The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography
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The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography

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4.16 of 5 stars 4.16  ·  rating details  ·  151 ratings  ·  18 reviews
This biography of an earlier biographer was written in 1934 by A.J.A. Symons with the goal that it should be as compelling as a detective story. In it Symons tells of his own unearthing of the documents of his very odd subject, Fr. Rolfe (in her introduction, A.S. Byatt quotes Freud's diagnosis of r
Paperback, New York Review Books Classics, 289 pages
Published March 31st 2001 by New York Review of Books (first published 1932)
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T.D. Whittle
I read this book years ago, when I was a young woman living in -- and, of course, in love with -- New York City. I immersed myself in its arts and culture, and its bustling liveliness, and prayed for some kind of mystical ascension, whereby I would become one with the grey heavens of Manhattan. Perhaps that's why I fell in love with the nutty Baron Corvo, whose love for Venice, and whose decadence -- contained only by purifying bouts of asceticism -- twanged a chord or two in my own mind and sou...more
DoctorM
A wonderfully-done biography of Fr. Rolfe, the author of the classic "Hadrian VII"--- as fine a bit of Edwardian eccentricity and ecclesiastical fantasy as you'll ever find. Rolfe was a failed seminarian and mythomaniac who wrote a book about how a snobbish, conflicted, brilliant Englishman (oddly, a failed seminarian who looks just like Rolfe himself) is suddenly, inexplicably made Pope...and saves Europe for Catholicism before being martyred. Rolfe spent his life playing roles--- the Italian n...more
Jose
Sep 25, 2010 Jose rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Uranians
This book is mostly famous as an example of how to write a proper biography . Rather than chronologically narrating the life of Frederic Rolfe a.k.a "Baron Corvo", the author follows his own progress and correspondence in search of the Baron's life details. The subject of the book itself is one of those late victorian characters that simply had to confront a new reality driven by capitalism and not just church or aristocratic patronage.
Frederic Rolfe was a delusional, tragic man with a talent...more
Tony
THE QUEST FOR CORVO: An Experiment in Biography. (1934). A. J. A. Symons. ****.
Back around 1970, I found and read a play called “Hadrian VII,” that I found in a used paperback book store. I remember it because I had just moved to a new city and was exploring its shops. The play was written by Peter Luke, and had apparently had a short run on Broadway. It was a fascinating plot of fantasy about a young Englishman who had attempted to join the Catholic church as a priest, but didn’t make the grade...more
Kay
This groundbreaking 'experimental biography' is a comical but curiously sad portrait of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo. Rolfe was a consummate eccentric who also happened to be a talented writer. A.J.A. Symon's disappointment at not being able to find out anything to speak of about Corvo after reading one of his obscure books led to the 'quest' of the title. Symons was fascinated by Corvo, and we in turn become fascinated as well.

Corvo was a tortured soul, given to quarrels and parano...more
Michael Spring
There’s a great man. Someone decides to write his life story. The profile is set against the times and the achievement is assessed.

That at least is the way most biographies work. AJA Symons’ The Quest for Corvo is a different beast.

It is partly a detective story, in which the author at the outset hardly knows what might happen. It is partly too, a revelation about the author himself. (Throughout, he readily confesses his likes and dislikes, his prejudices and enthusiasms. He is suspicious about...more
Joshua Buhs
Wow! This is excellent. How had I not heard about it before?
I only happened on the Quest for Corvo serendipitously while reading about the Dickens-Dostoevsky kerfluffle.
The book is nominally a biography, but so much better structured than the usual soup-to-nuts (or cradle-to-grave) bio.
Symmons sets out to learn about Fredrick Rolfe, author of Hadrian the Seventh, among other books, and uncovers quite a character. Rolfe is charming and talented, but also self-destructive, inevitably turning on th...more
Kate
This biography is pure gold.

The subject: Fr. Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo. Impoverished aesthete, would-be priest, and pseudo-noble with literary talents unvalued, a gay man of the Edwardian age supported by wealthy acquaintances who found him interesting until he denounced them, one by one, in bitter letters.

The biographer: A.J.A. Symons, writing in the 1930's. Curiosity spurs him to learn all he can about Corvo, to document the man's strange life and thwarted ambitions, and to resurrect any unpub...more
Jonathan Lopez
I started this book two nights ago and didn't go to sleep until I finished it! I don't want to ruin it for anyone so won't explain except to say that it's truly astonishing and -- quite literally -- impossible to put down.
Rupert
Oct 26, 2009 Rupert rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: tentatively
Beautiful writing and magically oddball subject. Corvo would have fit in very well in modern day Baltimore.
Jacob Wren
About Fr. Rolfe's lost novel Don Renato, or An Ideal Content, A.J.A. Symons writes:

No writer ever set himself a more difficult task. He, or rather Dom Gheraldo in his entries, tells a story: he reveals by slow and feline touches the character of the priest from within; and at the same time he attempts to give an English equivalent for the verbal mix-up of the pretended original. And in all this he succeeds, though in retaining Dom Gheraldo's macaronics he almost makes the book unreadable. Fortun...more
Llew
Odd in concept (memoir of a biographer) and maybe historically relevant for the idea, like a Tristam Shandy or the Orson Welles movie about hiring someone to discover who he really was etc...but relatively boring to read and the prose was nothing to write home about either.
Tosh
A great weird biography on an even weirder subject matter for a biographer. Probably THE example for anyone who is interested in writing biographies.
Linda
This is a gem of a book, a fascinating quest for the truth about a most unusual man.
Bill
an experiment in biography...you can say that again...very strange book
Jonfaith
An amazing jaunt through sorting and the sordid.
manwithoutqualities
A must once one has read Hadrian VII.
Mark
Fascinating and haunting.
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“Un alma derrotada, torturada por sí misma,que habría podido hacer mucho de haber nacido en una época ó ambiente apropiado.” 1 likes
“El temperamento y las circunstancias de este hombre desgraciado habían estado en guerra con su talento.” 1 likes
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