The Desire and the Pursuit of the Whole: The First Complete Edition
Edited with an introduction by Andrew Eburne
Preface by John Bayley
George Braziller, $20.00
by Richard Kaye
Frederick Rolfe, known by his nom de plume "Baron Corvo," refuses to disappear quietly into the cracks of English Literature. Although admired by D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Auden, and Graham Greene, Rolfe is generally treated as either an uncategorizable genius or a certified crackpot. A Catholic who retained a penchant for religious ritual even after he was rejected in his bid for the priesthood, author of historical romances such as Hadrian the Seventh, a schoolmaster who took nude photographs of young Italian males (one is reproduced on this volume's dust jacket), Rolfe ended his days sleeping on the streets of Venice after biting every hand that dared feed him. Critics, charmed or appalled by his odd trajectory, have tended to view his work as Edwardian camp exotica. Yet the enigma of "Baron Corvo" has endured, inspiring what has sometimes been described as the first post-modern biographical work, A.J. Symons's 1934 "experiment in biography," The Quest for Corvo, which was narrated through a series of interrogated "myths" surrounding its elusive subject.
What, then, to make of Baron Corvo? The conundrum stems from the question -- always an issue with camp artists -- of the writer's sincerity. We wonder about the depth of his religious convictions, his opaque sexuality, and the integrity of his prose, often described as "purplish." That he suffered greatly is unquestionable: not only was he was once turned out of an Aberdeen boarding house in his pajamas, he was foiled in his efforts to become a priest, and at the end of his life was forced to make a living as a gondolier.
But how much of this suffering was self imposed? Could Rolfe -- the author of sonnets praising the exquisite limbs of Christian saints -- truly have expected the Church to accept him as one of its representatives? In his futile bid for papal acceptance as he lived an openly scandalous life, Rolfe was as self-deluded as he was self-serving, the homosexual Catholic as Don Quixote, his Dulcinea a local ragazzo.
This particular combination of naiveté
and emotional excess characterizes what is perhaps Rolfe's best-known work, the "Venetian romance," The Desire and the Pursuit of the Whole, which, although completed
in 1910, did not find a publisher until 1934, 20 years after its author's death at the age
The new text, edited by Andrew Eburne, includes segments once deemed so scabrous that they were altered by the book's original publishers -- though Eburne does not inform us what material has been restored. (Comparing this edition to the previously published text, I noticed that some of the deleted passages mocked priestly interest in boys, no doubt Rolfe's vengeance on a Church that turned its back on him.) The story of the writer Nicholas Crabbe's exile to Venice and his love for a boyish girl named Zildo is a tale of decline, fall, and ultimate romantic salvation that is, as critics often note, an anticipation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. But while both Mann's Aschenbach and Rolfe's Crabbe share a disreputable love of adolescent ephebes as well as a fondness for that perennial same-sex signifier, the Christian Apollo, St. Sebastian, the difference between the outrageously vindictive Crabbe and the austere Aschenbach is immediately clear. Crabby Crabbe, to take just one example, attacks his patron with a plate of risotto, an act that would have sent Herr Aschenbach cowering in the nearest gondola. Nor could there be much confusion between the severe objectivist narrative perspective of Death in Venice and the lush abandonment of Rolfe's work. The easy experimentalism of Rolfe's writing, his natural gift for sustained lyricism suggests at once Joyce, the prankster Nabokov, and a Firbankian camp artist. There are passages, however, that are sheer comic Corvo:
The Reverend Bubogo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan's dove, the face of a Mad Hatter out of Alice in Wonderland, and the figure of an Etonian who insanely neglects to take any pains at all with his temple of the Holy Ghost
but wears paper collars and black straw alpine hat.
Or this description of the beloved Zildo, whom Crabbe has rescued from an earthquake and hired as his boy-servant:
She had no more waist than a boy who had rowed all his life standing, and stretching to thrust, in the mode Venetian, filling and clothing his reigns with that rippling belt of lovely muscle which Michelangelo admired (and is said to have invented) -- that girdle which no "strong man" has ever yet achieved with idiotic spring dumb-bells or gum-elastic exercisers. And hip, the horrible meaningless crupper, adored by kallipygs shaped like a little-egg-slipping-off-a-big-egg-slipping-off-an-inverted-bluebell, accentuating hypertrofy caused and cultivated by straight-fronted corsets -- she was close-packed, neat, rounded, and supple, as the Narcissus of Pompeii.
Much of Rolfe's uniqueness is captured in sentences such as these: the rancorous descriptive flair, the obsessively protracted metaphors, the hints of a perverse aestheticism. If there is perversity -- or decadence -- in Rolfe's writing, however, it is not only thematic but linguistic. As his most characteristic passages demonstrate, decadence is the potential for prose to become a series of spiraling tangents, abandoning their original aim of elaborate description; did we ever really get a picture of Zildo's waist? Do we care?
Rolfe's decadent style encompasses an exultant evocation. Free of logical associations, this escape from mimesis is paralleled by Crabbe's depiction of Zildo as transcending the boundaries of commonplace boydom and girldom. The novel's finale, in which Crabbe and Zildo become an idealized "whole," is oddly satisfying. Persuading your girl to dress as a boy would seem to be a Rolfean fantasy of how to have a homosexual life in bad times. Yet Crabbe insists that Zildo is not a simple cross-dresser but a sublime and impossible fragment, a "'sport,' a freak of Nature who had made a very fine and noble sketch of a body and failed to finish it."
John Bayley is as unlikely a choice for an interpretive guide to Rolfe as I can imagine. Professor Bayley peers down at Desire and Pursuit of the Whole as if he were a bouncer blocking the entrance to The Great Tradition, mystifyingly comparing Rolfe to the novelist Barbara Pym and patronizing him as a "narcissist" of "slender" literary output. (My local university library, meanwhile, reveals dozens of entries for Rolfe -- letters, novels, poetry, fables, historical studies, travel narratives -- although, admittedly, Bayley may not have known what to make of such typical Rolfean enterprises as A Garland of Ladlove, one of the Baron's ventures in verse.) As welcome as this unexpurgated edition is, one senses a missed critical opportunity in Ebern and Bayley's introductions.
In his spirited flight from the conventions of realism, Rolfe -- along with such prominent writers as Firbank, James Branch Cabell, John Cowper Powys, Max Beerbohm, and the American exile Howard Sturgis -- suggests an alternative history of literary modernism at the beginning of this century, much of it strongly homosexual in character, that sought to introduce a dose of erotic playfulness to advanced fiction. With a small shift in historical perspective, Rolfe might emerge as not quite the "solitary" talent of Bayley's introduction but part of a larger, alternative movement, one that preferred severely controlled experiments in language to a fluid capturing of states of consciousness. Such a movement is distinct from the modernism of Joyce, Woolf, or James with their emphasis on shifting subjectivities. Such a perspective, against the current of traditional literary history, underscores the centrality of homoerotic feeling in "classic modernism," not only in Lawrence, Woolf, and Stein, but also in Joyce, whose Dubliners presents Catholic priests as obsessively lad-loving as Rolfe's cracked protagonists. In our own time, Alfred Chester sustained this counter tradition not only in his fiction but through his Rolfian escapades in Morocco.
"There is a type of writer incapable of writing his own book until he has seen it in print," Nicholas Crabbe informs his readers, and that might go for both the make-shift experimentalism of Rolfe's style and the novelist's emphasis on the moment-to-moment inventiveness required to sustain erotic love. The clue to the question of Rolfe's "sincerity" may lie in the understanding that he is a writer who cannot gauge the depth -- or the nature -- of his devotion until he has created his love creatures. As Crabbe announces, "L'amor xe fat per chi lo so fare," "Love is for him who knows how to make it." The Desire and the Pursuit of the Whole is an elegant testament to a daydream that is as much an outrage of erotic obsession as it is of literary daring, demonstrating that there is more than one way to pursue high modernist mischief.