To open Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot or Richard Holmes’s Footsteps is to embark on a journey of discovery in more ways than one. They not only deal with the lives of writers but are also detective stories, investigative records, travelogues. Such works of biographical exploration have always fascinated me but, excellent though both these books are, I am especially fond of their remarkable predecessor, a book that also set me on the path to becoming a biographer.
The pioneering work in question, The Quest for Corvo (1934), was written by an author who published little else of note. It broke all the rules but established a literary sub-genre of its own by revealing the working of the biographer’s mind as he struggles to uncover and make sense of the scattered fragments of a life. This experimental work demonstrates how the image of any figure portrayed in a biography is not so much a photograph as a portrait in mosaic, reflecting within it something of the portraitist’s own personality and predispositions. As Julian Symons, the crime writer and brother of its author wrote, it blew the gaff on the genre ‘by refusing for a moment to make the customary pretence of detachment’.
Its subject was the delusional Catholic novelist and homosexual Frederick William Rolfe, who was little read at the time and is largely forgotten today. The book of the quest for him, on the other hand, is widely known and well-regarded. But who exactly was the author of this landmark work? Alphonse James Albert Symons (who signed himself ‘A. J. A. Symons’ but preferred to be known simply as ‘A. J.’ after his favourite fictional detective, A. J. Raffles) was a self-educated young man who, in the years following the Great War, set out to advance himself in the world of literature. A bibliophile, he founded and ran the First Edition Club (devoted to the appreciation of manuscripts and rare editions) and also organized the selection of
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