This book gives the reader pause from the first sentence; following an epigraph from Plato, we learn:
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.
And we’re off and running. “Ana” is not a misprint; nobody writes books, or uses the English language, quite like Frederick Rolfe did. Baron Corvo, as Rolfe also presented himself, is best know for Hadrian the Seventh, in which a down-on-his luck Englishman becomes Pope; Rolfe’s rather odd life – he was repeatedly foiled from his attempts to become a priest – suggests that this plot was wish fulfillment. The introduction of this book, by A. J. A. Symons, Rolfe’s first biographer (The Quest for Corvo) presents this book as being a further fictionalized autobiography. On reaching page 36, where the many affronts against the life of Nicholas Crabbe to that point have been narrated, the reader is confronted with a footnote, presumably by Symons:
Readers of The Quest for Corvo will need no telling that Rolfe is following the lines of his own life very closely in the description he gives of Nicholas Crabbe’s career. Peter of England is Hadrian the Seventh, Don Superbo is Don Tarquinio, Sieur Rènè is Don Renato, and Songs of Gadara represents Songs of Meleager.
At the bottom of the next page, another note:
Here again Rolfe is, of course, drawing from life. “Bonsen” is the late Mgr. R. H. Benson; and The Sensiblist is The Sentimentalist, a novel which aroused much discussion when it was first published. The central character, Chris Dell, was in some part drawn from Rolfe.
(The annotator commits a solecism: Benson’s book is The Sentimentalists (1906).) It’s hard, when there are such footnotes, to avoid reading this book as a roman à clef: Nicholas Crabbe, Rolfe’s hero, is beleaguered by the world to such a degree to put any modern novelist with a blog to shame. Here, for example, is described the double of Robert Hugh Benson, who seems to have been an inoffensive Catholic novelist who, Symons reports in his introduction, tried to help Rolfe by giving him work but drew his ire by refusing to pay his excessive hotel bills in Venice:
The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan’s Dove, the face of the 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 a black straw hat. (p. 36)
Crabbe and the narrator of this book are Catholic (with the zealotry that only the convert can muster) and vitriolic in equal measure, which is a great deal of the pleasure of this text. The story being told is insane; but Crabbe constantly has recourse to the logic of the Church (as he understands it) to back up his logic. The Church, of course, rejects him entirely (he would have been a priest but was blackballed); but that might be to be expected as he is holier than the Church. If only he were Pope, of course, these problems would be solved; but things aren’t so easy:
Beside, he had published a book of personal experiments with priests, Peter of England, an awful audacious book which flayed whom it did not scald; and his mood was not to compete for reprisals. ‘It is not I who have lost the Athenians; it is the Athenians who have lost me,’ he superbly said. So, when priests slank up to him, he civilly warned them off: if they merited kindness and persisted, he gave them double: but, never any more would he admit them beyond the barbican of his lifted drawbridge, never any more would he go beyond parleys from the height of his impregnable battlements – unless they should come, at high noon, with a flag of truce and suitable gages – never any more would he on any account seek them, but to serve him as ministers of grace. (pp. 60–61.)
Crabbe goes to Mass every day, denounces the local Anglicans as Erastian heretics, and quarrels with almost every priest he meets. What’s most surprising in this book, though, isn’t Crabbe’s love/hate relationship with Catholicism (a continuation of Hadrian the Seventh) but its bizarre treatment of gender. Crabbe, sailing alone in the Adriatic Sea, rescues a young girl, her village’s only survivor of an earthquake; but Crabbe is aghast with the impropriety of being along on his boat with a woman. His solution is to declare the androgynous Zilda (the Venetian abbreviation for “Ermenegilda”) to be a boy, Zildo; the girl is more than happy to go along with this, and for the rest of the book, she is a he, with the odd lapse, happily playing the role of Crabbe’s manservant and straining dictionaries just like his master when he’s not speaking in Venetian dialect:
‘I do not understand why this eximious Signor Caloprin will pay me thirty-five franchi every Monday at 8 o’clock, and also a hundred more at 8 of every fourth Monday, just for writing my name.’ (p. 111)
What Crabbe feels for Zildo certainly seems to be love; but it’s a love that Crabbe doesn’t seem to know what to do with. He moves Zildo into a remote apartment so that they might not always be seen together; but Crabbe seems to avoid Zildo, who nonetheless remains devoted. In a moment of crisis, Crabbe considers desperate options, including finding a wife with money:
O god of Love, never! Infinitely far better to marry not-Zildo – if not-Zildo would. But – would not-Zildo? Well, why not? ‘He, who dispenses with woman, lives in sin.’ said Maimonides. (p. 178)
This doesn’t happen; Zildo and Crabbe continue to keep their distance. At the end of the book, however, there’s an odd turnaround: Zildo rescues Crabbe, who is dying of starvation in her boat; when Crabbe recognizes that Zildo has saved his life, he suddenly declares Zildo to be Gilda, and they are in love. This final sex change happens two pages from the end of the book; they appear to be on their way to get married, as Zildo/Gilda has arranged things with the local priest. A check arrives; there’s a happy ending.
It’s hard to know what to make of this. One would certainly be inclined to read Crabbe as being gay: he huffs and puffs about how terrible women are; he moves Zildo to other quarters because he feels tempted by him; he describes young men in loving detail. Crabbe claims to have been chaste for the past twenty years, as he had intended to take Holy Orders; he seems to regard the priesthood as a homosocial paradise, but one that won’t accept him. He and Bonsen have their own private quasi-religious order (at least until Crabbe angrily resigns); at one point, Bonsen writes him about the advisability of recruiting Italian naval officers.
There’s a monstrous solipsism to this book: it is a record of the genius of Nicholas Crabbe, and its world is seen entirely through his eyes. A first-person narrator occasionally raises his head to reveal himself to be wholly in awe of Crabbe: “Despite his peculiarities, there’s no denying that Nicholas Crabbe was a man of insight and intelligence: though I admit that there is a great deal of difficulty in making this point clear, seeing that he entered into such very close relations with priests and Scotchmen.” (p. 141) One suspects that this narrator is Crabbe himself, at a later date. Zildo, the novel’s second character, exists almost entirely through the eyes of Crabbe, who has been allowed to determine his character down to the level of gender; maybe this could be read as metafiction, though this book doesn’t seem particularly self-conscious in that way. Everyone else barely exists; they are an enemy of Crabbe or insignificant.
The book is not without considerable flaws. Its misogyny (on the part of both Crabbe and the narrator) has been pointed out; as might be expected, there’s also casual antisemitism. The writing also has curious faults. In the second chapter, it’s pointed out that Crabbe is astrologically a Cancer; there follows an extended metaphor about his crab-like nature, and throughout the book he is constantly said to be rearing up, crablike, or “clashing his awful claws” or his “portentous pincers.” He is frequently furious because it is his nature. This becomes tiresome extremely quickly, not least because of how weirdly clumsy it seems: “He was still Crabbe, and as crabby as ever: but he began to exercise his crabbiness in directions which he had never tried or cared to try.” (pp. 155–6) I can’t tell what Rolfe is trying to do with this; maybe this is an attempt at humor that hasn’t aged well, but it can hardly be imagined that this would ever have been that funny, aside from the initial passage, directing the reader to boil and dissect a crab if they would know the true nature of those born under the sign of Cancer. Likewise tiresome is the subject of the writer complaining about his financial situation and the failure of his publishers to pay him; Crabbe’s vitriol is entertaining, of course, but the pecuniary detail is grueling.
But this is a lovely book if only for the diction: “cagotism,” “latebrose,” “dedecorous,” “physidoyls,” “vexilla,” “amoenely,” “succursale,” and the verb “ostends” (to pick largely at random) aren’t words one runs into every day. Rolfe’s English is glossed with Venetian and the occasional Latin; it would be hard to confuse a page of this book for that of any other, even one of Rolfe’s. In no other book, for example, is a servant likely to declare that “He preached so long, sir, that Mr Barbolan went to bed and left him; and Little Peter and Parisotto took him home, at 2½ o’clock, preaching imbriagally all the way, so that a vizile followed them” as one does on p. 208 of this book. And it’s hard not to like a book filled with imponderabilia like this: “Truth is tarter than taradiddles; and nothing is tarter, terser, than truth on the track of tired trash in a trance.” (p. 157) A copy of Don Renato, his book that includes a glossary of the macaronic language of Italian, Greek, and Latin in the back is waiting on my shelf: it’s tempting.