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George Fetherling

A.J.A. Symonsłthe initials, he was reluctant to admit, stood for Alphonse James Albertłwrote the beginnings of many full-sized books and actually completed one that became quite famous, first as a cult favourite, savoured by a small band of devotees, and finally as part of the mainstream, available to all in an orange-spined Penguin. Now, The Quest for Corvo, subtitled "An Experiment in Biography," has come out in an entirely new edition, with an introduction by A.S. Byatt, from New York Review Books (distributed in Canada by Raincoast, $20.95 paper).

The Corvo of the title, himself a cult figure who is now much better known and has since been the subject of other biographies, was Frederick William Rolfe (1860-1913), a disillusioned English schoolmaster who was rejected for the Catholic priesthood. Rolfe responded by exiling himself to Venice to pursue young men, develop his disagreeable personality (W.H. Auden called him "one of the great masters of vituperation") and write some very odd novels indeed. Once the most notorious of them, now the most famous, has also just been reprinted in the same series ($23.95 paper), with a preface by Alexander Theroux. It is Hadrian the Seventh (1904), the story of an obscure English writer, despised and kicked about by all, who, through a bizarre series of events, finds himself elected pope, thus permitting him to seek revenge and fulfill assorted fantasies.

Why The Quest for Corvo struck a chord in certain circles when it first appeared in 1934 was partly because it pioneered a new approach to biography, what might be called the biography-as-mystery-story. In this sub-genre, the author must turn amateur detective to learn the truth about his subject, and so he ends up telling two stories simultaneously, on parallel tracksłthat of the search and that of the elusive prey. Actually it's an idea that has undoubtedly had greater influence in magazine journalism than in book-writing. Without it, Rolling Stone would have appeared with many blank pages in the early years. But it's still one that has long had appeal for authors, including Julian Symons (1912-94), the much younger brother of A.J. (as he preferred to be known).

Julian Symons' study A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations, published in 1950, added a new twist, as it's abundantly clear that the writer of it didn't care much for the brother he largely had to get to know posthumously. In fact, it's obvious between the lines that the more he uncovered about his subject the less he liked him. But then Julian Symons, who devoted most of his later writing career to mystery novels and was, by self-election, the premier historian of crime fiction, was a difficult person, quick to offend and ever quicker to take offence, as those of us who ever tried to work with him soon learned.

Here then we have a triumvirate of distinctive and decidedly odd personalities. Rolfe was a dark, misanthropic and somewhat ridiculous figure, living out a life of hateful make-believe. He was one of those novelists whose works are blatantly autobiographical, virtual transcriptions of experience. Rolfe, however, is not remotely so interesting as most others of whom the same is truełsay, Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac, to take the two examples within closest reach. This is partly because he didn't have their range (or love) of life, partly because he wasn't writing from and out of his own time as they were theirs. Indeed, Rolfe made himself into a faux-medieval figure, working from the standpoint of an entirely artificial personality while nonetheless drawing for material almost exclusively on his own prejudices.

D.H. Lawrence, master moralist, called Hadrian the Seventh "a clear and definitive book of our epoch, not to be swept aside [.] the book of a demon [.] the book of a man-demon, not of a mere poseur." I rest my case. As you can tell, Rolfe is an acquired taste I myself, despite repeated efforts, have never quite acquired.

As for A.J.A. Symons (1900-41), he was a fellow who crammed a lot of dilettantism into such a short life. He was born in London of Russian Jewish heritage, the son of a high-flying auctioneer who, at one point, before the facade inevitably came crashing down, owned race-horses, a small yacht and a big house. A.J., like many writers with a sense of the past, was attracted by the generation immediately before his own. In his case, this meant the 1890s. Hence his interest in Rolfe but also in Oscar Wilde, the Yellow Book and all that stuff. He fancied himself an 1890s-style dandy and aesthete, and his name is associated with a strange enterprise from which he managed to extract a living, the First Edition Club, to be followed later by the Wine and Food Society. He was a kind of shady businessman and inveterate collector (of music boxes, among other things). In the Great War, he had served, fittingly, perhaps inevitably, in an outfit called the Artists' Rifles (at the sound of whose name the Hun must have trembled).

But the saddest point of this odd triangle is Julian Gustave Symons, who started out wanting to outdo his brother in precocity (at 21 he founded Twentieth Century Verse, one of the two important British poetry magazine of the 1930s) as well as in political and artistic seriousness (he was a Trotskyite for a while before the Second World War and a friend of such figures as Wyndham Lewisła bit oddly in that case, given Lewis's notorious anti-Semitism).

The younger Symons published respected books on figures such as Thomas Carlyle but soon got trapped into commercial writing, grinding out a mystery a year and an enormous amount of even more ephemeral stuff. Yet in 1988, as if foreseeing the end, he rallied for one last serious work, a history of early modernism entitled Makers of the New. It is a sort of expository narrative, crackling with ideas and out-of-the-way anecdotes, about the rise and fall of literary and visual modernism between the world wars. For Julian Symons was drawn to figures of the 1920s (Eliot, Pound, Joyce: the entire crew) as his brother had been to those of the 1890s. It was a remarkable book for him to have suddenly written, without warning, at 75. But those same factors kept it from getting the sort of attention it deserved. The story of Rolfe and the Symons brothers is ultimately a very sad affair indeed.


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