Tuesday 21 July 2020

Symons's Corvo

'His election to the Bucintoro Club owed itself to an amusing incident arising from his passion for swimming, and rowing in the "mode Venetian". One day, turning a corner of the Grand Canal too sharply, he fell overboard while smoking a pipe. Swimming strongly under water, he came up unexpectedly far from his boat, looking extremely solemn, with his pipe still in his mouth. On climbing back into the sandalo, he calmly knocked the wet tobacco out of his pipe; refilled from his rubber pouch, which had kept its contents dry; borrowed a light; and with the single word Avanti went his way. Such impassivity charmed the Venetian onlookers; word went round of this incident, which, coupled with his aquatic fervour, gained him membership of the Bucintoro, a useful privilege, since he could use the Club boats and clubhouse.'
  This is one of the happier incidents in the later life of the notorious Frederick William Rolfe, aka 'Baron Corvo' (among other aliases), as related in A.J.A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography. I'm reading (technically rereading after many years) this extraordinary book, which pioneered an entirely new way of writing a life: not as a chronological narrative unfurled by a largely absent narrator, but as a process of discovery through which the biographer, as present as his subject, leads the reader with him. It was, as Symons must have realised, perhaps the only way to write a life of Rolfe, a man known as the author of the novel Hadrian the Seventh and other works, but whose life was veiled in mystery, obscurity and paradox. As Symons writes when he is 100 pages or so in:
'So far, I have set before the reader not an analysed summary of my researches but an account of the search itself; and I believe that in regard to a man so exceptional as Rolfe this exceptional method is justified. Truth takes many forms; and the dramatic alternation of light and dark in which my inquiries discovered Baron Corvo has, I am convinced, more value as verity than any one man's account. I have tried, accordingly, to be the advocate for neither side, but rather the judge impartially bringing out all aspects of the case for the benefit of the jury.'
  The method makes for an unusually exciting biography, with a large cast of characters, a twisting and turning narrative, and all the readability of a good detective story. And what Symons uncovers about the various phases and facets of Rolfe's life is extraordinary stuff: here was a man who, entirely convinced of his own genius, exerted an irresistible charm over his admirers, formed intense friendships, embarked on enthusiastic creative collaborations, and in every case ended up believing himself betrayed and ill used, and switching instantly from devoted friend to implacable enemy, persecuting those who had wished only to help him, and biting – indeed savaging – every hand that fed him. In the end he fled England and took up residence in Venice, where he charmed money out of yet more victims before viciously turning on them too, lived like a lord in the brief interludes when he was in funds (never his own money), and lived like a vagabond when the money and credit finally ran out, walking the streets day and night, or sleeping out on the lagoon in one of the Bucintoro Club's boats. Symons, a huge admirer of Hadrian the Seventh, perhaps affords Rolfe more sympathy than he deserves, but were he not sympathetic he would surely have been defeated by the many obstacles that stood between him and his goal of unravelling his subject's exceptionally tangled and turbulent life. It is a very good thing that in those days everybody communicated by letter – and that so many were still alive (in the early 1930s) who had known the egregious Rolfe and remembered him all too well.
  Symons, whose first name was Alphonse, was (I was surprised to learn) the self-educated son of Russian-born Jewish immigrant parents. Rather than going to university, he was apprenticed into the fur trade before literature got the better of him (rather as V.S. Pritchett, born in the same year, was apprenticed into the leather trade). Symons died young, at just 41, leaving behind, among other things, an unfinished biography of Oscar Wilde. The Quest for Corvo was his masterpiece.
  Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh brought its author an unlikely surge of posthumous fame when it became a hit stage play, opening in London with Alec McCowen, and moving on to Broadway and beyond. Rolfe, ever his own worst enemy, would probably have tried to get it banned.


  1. I believe he coined the memorable term "fusidowl," which I mutter under my breath when severely provoked. From Corvo's "An Ossuary of the North Lagoon":

    "He belonged to that class of men which I (following Aristotle) call the Fusidowls, the Born Slaves, creatures absolutely incapable of performing a noble (i.e., a free) act themselves or conniving at such performance on the part of others."

    My guess it that is comes from physis, nature, and doulos, slave.

  2. Yes indeed, Rolfe couldn't stop himself coining new words, usually from the Greek or Latin. I don't think they've ever been catalogued (PhD project for someone?). He's been described as a 'wine merchant of prose', which is rather apt.
    'Fusidowl' does make a good oath...

  3. Nige: Thank you for the wonderful reminder of Symons' wonderful book: I'm now of a mind to revisit it myself. By the way (and you probably already know this), Symons was the brother of Julian Symons (now perhaps best known for his crime fiction, but one of those now-vanished 20th century "men of letters" who wrote on many subjects). Julian (again, as you probably already know) wrote a fine biography of his brother: A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations. I highly recommend it. A. J. A. was quite a character. (Julian's chapter on "The Quest for Corvo" is only 28 pages out of a 284-page book, so this gives you an idea of the ins and outs of A.J.A.'s brief life.) The biography was originally published in 1950, but Oxford University Press republished it as a paperback in 1986 (with a new "Afterword" by Julian), so it shouldn't be hard to track down a copy, if you are so inclined.

    Thank you again for the delightful reminder of Symons (and "the Baron").

  4. Well thank you Stephen – and on your recommendation I've ordered Julian S's memoir from Abebooks. I look forward to finding out more about A.J.A.