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The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  282 Ratings  ·  31 Reviews
One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Ba ...more
Paperback, New York Review Books Classics, 312 pages
Published March 31st 2001 by NYRB Classics (first published 1932)
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Violet wells
Aug 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
It’s astounding this masterpiece of a book was written in 1934 because even now I can think of only one other book of biographical literature that is so strikingly ground-breaking, so thrillingly compelling in its method of composition – Laurent Binet’s investigation of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich HHhH. There are similarities between the two books – most obviously how both authors forge an intimacy with their reader by narrating not only personal feelings about their subject but also ...more
Hunter Murphy
Sep 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. It's about Frederick Rolfe, a truly odd duck- prickly, brilliant, an Englishman obsessed with becoming a Catholic priest. I was enthralled. The way he lived his life seems almost fictional.

Rolfe upset nearly everyone he met. He's just the sort of character who should have a book written about him. This is one of the books you read that sticks to your ribs. It was in parts hysterical and tragic. People like Frederick Rolfe are fascinating
Nov 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Stranger, and better, than fiction: The Quest... might appear to be casually conceived (man reads book, man falls in love; man reads book's author's letters, man gets both fascinated and appalled; man decides to write author's biography) and casually written, but at least the latter is not true. Symons, who only takes shape as a character-writer at the very beginning and end of his book, ensures the pacing, timing, findings, sources, and even a mysterious benefactor appear at just the right mome ...more
Aug 01, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Kobe Bryant
Nov 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
This was interesting and all but you have to wonder about a guy who reads a book he likes and decides to spend a decade obsessing over the author
Dec 17, 2008 rated it liked it
an experiment in can say that again...very strange book
Michael Spring
Apr 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
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
Sep 18, 2010 rated it liked it
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
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
Jan 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jonathan Lopez
Sep 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoirs
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.
Feb 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
Nov 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting, amusing, lovely language. It was easy to get caught up in the author's enthusiasm for his search and subject.
Nicholas Bobbitt
This is a pretty good book. I just kinda lost interest in it.
Nancy Oakes
Nov 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Actually, I finished this book a few days ago but just remembered this morning that I'd not marked it as read. I had bought this book some time ago along with Frederick Rolfe's (aka Corvo) Hadrian the Seventh thinking that I'd read about the author before starting the novel. But plans change -- I haven't got to Hadrian VII yet but I pulled this book off the shelf and read it just before starting my second read of a new release by Snuggly Books, An Ossuary of the North Lagoon and Other Stories, d ...more
Kim Zinkowski
Nov 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting story of a man with a very interesting, thought somewhat troubled life. I'm glad I read it before Hadrian the Seventh. I don't remember how I was made aware of this book or the man.
Halfway through the book I got overwhelmed by an intense longing – to become a discoverer of obscure English books filled with thoughtful commentary on life and fate. Suffering from the impossibility of fulfilling my longing, I set The Quest for Corvo aside and decided to revisit Robert Aickman’s maxims, as they fitted my bill perfectly: Aickman’s writing is sophisticated, playful, philosophical, and only recently has it started moving from obscurity to semi-obscurity. Off the top of my head, I ...more
Harris Maslowe
Feb 19, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars

I very much joyed this biography. Frederick Wolfe/Corvo wrote in such thick, rich, and complex prose that was fun to wade through. Keep your dictionary handy! And our biographer and those whose letters make-up much of the narrative of this book seem to unconsciously (sometimes consciously) mimic the style; I've found myself doing the same in recent emails :) It's as if the inspired, tormented character that is Wolfe gives permission to use language itself as ambitious art and riddle at
Mar 26, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: WSJ "Five Best" on frauds
A very interesting (and a bit strange) 1930s book about a VERY strange character. I read because of the "Five Best" recommendation in the Wall Street Journal and also because it has a relation to Venice -- I'm reading lots about Venice at the moment.

The author was obsessed with learning the truth about "Baron Corvo" (Frederick Rolfe) for many years and the result is this biography-cum-detective story. The detective story -- how Symons pieced together facts of the Corvo/Rolfe tale -- is quite ent
Joshua Buhs
Apr 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Mesmerizing. I have been a member of Corvo's cult following ever since a Roman bookseller handed me The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole in 2010. I've known vaguely about this biography for some time, but never got around to opening it. When I did, I got sucked in. I regret waiting so long!

In 1925, a London bookseller handed Symons Hadrian VII, which sparked his obsession to find out what kind of person could have written such a book. He tracked down all of Fr. Rolfe's living relatives, friend, a
Mar 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 06, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: couldn-t-finish
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.
Jul 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
An amazing jaunt through sorting and the sordid.
Mary Ronan Drew
Sep 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Re-read in part April 2016
Chiefdonkey Bradey
Jun 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Unravelling the tangled life of a wounded soul, his writing the strange fruit of bitterness and genius
Feb 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
Oct 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
A great weird biography on an even weirder subject matter for a biographer. Probably THE example for anyone who is interested in writing biographies.
Aug 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a gem of a book, a fascinating quest for the truth about a most unusual man.
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“Había pasado por la vida en un estado de oposición y exasperación, ofendiendo y siendo ofendido sin motivo ni escrúpulos.” 2 likes
“Un alma derrotada, torturada por sí misma,que habría podido hacer mucho de haber nacido en una época ó ambiente apropiado.” 1 likes
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