Wednesday 9 September 2020


'Oh, why is the mind minimifidian, even to its own ends?'

'Minimifidian' was a new one to me. I discover that it means having or requiring little faith. The sentence above comes from a letter that A.J.A. Symons wrote, late in his short life, to his brother Julian. The word 'minimifidian' is probably one that Symons picked up from Frederick Rolfe, the subject of his classic biography, The Quest for Corvo. Julian quotes the letter in his biography of his brother, A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations. The speculations, by the way, were more financial (or quasi financial) than philosophical.
  Julian's biography of 'A.J.', as he liked to style himself (he understandably hated his first name, Alphonse, and adopted Alroy as a substitute), is a fascinating study of a fascinating man, a true one-off, who died (in 1941, at the age of 41) with much of his potential unfulfilled – though whether it would in fact have been fulfilled is an open question: A.J. was one of those writers who would rather do anything than get down to writing, and he spent much of his life engaged in agreeable displacement activities. Many of these enabled him to rise in society to a level he found congenial. As a young man, he founded the First Edition Club – a kind of lavish London club for rich and convivial bibliophiles (there were such things in those days) – and later, with AndrĂ© Simon, the Wine and Food Society, another way of enjoying himself while, theoretically, making money. Only when both these went into decline did A.J. turn seriously to writing, publishing his masterpiece The Quest for Corvo. His later endeavours, including a very promising biography of Oscar Wilde, were left unfinished at his death.
  Apparently born out of his time, A.J. was fascinated by the literary scene of the 1890s – then quite out of fashion – and became a serious scholar and bibliophile in that field. From boyhood, he was obsessed with certain types of games, developing a fantastically complex Race Game based on horse racing. Later he became fascinated by Victoriana – again unfashionable – collecting music boxes and other such toys, building a 'nationally important' collection of the latter. This could all be taken as so much time wasting by a man who should have been devoting himself to writing, but it was all of a piece with his singular character. His brother makes it clear that he was a man of immense charm and great conversational gifts – also an elegant dandy, who insisted on wearing the double-breasted waistcoat long after it had passed out of fashion – but it seems Julian did not always find him sympathetic, especially in his younger years, and it is easy enough to imagine how infuriating A.J. must sometimes have been. His biography (which I read on the recommendation of Stephen Pentz, having written here about The Quest for Corvo) is sympathetic but balanced and, as John Betjeman said of it, 'a very clever book'. Fittingly, the author has a quotation from his brother as one if its epigraphs:
'To say nothing but good of the dead is a pious convention which has reduced biography to the level of memorial sculpture. I had no wish to add to the number of literary tombstones reciting in favourable phrases the virtues of their subjects.'
No more did Julian. I think A.J. would have been impressed by his younger brother's effort.

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