Existentialism, semiotics, and iced tea

Going back to 1985, Roger Kimball reviews a collection of conversations with Walker Percy.

Mr. Percy’s chief concern as a novelist is with ”the dislocation of man in the modern age,” with the sense of ennui and meaninglessness that has shadowed so many lives, even – or perhaps especially – in the midst of affluence. ”The thing that fascinates me,” he tells one interviewer, ”is the fact that men can be well-off, judging by their own criteria, with all their needs satisfied, goals achieved, et cetera, yet as time goes on, life is almost unbearable. Amazing!” Thus in his first and most celebrated work, ”The Moviegoer” (which won the National Book Award in 1962), we find the bemused protagonist, Binx Bolling, engaged in ”the search”: an amorphous, yet desperate, struggle to escape from the emptiness that suffuses his quiet, everyday life in a New Orleans suburb.


The Rolfe-Symons Entanglement

A nice and recent piece on the Rolfe-Symons entanglement, a follow up to the last post.

Symons Said; On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.

Michael Dirda, The Weekly Standard, Vol. 18 No. 14

My quest for Symons A.J.A. Symons, that is began when, many years ago, I first read that strange novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904). Written by the so-called Baron Corvo, and admired by D.H. Lawrence, among others, the book opens with a magnificent description of a hack writer suffering from writer’s block:

After two hours, the writer his name is George Arthur Rose looks askance at his manuscript: He had written no more than fourteen lines; and these were deformed by erasures of words and sentences, by substitutions and additions. He struck an upward line from left to right across the sheet: laid down his pen. He could not work.

Anyone who writes, or tries to write, will recognize Rose’s anxiety, disgust, and weary resignation. But mirabile dictu, this Grub Street washout is about to undergo an utterly astonishing, almost miraculous transformation: By the middle of chapter three, George Arthur Rose will find himself ordained a Roman Catholic priest and then, in short order, elected Pope. He takes the name Hadrian the Seventh.

What happens during his papacy is fantastic, occasionally comic, sometimes touching. Corvo’s prose, reflecting Rose’s new life, quickly grows theologically baroque, even fustian at times, but never releases the reader until the book’s shocking finale. In truth, Hadrian the Seventh is a novel like no other, with a George Gissing-like power rather than, as one might imagine, a Ronald Firbankian campiness.

But who was this Baron Corvo? According to my thrift-shop paperback, he was actually Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913), a minor literary figure of the fin de siècle, which didn’t tell me much. An even fuller answer, I was informed, could be found in the tantalizingly titled The Quest for Corvo by someone named A.J.A. Symons. On a trip to New York, I scoured half-a-dozen used bookstores before I found a copy of the first American edition, published in 1934. It cost only $2, mainly because of bad covers, as a penciled note inside succinctly summed up the worn spine and loose binding. I took a break from my slow-going dissertation and settled down for a bit of rest and recreation.

Subtitled An Experiment in Biography, The Quest for Corvo opens with a much quieter hook than Hadrian the Seventh, but it seizes the reader’s attention nonetheless:

The next 293 pages recount Symons’s adventures. Rather than simply present a biography of Frederick Rolfe from cradle to grave, Symons chronicles his own efforts to discover all he could about the author of Hadrian the Seventh. At times, the book risks becoming a dossier of press cuttings, letters, and archival material; that it never does so is due to a soothing prose style and a subtle attention to framing and rhythm, as well as a contrast of humor and pathos, light and shadow. Chapters introduce us to bookish clergymen, eminent publishers and novelists, quiet eccentrics, and even a mysterious millionaire spymaster, nearly all of them victims of the ruthlessly demanding Rolfe, who made friendship a minor experiment in demonology.

At the start, fellow biographer and bibliographer Millard lends Symons some scandalous Rolfe letters, packed with accounts of pederasty in Venice and written (says Symons) in the most beautiful handwriting I had ever seen, in red, blue, green, purple, and black inks. Millard then points him to a biographical article by Shane Leslie in the London Mercury, which provides several leads to further information. Before long, Symons discovers a magazine article by Rolfe, sensationally titled How I Was Buried Alive, but also a vituperative attack on both its veracity and the character of the author from the Aberdeen Free Press.

Having written letters in all directions, Symons is soon in correspondence with Rolfe’s lawyer-brother Herbert, the novelist Frank Swinnerton, man of letters Vincent O’Sullivan, several clerics, and the publisher Grant Richards. He learns that Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, now remembered chiefly for his occult religious thrillers such as Come Rack, Come Rope, had once been a friend and admirer of Rolfe. (R.H. Benson was the brother of essayist A.C. Benson and novelist E.F. Benson, the latter revered today for his comic Lucia novels and a handful of surprisingly gruesome ghost stories.

As the quest for Corvo continues, the reader I might honestly say the enthralled reader gradually acquires a fuller understanding of Rolfe, this failed priest and paranoid author. In person, writes Canon Carmont, Rolfe was about 5 ft. 7 in. in height perhaps slightly less. He was pale, rather demure and ascetic in expression, wore eye-glasses, smoked rather heavily. According to one Roman Catholic clergyman, Rolfe knew more about astrology than anyone then alive, while his appetite for gossip and scandal was insatiable. Vain to the point of megalomania, he once painted a wall portrait of St. William of Norwich in which all 149 mourners, and the saint himself, were given his own features. Another time, he hinted that Kaiser Wilhelm II was his godfather.

Throughout his life, Rolfe suffered from persecution mania, constantly turning against friends and well-wishers, often unleashing torrents of abuse. A master of invective, he opened one letter Quite cretinous creature, and ended many with Your faithful enemy. As he once said, he considered all men to be too vile for words to tell. Given such a hypersensitive and quarrelsome character, it’s not surprising that Rolfe was usually broke, and sometimes on the verge of starvation. He once asked to be certified insane so that he might have free quarters in the local asylum. In Venice, he applied for a job as a gondolier.

But that was near the end of his life. In his youth, he yearned for ordination but was found unsuitable. For a while, he painted religious tableaux; then he tried to establish himself as a photographer. Surviving pictures betray his idolization of youthful adolescents, as does his first book, Stories Toto Told Me (1898), in which an Italian peasant lad charmingly conflates pagan myths with saints’ lives. The legend of Perseus, for example, is reworked into a Christian allegory starring Saint George. Symons notes that the early Toto stories appeared in the notorious Yellow Book and compares them to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales

But Rolfe didn’t just write semi-autobiographical novels and fiction of a rather fantastic cast. His monumental Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901), once respected enough to be included in the Modern Library series, is in part an apologia for the notorious Renaissance family but also a grab bag of bizarre lore. (One chapter examines the legend of the Borgia venom.) This book, and some of his others such as the novels Don Tarquinio (1905), Don Renato (1909), and the homoerotic Venetian romance The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written during 1910-13, published in 1934) vividly display Rolfe’s linguistic preciosity and his liking for such recondite words and neologisms as subturpiculous, insulsity, macilent, effrenate, and torose.

While I enjoyed The Quest for Corvo immensely, by its final pages I found myself hungering to know more about the tall, thin, bespectacled A.J.A. Symons. Who was he?

Today’s readers are liable to confuse Symons with several other almost-contemporary writers. There is the Renaissance historian and translator of Cellini’s Memoirs, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). There is Arthur Symons (1865-1945), the poet and literary critic whose Symbolist Movement in Literature greatly influenced the young T.S. Eliot. And, not least, there is the distinguished crime novelist Julian Symons (1912-1994) who, as it happens, was the 11-years-younger brother of our Symons. In 1950, he brought out a superb short biography of his brother AJ. Only when I traveled to Oxford did I finally find a copy of A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations in a used bookshop and I had to pay £6 for it. (There has since been a paperback reissue.) The book opens as dramatically as both Hadrian the Seventh and The Quest for Corvo:

Though he was the son of an auctioneer and left school at 14, A.J.A. Symons transformed himself into one of the great aesthetes, connoisseurs, and dandies of his time. His announced aim was to build and shape his life as an architect plans a house. While living always beyond his means, Symons somehow managed to collect Victoriana, rare books, and music boxes. With determination, he perfected an exquisite penmanship, only sported handmade shirts and bespoke suits, and eventually owned a house in the country with an enviable wine cellar and garden. According to his brother, it was his conviction that personal property could be both beautiful and useful, whereas money consisted merely of paper and metal pieces which were not, in general, of an appearance aesthetically pleasing. At the same time, Symons loved games and gambling and dreamed of moving in the highest social circles.

Literary societies, combined with a seemingly irresistible personal charm, were the engines of his success. He started The First Editions Club, was elected a member of the exclusive Sette of Odd Volumes, helped edit The Book Collector’s Quarterly, and cofounded, with André Simon, The Wine and Food Society. In his biography, Julian Symons describes one of that society’s most egregiously lavish banquets: There were 42 courses, with 16 wines and liqueurs. Sadly, this great diner-out and bon viveur took ill just as World War II broke out and died at the age of 41, from a stroke caused by an undiagnosed haemangioma of the brainstem.

A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations is one of the most entrancing biographies you will ever read, especially if you share its subject’s passion for collecting books, wine, or interesting friends. It is not, however, reverential: Julian Symons concludes, after describing his brother’s increasingly sybaritic lifestyle, that we often think that we are conquering society, when in fact we are adapting ourselves to its remorseless vulgarity, its fathomless destruction of our own idealism

While A.J.A. Symons viewed himself primarily as a writer, much of his work can be characterized as occasional comments in The Book-Collector’s Quarterly, an introduction to a volume of 1890s verse, a retrospective essay on the first 15 years of the Nonesuch Press. Apart from The Quest for Corvo, his very best writing can be found in the posthumous Essays and Biographies (1969), which includes the fragments of several unfinished books, including a life of Oscar Wilde. This last might have been Symons’s magnum opus, if only because he was a close friend to both Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland and Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas.

Somewhat surprisingly, Symons did write a short biography of H.M. Stanley and planned another on the African explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke: He always admired risktakers and those who lived extravagantly. Other biographical essays provide brief accounts of Edgar Allan Poe, Regency wit and practical joker Theodore Hooker, and the preacher Edward Irving (the greatest orator of the Romantic age, according to Hazlitt, De Quincey, and others). Symons himself always insisted that a biographer should choose his subject as a dandy chooses his suit, remembering cut and tone as much as texture; and his subjects should fit his talent as the suit fits the dandy’s body: exquisitely.

It’s clear that in all these figures, and in Frederick Rolfe too, he recognized aspects of himself.

Writing came slowly to A.J.A. Symons, in part because he aimed for a witty, easygoing prose. Invitations, he declares with a Wilde-like flourish, are the sincerest form of flattery. A relentless social climber taxed his constitution like a wartime Chancellor. The women in Poe’s fiction, he notes, are the grimmest heroines in literature. Though he never left England, Symons can evoke the travails and horrors of early African exploration:
Throughout his writing, Symons repeatedly stresses that a biography should aspire to be a shaped work of art, a book that can be reread for the pleasure of its form alone. Like Lytton Strachey before him, he helped do away with those enormous memorial sculptures favored by the Victorians, all those dully respectful multivolume Lives and Letters:

Constructed on the simple formula of chronological sequence, they begin, for the most part, with their subject’s birth, and describe his curly-headed innocence, his sailor suit. Chapters two and three, which show no diminution of the one or discarding of the other, are headed Schooldays and Alma Mater, and precede Early Manhood in which a passing reference to wild oats shows that the author also has experienced much; and then chapter five, Marriage, sets us on the trail for home. Life in London, Early Work, and Later Work lead naturally to Last Days and a deathbed scene, several moral reflections, a list of the books or acts of the victim, and one more biography is on the shelf, probably to stay there.

Such is not the case with The Quest for Corvo, though, as a repository of facts about Frederick Rolfe, the book has long been superseded by the work of more recent biographers chiefly Donald Weeks and Miriam J. Benkowitz. But one can reread anything by Symons and A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations, too, for that matter just for the stylish prose and the chance to spend some time in the author’s delightful company. Along with that unique autobiographical fantasy, Hadrian the Seventh, all these interconnected books just might become, as they have for me, personal favorites in your own reading life.


Frederick Rolfe a.k.a. Baron Corvo

Given a papal change is underway, Rolf’s Hadrian the Seventh is as timely as ever, and in my view happens to be one of the top five novels of the 20th Century. Here is David Bradshaw’s reliable Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Part and parcel of the Corvo legend is Symons’ classic biography of Corvo, Corvo brought to Symons’ attention by another “character” Christopher Millard, sensitively acknowledged in Symons’ “Quest” (Millard lived around the corner from me in NW8 at 8 Abercorn Place). In the preface to “Quest”  (the ’66 edition) Julian Symons (A.J.A.’s brother) in turn characterizes AJA as a character “continually being seduced  . . . by wine and food” (my kinda man!). Anyway, read “Hadrian” and you’ll want to read Symons and those of you who share my enthusiasm for The Confederacy of Dunces will probably find Hadrian very much to your taste.



Butterfly in the Typewriter

I want to give a plug to the superb biography on JK Toole written by Cory MacLauchlin. He brilliantly marshals the Toole story into a plausible and coherent whole given that much of what we know was severely modulated through Thelma Toole and who along with Robert Gottlieb tend to be cast (for different reasons) as the villains of the tragic real-life drama behind “Confederacy.” MacLauchlin does not fall into that trap – he offers a very fair and balanced assessment of the positive role these two did play, whatever their failings. MacLauchlin is also restrained in making bald claims ascribing a repressed homosexuality to Toole. Though this may well be true, there is little positive evidence for it and a wealth of hearsay against it. At all times MacLauchlin meticulously assesses the more sordid/sensationalist claims that have been made over the years and finds them to be wanting. Regarding the “Confederacy” characters, as MacLauchlin points out, one is somewhat puzzled by the tacit over-sensitivity by some concerning the Jewish characters in the book, namely Myrna Minkoff  and the Levys. It is through Minkoff and Gus Levy that a significant redressing of justice does occur – the former nabbing Ignatius just in time and the latter helping Burma Jones, someone at the very bottom of the social totem pole. Though Mrs. Levy is without doubt the most obnoxious character in the book there is nothing remotely anti-Semitic about these characters. The insight into a writer’s mind (much like Kafka or Musil that is so tightly woven into the writing) is absolutely fascinating and is sensitively and elegantly articulated by MacLauchlin. All would-be writers need to read this book to get a sense of what a profound talent is (Toole) and as an exercise in the art of biography, appreciate MacLauchlin’s good taste and connoisseurship.


Scholarship and A Confederacy of Dunces

Few offer as balanced a scholarly assessment of “Dunces” and Toole than Vernon Leighton, Cory MacLauchlin and Robert Rudnicki. The three must surely be the first port of call for those engaged in Toole related research. Here is Leighton’s blog and here is a collection of his articles. Toole’s biographer Cory MacLauchlin has presented a fine exemplar the art of biography for what is a most difficult subject to do justice to. All those who have been drawn into the wonderful Toolean/Dunce orbit and who crave reliable scholarship, are indebted to these three chaps.


A Confederacy of Dunces

Here is a documentary film John Kennedy Toole: the omega point freely available to view. The subject matter, the greatest American novel of the 20th Century putting Toole (IMHO) up there with novelists of the order of Kafka, Musil, and Mann – and that based on one work alone.

Here is the excellent blog run by JKT’s biographer (and a producer on the film).

Here is the marvellous resource compiled by Leighton, H. Vernon.

An article from the Tulanian.

Here is another background piece.

Robert Anthony Byrne: In Memoriam by Maurice w. duQuesnay (mentioned in article above)

Walker Percy‘s Foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces

Perhaps the best way to introduce this novel — which on my third reading of it astounds me even more than the first — is to tell of my first encounter with it. While I was teaching at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown from me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to get into my class. It was that her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it is a great novel, she said.

Over the years I have become very good at getting out of things I don’t want to do. And if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: to deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read a manuscript that she said was great, and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.

But the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained — that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.

Here at any rate is Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of — slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age, lying in his flannel nightshirt, in a back bedroom on Constantinople Street in New Orleans, who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective.

His mother thinks he needs to go to work. He does, in a succession of jobs. Each job rapidly escalates into a lunatic adventure, a full-blown disaster; yet each has, like Don Quixote’s, its own eerie logic.

His girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff of the Bronx, thinks he needs sex. What happens between Myrna and Ignatius is like no other boy-meets-girl story in my experiences.

By no means a lesser virtue of Toole’s novel is his rendering of the particularities of New Orleans, its back streets, its out-of-the-way neighborhoods, its odd speech, its ethnic whites — and one black in whom Toole has achieved the near-impossible, a superb comic character of immense wit and resourcefulness without the least trace of Rastus minstrelsy.

But Toole’s greatest achievement is Ignatius Reilly himself, intellectual, ideologue, deadbeat, goof-off, glutton, who should repel the reader with his gargantuan bloats, his thunderous contempt and one-man war against everybody — Freud, homosexuals, heterosexuals, Protestants, and the assorted excesses of modern times. Imagine an Aquinas gone to pot, transported to New Orleans whence he makes a wild foray through the swamps to LSU at Baton Rouge, where his lumber jacket is stolen in the faculty men’s room where he is seated, overcome by mammoth gastrointestinal problems. His pyloric valve periodically closes in response to the lack of a “proper geometry and theology” in the modern world.

I hesitate to use the word comedy — though comedy it is — because that implies simply a funny book, and this novel is a great deal more than that. A great rumbling farce of Falstaffian dimensions would better describe it; commedia would be closer to it.

It is also sad. One never quite knows where the sadness comes from — from the tragedy at the heart of Ignatius’s great gaseous rages and lunatic adventures or the tragedy attending the book itself.

The tragedy of the book is the tragedy of the author — his suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. Another tragedy is the body of work we have been denied.

It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers.