraid it might be almost incomprehensible in its rancid archaism. I admit I am judging it a priori but somehow I have no interest in finding out if I am right or wrong.
Nonetheless, despite his intrinsically fascinating character, Rolfe should be approached first through Hadrian the Seventh, and not directly through The Quest for Corvo--if only because then the reader will be following in the biographer's footsteps.
As for the content of the biography, I found its wayward structure refreshing, but confusing, especially with regard to the author's depictions and analyses of Rolfe's literary output. A bibliography or chronology would have been quite helpful. Also, echoing other reviewers, Symons's reluctance to speak at length about Rolfe's homosexuality (especially the elements that might still be considered deviant today) leaves too much of Rolfe's character and contemporary reactions to him concealed.