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abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence

7.9.05

OED QED

Continuing with literary biography this weekend, Symons' The Quest for Corvo chronicles a life even stranger than Roussel's via Caradec/Monk; unlike the latter case, the literary interest of this biography probably exceeds its subject (though I have no plans to confirm this by reading Hadrian VII; unlike Roussel, Baron Corvo/Fr.Rolfe [the provenance of his Italianate title dubious, and Fr short for Frederick in spite of clerical ambitions] exercised little influence downstream, despite D.H.Lawrence's praises [odd though that Graham Greene should again be implicated in discovery, as he was with Lolita], and even though Symons himself was something of a connoisseur). Both Corvo and Roussel shared a certain superficiality behind their total dedication or ambition (serendipiteously I'm now reading Voinovich's The Fur Hat): Where Corvo/Rolfe is a neologist (and, supposedly, a canny observer behind an imperturbable mask), Roussel's method was more nearly algorithmic, triggered by making sense of similar sounds, driving meaning from puns in a style not far removed from Magritte's. This points to something larger in literature, seemingly a philological aspect inherited from philosophy, an overliteral argument from etymology (which philosophy itself subsumed in aphorism, perhaps culminating in Nietzsche before Wittgenstein went meta and Borges reclaimed it for literature).

I've been temporarily thwarted in following up on this interest up an avenue, named Empson, the Valveteen Rabbit John Holbo first set me on, as Harvard U Press isn't stocking The Structure of Complex Words at present; per Empson himself: “Of the prose books, [7 Types of] Ambiguity examines the complexity of meaning in poetry; [Some Versions of] Pastoral examines the way a form for reflecting a social background without obvious reference to it is used in a historical series of literary works, and Complex Words is on both these topics; it offers a general theory about the interaction of a word’s meaning and takes examples which cover rather the same historical ground as Pastoral. Roughly, the moral is that a developing society decides practical questions more by the way it interprets words it thinks obvious and traditional than by its official statements of current dogma”.

My appetite was further whetted by Beerbohm (to whom, as well as Corvo via Sholto Douglas, Dwight MacDonald's Parody first introduced me). In Zuleika Dobson, he sends up Oxford (where Rolfe was a hanger-on, and from which Empson was sent down), with mention the Great Tom, which another strand of my own questing uncovered last spring, and which led, in an addendum to the comments there, inexorably back to Poe, and a perfect convergence of sound and sense.

Addendum: The quirkiness involutes further and leads elsewhere. Symons' last and most fertile source of original (so-called) Baron Corvo manuscripts was a Mr. Maundy Gregory (additionally ex-Oxford), who apparently was in the business of titles:
"My favourite wealthy collector is the late Maundy Gregory. He was not a billionaire but had in the 1920s what amounted to a licence to print money. He sold honours. For £10,000 (about $1 million now) he could get you an earldom; knighthoods were a bit cheaper. You could, in fact, sign a cheque to him in your expected new name--only cashable when you assumed the title. He liked rare books, especially the works of the fantastical Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo.) In some cases (according to AJA Symons in 'Quest for Corvo') he would pay his agents to track down supposedly unfindable books, money no object. In the case of one particularly difficult book his agents hunted down the original printer, long defunct, and found four mint copies in a cellar. One wonders how much money it would take to track down a copy of James Joyce's first book 'Et tu Healy' (no copies known) or 'Questions at the Well' (Ford Madox Ford under the name Fenil Haig--only copy known was in the British Museum but has been stolen.)"
-- via Nigel Burwood; I think a coincidence of names (with an MI5 operative, amongst other things linked to the Zinoviev letter, either as conduit or forger) misleads The Lost Club, or perhaps not, but I'm still glad I found it.

4 Comments:

Blogger Ray Davis said...

Corvo/Rolfe is a lot of fun -- a Nabokov narrator in the unwholesome flesh! May I tempt you with a lovely online edition of his Don Tarquinio and my own enthusiastic response to the Symons biography?

26/9/05 16:30  
Blogger nnyhav said...

Ray, fact of the matter is, that very HotsyTotsy post planted the seed for me to pick up Symons, germinated through MacDonald. Corvo himself seems too exotic a hothouse bloom for my garden -- too many perennials to fill in first, and I've some way to go to work myself up to orchid fancier.

27/9/05 00:12  
Anonymous perezoso said...

Dwight MacDonald's Parody first introduced me

The McDonald text I discovered once in some dirty Woodland Hills bookstall--"Against the American Grain"--entertained and fascinated me to some extent; he's sort of Marxist, or at least materialist, and took great delight in disparaging the excesses of the day, i.e., the Beats and counterculture, and the sort of Tractors-are-Truth school of social realist as well. Or perhaps I misread it. Yet he also seemed opposed to Pound-Eliot-like elitism and the Bloomsbury school of Toryish nausea. I am not sure exactly what sort of writers McDonald did approve of: a Fitzgerald or DH Lawrence perhaps, vaguely Flaubertian realism, rife with eloquence and irony. I cannot stomach Lawrence's writing really, but I need to re-vist McDonald's oracle to determine if he, for instance, would have supported my contention that Poe is a superb writer, whose stories are at least the equal of Melville's saxony-Shakespeare meets Ezekiel pulp.

28/10/05 13:27  
Blogger nnyhav said...

One day I'll have to pick up MacDonald's litcrit; a parody anthology is only implicitly such. But this very day I procured The Stuffed Owl, an anthology of (good) bad verse, which may be more critical ...

28/10/05 20:12  

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