A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography is forever linked in my mind to Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman. The books are different in many ways, but the subtitle “An Experiment in Biography” could serve equally well for them both; both of them attempt to lay bare the experiences that go into creating biographies — the moment of inspiration, the research, the interviews, the wrangling over permission to quote, the exciting discoveries. Both authors describe the emotions involved in researching a person’s life — the obsession, the frustration, the determination, as well as the complicated mix of feelings they develop toward the person him or herself.
Symons’s book was published in 1934, and it opens with the moment a friend hands him the novel Hadrian the Seventh, Baron Corvo’s most famous work. He falls in love with it, whereupon his friend hands him some of Corvo’s letters, which produce an entirely different reaction — he is horrified by decadence and corruption he finds in them. The combination of these two entirely different pieces of writing from the same person troubles and fascinates him, and his quest begins. He discovers that not much is known about Baron Corvo, whose real name is Frederick Rolfe, so he follows what leads he has and soon is uncovering the details of Corvo’s life — some of them inspiring, but many of them pathetic and sordid.
The Quest for Corvo tells multiple stories — it outlines Symons’s research into Corvo’s life, it tells the story of the life itself, it tells of Symons’s response to that life, and it attempts to account for why Corvo is who he is. Symons soon finds he has become obsessed with a very wonderful and strange man:
… nearly everyone who knew Rolfe thought him the most remarkable man of their acquaintance.
Corvo could certainly charm people and was quick to make friends and persuade people to help him — but he was the type of person who always needed help. He tried to make his living in various ways, including painting and writing, but he always failed and was always in financial trouble. His charm would inevitably fade, and a darker side would appear; Corvo was one of those people who seem to be working toward their own success while they are actually in the process of undermining it. He would misuse money until his current benefactor lost patience and then would be horribly shocked and hurt when that benefactor began to ask questions and make demands. He would end up in misunderstandings — somehow or other — with the friends he depended on, and would then react in a manner violently out of proportion to any perceived slight he received. If his friend tried to make amends, he would refuse to consider the appeal as being beneath his dignity, even though he depended on this friend for the very food he ate.
In short, the man was completely insufferable, and yet — and here is the question at the heart of the book — he managed to write works of genius. (At least, they were works of genius in Symons’s mind; not very many people have agreed, obviously, since Baron Corvo is not a well-known name, and I suspect that if I were to try to read even his most famous work, I wouldn’t like it.) How does it happen that someone with mental problems we wouldn’t have too much trouble diagnosing these days, someone who made such a mess of his life, someone who managed to alienate every single person he interacted with in his life, could write so beautifully? Symons offers some answers to the question of what made Corvo the strange person he was, but he acknowledges that the larger questions about art remain unanswered. Art and creativity and the ability to work magic with words remain a mystery.
I loved this book because of its strangeness — the unusual structure as well as the unusual subject — and I loved it in spite of the fact that I became convinced I would disagree, probably vehemently, with Symons’s assessment of Corvo. Symons tries very hard to be fair and to acknowledge what a horror Corvo was to his friends, but he is clearly fond of him and wants readers to be fond of him too. I, however, would stay far away from Corvo if he were still alive, and I found it hard, not having had the experience of falling in love with his writing, to see what could possibly make the man appealing. But it’s a testament to the strength of Symons’s writing that I found the book fascinating in spite of my distance from Corvo — or perhaps the truth is that this disagreement with Symons made for another interesting layer in an already very rich book.