In 1925, A. J. A. Symons came across a peculiar novel called Hadrian the Seventh and, transfixed by the tale, determined to learn everything he could about its even stranger author. He finally published his findings nine years later as The Quest for Corvo, a singular book now handsomely reissued.

Modestly subtitled An Experiment in Biography, The Quest for Corvo still stands as one of the genre’s most notable—if also quirkiest—triumphs. The experiment to which Symons alluded had several parts. First, he set out to reconstruct, largely by inquiring letters, the wretched life of a shadowy, already half-forgotten man who had died twelve years earlier, leaving few fingerprints. Second, he decided that, far from obliterating the traces of his sleuthwork, the hunt itself—along with its dead ends and frustrations—was to be woven into the narrative. Third, and perhaps trickiest of...


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