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 Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, subtitled “an experiment in biography,” is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and sympathy that inspires the biographer’s art.
Once caught up in “the quest,” the reader wonders how he can have lived so long without meeting this elusive, mysterious man and his work.
— The New York Times
But it is the book’s compulsive readability that proves the exquisiteness of the match [between biographer and subject]….Much as can be said for Symons’s and Rolfe’s mutual fit, a good part of the success of The Quest rests with Symons’s decision to structure the story like a detective novel.
— David Grubbs, Bookforum
Symons’s biography of a little-known writer named Frederick Rolfe is unique in biographical literature in bringing the reader in on how the biographer knows what he knows about his subject; and in owning up to what he doesn’t know or feels cannot be known. ‘The Quest for Corvo’ is biography in the form of a detective story, and as such it is riveting….The surest formula for a masterpiece biography—of which there are not that many—is an extraordinary human being writing about a great one. In ‘The Quest for Corvo’ we have an utterly charming man writing on a madly eccentric one….A slender book, an odd book, a completely original book, [it] also represents a new method of writing biography that has never been copied.
—Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal