The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, by Frederick Rolfe

I tried, many years ago, to read Rolfe’s most famous work, Hadrian VII, but struggled somehow – I forget the reason: perhaps just the usual antipathy I have towards works of a religious nature. Beginning this book, I wondered again after that reason: what was it back then that I had missed about Rolfe? Or was that book after all different, written in a less ornate style? Because frankly speaking, my impression of the first 50 pages of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole was that they were as good as anything written in English in the twentieth century.

I say this, however, knowing Rolfe’s style is unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes. So let me just type out the first few paragraphs, and you can judge from this whether you’d be inclined to read on:

In the Symposion of Plato, 193, you will find these words: –

The Desire and Pursuit of the World is called Love.

The text chosen, o most affable reader, on which to hang these ana of Nicholas and Gilda for your admiration, will require such a lot of expounding that we must get at the heart of explanations (as to how it all happened) without undue delay. It is not my fault, I assure you, that things occurred in the order in which they did occur. I am not the regulator of this universe. If a conclusive series of events and energies is designed, whereby a man and a maid are brought together, demurrers against the said design need not be addressed to me: I am merely the recorder. I personally am not so very sure that there was a definite design for bringing this particular maid to this singular man. A certain deftness, which I notice about things in general, causes me shrewdly to imagine that this business might have been done without devastating a pair of provinces and massacring a couple of hundred thousand Christians. So, I do not propose to inquire into reasons, which neither I nor anythng else can possibly understand … All I have to say is this, o most affable reader. These amazing events came about as I shew. As for me, I find them amusing, terrible, but witty. You may be blessed with a taste like mine: or you mayn’t.

What Rolfe is on about – what actually brings these two lovers together – is the Messina earthquake. Crabbe, our hero, is living on a boat just off the Italian coast when the earthquake strikes, and he sails ashore the following morning to find a devastated world, from which he rescues a young girl, who afterwards considers herself his bondslave – something which he desperately tries to reject, before ultimately acquiescing in. They then go to Venice, where he dresses the girl as a boy so that she can become a gondolieri – and this is then where the novel falls apart; or, let us say, changes.

I didn’t know too much about Rolfe’s life while reading most of the book (something I put right before the end by concurrently reading AJA Symons’ remarkable biography The Quest for Corvo), but I didn’t need to read the biography to guess that the direction the rest of the book takes was somewhat autobiographical in nature – in fact, was written by a man overwhelmed by his own egocentricity and paranoia. That it turns out Nicholas Crabbe is a writer is enough to warn you; but really what suggests it is that Rolfe completely forgets the novel he has been writing up to now, about the girl and the Messina earthquake, and instead begins to relate a litany of perceived wrongs he had suffered from his publishers and his friends, his interrelations with the English community in Venice (in general, not good – one of superiority and contempt), and his involvement in some sort of invented religious order, all coloured by his view that the entire world is working in concert against him. Some of this is interesting (like in the case of Strindberg’s Inferno, it is interesting to observe how any man can calmly note down his paranoia, understanding it for the irrationality it is, and yet still not be able to escape it); but his monomania prevents him from distinguishing what may be interesting to him and what may be interesting to his audience, which, when he wasn’t writing about himself, he didn’t have a problem with. Rolfe’s primary interest is no longer telling a story; it is in stating his case – and this is a terrible affliction for a novelist.

It is still though a fascinating read, and the style is something to marvel at, but I’m just left with the impression that it could have been so much better – if only Rolfe had managed, for a few more moments, to have escaped himself.

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6 thoughts on “The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, by Frederick Rolfe

  1. I picked up The Quest for Corvo earlier in the year, am looking forward to it. It puzzled me that someone who inspired such a highly-regarded book could himself be a writer generally considered not worth reading.

    Interestingly McCrum, in his largely fatuous 100 Greatest Novels exercise, has included one by Rolfe. But based on what you suggest here, he is a diverting curio, a fleeting talent unrealised – is that fair?

  2. Rolfe is definitely worth reading. In fact, one thing I forgot to mention above is that I now intend to read everything else by Rolfe (I think I’ve got hard or soft copies of everything bar the Venetian Letters, whose notoriety you’ll discover in QfC). Next up will be Don Tarquinio, which I’m hoping will be good for being largely non-autobiographical.

    My review was perhaps a bit negative-sounding (as they always are). I really enjoyed reading this book; the language is wonderful. I just think it’s flawed (but not as flawed as say Moby Dick). In fact, it’s probably good to read this and Hadrian VII (and perhaps also the book called Nicholas Crabbe) alongside QfC, because you’ll see how it all fits together.

    I might still review The Quest for Corvo.

  3. No, I thought you were pretty positive all told – seeing the great(er) book this could have been is still praise.

    I’ll bear that in mind about having the actual works to hand with QfC.

  4. Hmm, people really weren’t much taken with Hadrian VII on that McCrum piece were they! Maybe after all The Desire & Pursuit of the Whole is a much better novel; – or maybe I just have strange tastes in literature. Certainly I expect if I did a top 100 novels in English, they’d be more eccentric choices than McCrum’s.

  5. Well, The Quest for Corvo didn’t disappoint – quite an eye-opener. Symons does a good job of laying out Rolfe’s utter monstrosity, while retaining a surprisingly strong affection and respect for his work (which came across to me as somewhat overcooked).

    Bizarre episode at the end when Symons is briefly taken up by the mysterious mandarin-magnate Maundy Gregory – who, I see, is even more remarkable than portrayed in the book.

    I am tempted to try Rolfe’s work – indeed, it seems almost a duty after reading the Quest.

  6. It’s a curious personality Corvo lays out: Rolfe is monstrous perhaps; but you also feel sorry for his sufferings, self-inflicted though many of them may have been.

    Since this post, I’ve read Don Tarquinio, a kind of historical fiction; and some of the distinctly unreadable Don Renato, an indescribable work also in the realm of historical fiction, but with a strong metafictional inclination. It also has the most extreme use of language of all Rolfe’s books. All part of his obsession with the Italian Renaissance.

    I can’t say I could particularly recommend either of them. Very much, for the Rolfe enthusiast only.

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