The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (New York Review Books Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

I tend to buy used books in bunches, which means the haul from some expeditions stays buried for weeks, months, years even. For this entry, I highlight three finds that, breaking custom, I bought and read almost immediately this year: Hugo Charteris’s The Tide Is Right, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool, and A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo. Given that I opened each without delay, I was tickled to find a common thread—postponement—running through all three. The publications of the first two novels were deferred for different reasons—libel, indecency—while the biographical “quest” sought to unearth the out-of-print or never-published works of a singular, and singularly impossible, writer who died penniless and unrecognized. All are urbane works shadowed by a sense of life’s and art’s precariousness.

Upon hearing that The Tide Is Right, his 1957 novel about the squabbles of a Scottish aristocratic family, would be dropped by his publisher for its libelous potential, Charteris considered changing the setting to Wales. The house still balked, and it wouldn’t be until 1991 that the novel found its way ashore.

The Tide Is Right, opens with an early morning tableau set along an icy bay that is as chilling as it is mystifying. This initial sense of inscrutable menace persists throughout, even as the scene shifts from wild landscapes to drawing rooms. The plot concerns the Mackeans, whose patriarch, a “sort of archetypal Highland god-figure,” has died. The new laird is Alan Mackean, whose myopia and “partiality for rubber-shoes, big soft concealing chairs” produces an effect “of almost hermetic escape and indifference.” That indifference largely extends to his wife, Augustine, whose “capacity for silence when any normal person would have spoken sometimes came as near to gaining his attention as anything in which he had no vested interest ever did.” Alan is heirless, and the next in line is his more spirited cousin, Duncan, a spendthrift with an inferiority complex. Alan intuits, if not acknowledges, the danger Duncan represents: “Two hundred years ago do you know what Duncan would have [done]? He would have rubbed me out. Like that.”

But in modern Scotland? Such an action seems unlikely in these less rugged times, and yet its possibility hovers over every guarded utterance. When a visiting Londoner claims to grasp the family dynamic clearly, he is quickly disabused: “…if you tried for forty bloody blue moons you couldn’t see—except like a sort of aerial photograph taken through pink fog.” As that outsider (and stand-in for our readerly ignorance) will later realize, “whoever he spoke to seemed to know, guess, feel more.”

One never quite gets one’s footing in this elemental novel of half-voiced thoughts, a dizzying reinforced by the setting, with its “deserted footbridges…double planks suspended on iron hawsers [that] remained motionless and fragile above pressures and pace which could have crushed them inaudibly in black jaws of granite.” Don’t look down.

Our second waylaid work is Cyril Connolly’s only novel—originally planned as part of a trilogy on English snobbishness. It was to be published by an English house until a senior partner intervened, supposedly ruffled by the book’s lesbian characters. The Rock Pool did come out in France (in 1936), but wouldn’t appear in England until a decade later, prompting Connolly to chide: “…I think that the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with ‘We are afraid,’ has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.”

Like the heroes of most thwarted bildungsromans, The Rock Pool’s Edgar Naylor is a vague creature, “neither very intelligent nor especially likeable.” He is delineated only by borrowed affects: “Oxford had fostered, the one through the dons, the other through the undergraduates, two separate veins of pedantry and lechery, which, united when drunk and when sober divided, were the most definite things you noticed about him.” An apprentice stock-broker and would-be writer—he is contemplating a biography of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St. James’s Place—he travels to Trou-sur-Mer, (literally hole-on-the-sea) on the French Riviera, “a microcosm cut off from the ocean by the retreating economic tide.” There Naylor hopes to “derive a pleasant sense of power” by “looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up.”

Instead, attracted to and repulsed by the town’s bohemian clan—its artists, drunks, eccentrics, frauds—he falls headlong into the hole. He experiences a coming-of-age on steroids: “Here life was too crude, too brutal, he had run in a couple of weeks the course in dissolution which for the ordinary eupeptic professional man is spread over a period of years.” Connolly depicts the sordid exaltedness of Trou’s inhabitants, who “rather resembled beautiful cave-dwellers supporting in hieratic and traditional raggedness a dying religion while underneath them when on nothing but bribery, politics, and the making of money.” Despite Naylor’s ardent participation in the debauch, his best efforts to ascend the squalid heights, he remains firmly rooted to the world below. In the saddest part of the bleak comedy, Trou’s true denizens instinctively sense in  him “some ancient enemy of youth and spirit.”

Without further delay, we come to The Quest for Corvo. Symons’s hunt for the dubiously titled Baron Corvo (or Frederick Rolfe) begins when a friend (and rare book dealer) gives him a copy Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe’s self-portrait as a pope: “How was it that I had never heard of a man who had it in his power to write such a book as Hadrian the Seventh?” It turns out that the writer had other, darker powers. Symons’s friend shows him letters from Rolfe’s last years, in which the destitute author attempts to lure a well-heeled debauchee to Venice, where he will guide him, for a fee, through the city’s depravity:
What shocked me about these letters was not the confession they made of perverse sexual indulgence: that phenomenon surprises no historian. But that a man of education, ideas, something near genius, should have enjoyed without remorse the destruction of the innocence of youth; that he should have been willing for a price to traffic in his knowledge of the dark byways of that Italian city; that he could have pursued the paths of lusts with such frenzied tenacity: these things shocked me into anger and pity.
But they also intrigued Symons even more. Thus begins an “experimental biography” in which he relates both the story of Rolfe’s life and  that of his dogged investigative efforts.

Rolfe, who died in Venice in 1913, was an entertaining, strange novelist; historian of medieval Italy; and failed priest. He was also a penurious spendthrift who, once funded, would engage in an expensive and “elaborate idleness;” a sponger, certainly, but one who endured long periods of abject poverty; a paranoid convinced that “others, far less gifted than he, were enjoying the pleasant fruits of a world in which he had no share.”

Before the inevitable falling out, he would entertain his friends and patrons with his erudition and outlandish tales of being buried alive, pursued by Jesuit kidnappers, or communicating with cats in their secret language. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, he composed acidic letters to any and all—he thought of these missives, “whether to a publisher or to a cobbler” as literature. “I’m going to flick that gentleman with my satire,” he would crow to a friend before undertaking such an endeavor, a collaborator who attested that Rolfe was never “happier than when he had to answer an unpleasant letter.”

This aggression masked a profound vulnerability, as the following passage about Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, makes clear:
Have you, o most affable reader, ever dissected a crab? If not, pray do so at once, if possible, plunging him first into boiling water for five whole minutes and evitate unnecessary barbarity. Life the lid of his shell, and look inside. You will find it filled with a substance like new cheese; and a magnifying-glass will shew you that this is held together by a network ramification infinitely closer and finer than spiders’ webs. Under his shell, in fact, your crab is soft as butter, and just one labyrinthine mass of the most sensitive of nerves. From which pleasing experiment you should learn to be as merciful as. God to all poor sinners born between the twenty-first of June and the twenty-fourth of July…They are the cleverest, tenderest, unhappiest, most dreadful of all men.
That is first-class horoscope writing.

Symons’s quest culminates in a sad irony. Towards the end of the biography, we find Symons sharing sumptuous meals with a wealthy admirer of Rolfe’s who is willing to expend considerable resources to track down any surviving manuscripts. The munificent, Renaissance-style patron whom Rolfe searched for all his life arrives too late.

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Experiments in Biography: On Chris Offutt’s ‘My Father, the Pornographer’

In 1934, the year Flash Gordon and The Three Stooges debuted, A.J.A. Symons published his great “experiment-in-biography,” The Quest for Corvo. In it, Symons, an aesthete bibliophile, describes first reading Hadrian the Seventh, an obscure Edwardian novel. The author, Frederick Rolfe, is a dazzling eccentric. Without any link to aristocracy, he assumes the name Baron Corvo and claims that England should submit to Italian dominion. Symons spends several years tracing the history of the painter-novelist from his dismissal as a young ecclesiastic to his last days in Venice. A prolific, irascible writer, Rolfe becomes increasingly frustrated by his own obscurity and failed commercial success: in the words of Rolfe’s acquaintance, Leslie, he was “a self-tortured and defeated soul, who might have done much, had he been born in the proper era or surroundings.”

Reading The Quest for Corvo, from a safe distance, I relished reading Rolfe’s vitriolic letters, excerpts from his novels dense with Latinate neologisms and anecdotes about his idiosyncratic behavior. Chris Offutt, though, experienced first-hand life with The Difficult Writer: his father was a Rolfe-like pornographer and science-fiction writer named Andrew Offutt, who wrote under the alias John Cleve.

My Father, the Pornographer contains reflections on Appalachian childhood, the portrait of the artist as a father, and literary analysis of mid-to-late-century genre writing. Most of all, it is a heartbreaking, hilarious, and humane exploration of the filial relationship. The father is a cankered patriarch right out of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He grew up in Appalachia, eventually getting married and starting an insurance business. He had literary ambitions from the age of 14, though. One of the pleasures of My Father, the Pornographer is watching Chris, the accomplished short-story writer and author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, attentively reading his father’s work, trying to understand the man and the author. While at the University of Louisville, his father wrote a short story, “Requite Me, Baby,” or “The Other Side of the Story.” Chris writes:
In the past fifteen years, I’ve taught creative writing at a number of universities, colleges, and conferences. If I’d come across this story in my teaching, I would have considered it among the most promising works I’d seen. A remarkable intelligence operates behind the prose…The voice is reminiscent of contemporary writers at the time, a combination of Salinger and Hemingway. One strong note is the handling of time…If I were a teacher conferring with the twenty-year-old who wrote it, I’d be extremely supportive.
The reader asks: How much of this is filial loyalty, the impulse to protect or defend your father’s achievement? The allusion to J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway seems hyperbolic. It would be unthinkable that a writing teacher today would compare an undergraduate student’s story in a contemporary workshop to, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro. But My Father, the Pornographer is a better book because it doesn’t assume a phony “objectivity” or “distance;” it’s a searching, open-hearted memoir that doesn’t contrive an easy position for its author in relationship to his father.

Though he was raised in the Depression and succored on Silent Generation values (family, duty, community), he inadvertently is drawn into the world of sci-fi conventions. It was a heady time to be working in science fiction: books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 were winning Nebula Awards. Chris’s mother cuts her hair, his father doesn’t cut his, and the house takes another spiritual direction:
The Bible vanished from the dining room, replaced by an equally large copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Dad gave our property the official address of the Funny Farm, putting it on legal documents, stationary, and bank checks.
Over his career, his father wrote porn that touches on a range of fetishes, quirks, and predilections. Chris, the son, tries to catalogue the hundreds of published books but becomes “bogged down in subgenres.” He cultivated a porn-author persona, John Cleve, and ultimately in 1994 alone wrote 44 novels, including Punished Teens, The Chronicles of Stonewall 7: Captives of Stonewall, and Buns, Boots, & Hot Leather.

To meet market demand, Andrew created a highly efficient system. He “created batches of raw material in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions, and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders.” Sections were dedicated to descriptions of the female body: breasts were “meaty pendants,” “bulging sides of her shapely creamballs,” and “thrusting artillery shells.” As he wrote, he would cut and paste the scenes into his novel and black out the used material.

Like Rolfe, he was easily offended but pathologically incapable of physical confrontation or reconciliation. Apparently, he had an entirely one-sided but long-running feud with Harlan Ellison. He aired his grievances in compellingly splenetic correspondence. When a fan wrote him describing his own wife’s painful and tragic death, with a post-script pointing out a grammatical mistake in one of his books, Andrew Offutt lashed out:
Yes, of course it is nitpicking to PS an otherwise nice letter, requesting time and money-effort from a writer — or any other human being, surely — with the quoting of a slip on p. 24, in which “less” appears rather than “fewer.” Nitpicking and dumb, because it is designed to lose friends and intimidate people. Everything else is fascinating, though, including the ghastliness of your wife’s dying.
My Father, the Pornographer manages to give full expression to all the melancholy of his life — the intellectual insecurity, the fiercely-protected isolation, the heroic work ethic, the creative tenacity, the protean gifts — without losing sight of just how difficult the man was to be around.

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