. . . Baron Corvo

. . .

Self-expression: It's clear to the most casual reader of his books that Fr. Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) was always his own hero. But since it's also clear that he was a raving loon, his attempts at self-portraiture convey nothing of what he was actually like. Thus my delight in The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons, which proves again that Venice is, in so many ways, the perfect place for a sponge.

My Penguin edition changes the subtitle to "Genius or charlatan?", but that's a stupid question when you're talking about a fiction writer. Symons's is more accurate: this biography is emphatically experimental in ways that gain Cholly's full approval:

1. Primacy of primary sources

Rather than going omniscient on us, Symons makes room for quoted documents and testimony (with the first-person account of his own research as a bridge), preserving subjectivity and increasing the odds that the reader will actually learn something.

As a leeching paranoid, Rolfe/Corvo thoughtfully minimized the formal difficulties of implementing this approach, dividing his life neatly into sausage-shaped episodes wrapped around one (and usually only one) acquaintance who was first obsessively latched onto and later obsessively tied off.

2. Sympathy for the subject

Most biographers suffer from wildly inappropriate self-righteousness, and Rolfe/Corvo, who wears his faults not just on his sleeve but all over like a paisley three-piece suit, has been a particularly efficient self-righteousness vector: none of the books I've found by him have escaped a mean-spirited introduction. But Symons, bless 'im, bears in mind, through all storms of icky gossip, the gratitude befitting anyone who's been successfully intrigued by another human being.

Symons bends over backwards to interpret the life's events as Rolfe/Corvo might have, and, on top of that, as his first-person sources might have. And if his Unified Corvo Theory (all the Baron's problems stemmed from being born gay into an intolerant world) seems excruciatingly naive (I'm pretty sure Symons had plenty of gay acquaintances who didn't act like Rolfe/Corvo), at least it's helped bring other sympathetic readers into the fold.

Speaking of bending over backwards, Symons may be explicitly experimental, but that's the only way he's explicit. And I'd go so far as to call him a downright little tease when it comes to Rolfe/Corvo's final literary remains, a bundle of pornographic letters. On the Web, we can at least learn the name of the letters' recipient (Henry Scott Tuke's "most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox") and their motive (to entice a new source of funds to Venice). But as for their contents -- and as for the Rolfian novels I've not yet found -- well, Symons may be able to conclude his book by saying that his Quest for Corvo has been satisfied, but I'm stuck with legendary-Bomp-recording-artist Professor Anonymous:
You know, it's been said many times:
Seek and ye shall find.
Well, I have sought,
And yet I'm still searching for the one.
And you know?
I guess my search has just begun....

. . .

The formula I've used since pre-Mosaic days still explains it all: The Web == low-cost very widely distributed publishing.

To put it another way, Alamut publishes for me, but he doesn't write for me. He doesn't have to (second clause), which is why he does (first).

It appeareth to me that the writing of history is a simple matter. Let each man, from the age of puberty, write of the things which happen to himself. So few men can write that not more than enough will be written.
-- Fr. Rolfe, Don Tarquino: A Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance

. . .

Nothing ages like senility: A tale of two libraries

The Little Leather Library is a set of teensy-weensy cheaply-bound booklets stored in a plain cardboard container about half the width of a sneakers box, marketed around 1920. My father had a set (presumably inherited from his father), and they made up a large part of my childhood reading.

The "leather" looks like the seal on rotgut bourbon, the paper is the color of burnt caramel, and the smell is pure nostalgia. Aside from that, the Little Leather Library's enduring appeal for me lies in its editorial hand, which rested heavily on "modern classics" (i.e., the fin-de-siècle). Here are some volume titles:

Salome by Oscar Wilde
  1. "Fifty Best Poems of England" (including representative works by Francis Thompson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne)
  2. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
  3. "The Happy Prince"
  4. "Salome"
  5. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
  6. "Bab Ballads"
  7. "Barrack Room Ballads"
  8. "Short Stories of De Maupassant"
  9. "Man Without a Country"
  10. "Sherlock Holmes"
  11. "The Gold Bug" (the volume is filled out with a repeat of the first 30 pages of "The Gold Bug")
  12. "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" (and what other two Shakespeares could they possibly have picked?)
  13. and, for good or ill, most influential of the bunch, "Dreams" by Olive Schreiner
A heady mix for a healthy growing son of the US Navy...

+ + +

... and as a strapping middle-aged man, I was delighted to find the continuing education course that is The Golden Gale Electronic Library: a world-wide distributed database of texts viewable only with the the Golden Gale Book Reader program.

The program is -- well, let the coder without sins throw rocks at it; Greek font or no Greek font, I wish I could extract the whole text into an editor and be done with it -- but what a public service in these texts! Starting from the sizable splash of the leaden Benson brothers' upper-class Anglo-Catholic end-of-the-nineteenth-century public-school boy-mania, Golden Gale has captured over a hundred volumes of otherwise vanished ripples. So far, I've galed along to:

  • "Don Tarquinio: A Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance" by Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo), a Renaissance adventure that grounds the Baron's personal obsessions solidly and satisfyingly in historical context and beat-the-clock narrative structure.
  • "Stories Toto Told Me, or, A Sensational Atomist" by Baron Corvo (Fr. Rolfe), the most popular of the Baron's work in his own time, and a typically queasy mix of pedophilic exploitation and Catholic aesthete speculation. The next best thing to tertiary syphilis.
  • "Plato and Platonism" by Walter Pater, first recommended to me by Samuel R. Delany.
  • "The Outcry," Henry James's novelization of a very bad Henry James play that attacks those beastly Americans who come over to good old England and start appropriating....
  • "William Blake: A Critical Essay" by Algernon Charles Swinburne: "But if we regard him as a Celt rather than an Englishman, we shall find it no longer so difficult to understand from whence he derived his amazing capacity for such illimitable emptiness of mock-mystical babble as we find in his bad imitations of so bad a model as the Apocalypse: his English capacity for occasionally superb and serious workmanship we may rationally attribute to his English birth and breeding...."
  • ... with more to come, I'm sure.
Toto by Baron Corvo

. . .

Mothers Day Beefcake Special . . .

Fr. Baron Corvo on the pressing topic of pants, from A History of the Borgias:

Observe, from their manner of clothing him, how these people worshipped Man. Not for them was the concealment of his grace in dented fractured cylinders.

+ + +

Speaking of which, not many people realize that Robert Mitchum's first Hollywood job was playing an equilateral triangle in educational shorts....

  Mitchum at 18

. . .

Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall

Although the paper stock's pure 1943, page five warns us the text won't keep to AUTHORIZED ECONOMY STANDARDS:


Fragments of this narrative have appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Kingdom Come, The New English Weekly and Partisan Review. It is fiction. Outside pp. 130-134, all the characters are imaginary, and no further reference is made to a living or recently deceased person except Messrs. L. N. Fowler of Ludgate Circus, Dr. Pearson of the Middlesex Hospital, the Grand Duke Cyril of Russia, Lifar, de Basil, Balanchine, Nijinsky, Legat and Diaghilev of the Russian ballet, Lawrence of Arabia and D. H. Lawrence, Duke Ellington, the late Canon H. R. L. Sheppard, Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Isobel Baillie and Anna Wickham, Lady Astor, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, Gabo, Miró and Georges Bernanos, Gordon Craig, Heifetz and Rudolf Steiner, a number of all-in wrestlers and Joe E. Brown, Clark Gable and the Chinese naval attaché, Marshal Pétain, M. Stalin and Mr. Winston Churchill, the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the Hangman and the reigning house of this realm.

A slip is tipped in:

SATURNINE by Rayner Heppenstall
This First Edition is limited to 1,650 copies,
of which 1,600 copies are for sale in the
United Kingdom.
Erratum: p. 5, line 3, for "pp. 130-134" read
"pp. 124-128."

And yes, while the narrator observes perspectival and temporal bounds, his text otherwise strays. Phlegmy strands of narrative dissolve and re-emerge in a fashion difficult to capture in a short excerpt, but this paragraph incorporates a number of characteristic concerns:

At the age of fifteen, Caroline was physically mature and obstinately shy. This was the fault of her mother who still kept her in very brief, childish frocks, so that she had something of the perverse and rather horrible attraction of the principal boy in a pantomime. She was a large, handsome child, with clustering, fair hair and big, golden legs. Her face had the suggestively Jewish nose and short upper lip of a virgin sheep newly dipped. She was presumably born under Aries. I found her disturbing and was rather ashamed of the fact. Margaret said that I had no need to be, for the child was obviously of an age to be desired or she wouldn't be that shape.

(Margaret is the narrator's wife.)

Later experts reached to the nouveau roman for a parallel; myself, I was reminded more of Italo Svevo and Burroughs's Queer and Baron Corvo's certainty that all his vagaries were projected from heaven in letters of fiery gold Saturnine's most startling literary reference comes when the narrator considers naming his newborn daughter after the boy-toy-gondolier in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. (And in a startling biographical coincidence, Heppenstall's wife was also named "Margaret", and she also bore a daughter in 1940, and an unadvisably cumbersome name also seems to have been considered.)

All these comparisons are afterthoughts at best; the reading itself is an "inexplicable tumble." About two-thirds through, Heppenstall belatedly defends his technique in reviewer-friendly terms:

It seems as if I were telling four or five stories at once, but that is how it was. I can imagine this story divided up between four or five distinct novels. There would be the novel dealing with a business man who crashed and upon whom a hitherto suppressed romanticism thereafter took its revenge, causing him to suffer from delusions and eventually to lose his memory. There would be a novel dealing with the London of before the war and during the Sitzkrieg, its decadent intellectualism, its circles of vice, the disintegration of personality later to be remedied by a national risorgimento. There would be novels of simpler theme, the downfall of an erotophile, the errant husband and wife brought together by the birth of a child. More interesting perhaps than any of these, there would be a highly atmospheric novel dealing with experiences in a half-world of death and rebirth. But in actuality these and other potential themes were inextricable, and I cannot truthfully say what effect attached to what cause or indeed which was cause and which effect. Any attempt at all-embracing consistency would be dishonest (and I believe that it is always so in life and that all novel-writing is dishonest in its degree). I can but play upon the surface and hint at underlying depths wherever I am aware of them.

Nevertheless, I am certain that all things do cohere within a pattern, that anarchy and chaos are conditions not to be found in nature and that, if one were possessed of the necessary technique, the whole of a man and a man's life could be read clearly from a single hair of his head, as some claim to read it in the palm of his hand.

The reviewers of 1943 did not return his friendliness. But when we step back a bit, Saturnine's architectural scheme (if not its pattern) appears clear enough: four parts, chronologically arranged, each climbing a bluff of crumbling consciousness and ending on a cliffhanger. The first part might be a bit more obsessed with class hatred, the second with mysticism, and the third with sex I haven't run the stats; vague impressions seem truer to the material and the fourth detaches from an increasingly mobilized world.

In that fourth part we reach pp. 124-128 (not to be confused with pp. 130-134), a long and apparently essential (albeit fruitless) visit with unimaginary Oskar Kokoschka and his young lover, "Mom"; a Google Books snippet tells us that "Kokoschka and Croft also seemed to have had a major argument about Saturnine.... Kokoschka, who features in the book, had tried to persuade Heppenstall, a friend of his, to work Croft 'into the story.' Although in the end no reference was made to Croft in the book, Croft considered Saturnine 'in the very worst of taste.'"

That, at least, is undeniable. The Daily Express particularly didn't care to consider the stink of excrement and putrefaction which rises from the Queen of England and the little princesses "if you stick your nose in the appropriate place," and then there's the company of sailors and the lady sawn in half and the pro wrestling, the new recruit's micropenis and the more fabulous penis of Paradies, the narrator's worm and the Siamese kittens' worms, revulsion towards Christmas and sympathy for "the German cry against encirclement," and this maternity-ward farewell:

‘I expect they’ll start by shaving you,’ I said.

‘Darling,’ said Margaret. ‘They've shaved me already. Kiss me again, darling.’

The nurse went out.

Margaret said:

‘Darling, do you love me?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘At least, I think so.’

All accurate enough, we suppose, but in the very worst of taste. While we would never, ever presume the book was autobiographical ("it is fiction"), we do have to wonder just what his friends and lovers see in the narrator, no Adonis, and a self-iconoclast that destroys his own virtues underneath your eyes. It's small wonder that only 1650 copies of Saturnine were ever printed; the tasteful can thank infinite copyright extension for keeping it (and every other of Heppenstall's books) out of print. May the Guardian of the Threshold preserve us from pirates!


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.