Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Pope Benny is retiring! For a good read during the upcoming Conclave, you might consider that wacky Papal novel Hadrian VII.

The early chapters of Hadrian VII are set in squalor familiar to the author, Frederick Rolfe. The central character of this 1904 curio (available on amazon) is an English hack writer named George Arthur Rose, a Catholic convert and a washed-out aspirant to the priesthood living in seedy suburban poverty, nursing imperious pretensions of both aristocratic and ecclesiastical grandeur, along with a variety of personal grudges.

All of the above applied to Rolfe, who published under the misleading pseudonyms "Fr. Rolfe" and "Baron Corvo," and who died in obscurity in 1913. He wasn't discovered as an important literary figure until two decades later, when he became the subject of The Quest for Corvo, A.J.A. Symons' admired 1934 "experiment in biography."

But if Hadrian, Rolfe's most famous work, starts like a gritty Grub Street tale, it soon takes off into unexpected splendors. By an alignment of events generously described as providential, George Arthur Rose finds himself ordained a priest. Then, attending at the Conclave, he finds himself elected Pope.

He accepts this meteoric rise without astonishment, and quickly sets about using the Throne of Peter to reform the Church, to confound the rise of Socialism, to remake the geo-political structure of Europe, and, most importantly, to bring a simple, tasteful style of dress and accessorizing back to the Papacy. Hadrian (he takes the name of a previous English Pope) seems to be, to the Vatican, roughly what Jackie Kennedy was to the White House.

At its heart, Hadrian VII is unmistakably a daydream, akin to that of the dowdy woman imagining herself discovered as the next screen goddess, or the bleacher bum pressed into service as a Major League pitcher. It’s an unusually literate and complex daydream, however, from a frustrated and obsessive but talented megalomaniac.

It’s difficult to know whether the self-importance, the naiveté, and the reactionary bile of the politics are meant to be taken satirically or in earnest—possibly Rolfe himself didn’t know. The dense, verbose style and the fixation on Pontifical minutiae make for some exhausting slogs—there are sentences like “They were tolutiloquent in expressing horror at the impiety of mob-rule which had deprived them of the right to military salutes ordained by the Concordat” which make one cry uncle.

But once you get the hang of the self-consciously mannered prose and the nutty worldview, Hadrian becomes funny and fascinating and—especially in the context of the author’s story—touching. But of course it can’t be taken seriously—the premise is about as likely as, say, an Austrian body-builder and movie actor becoming the Governor of California.

Out on DVD today is the Bond movie Skyfall, which won Outstanding British Film at the BAFTA awards this weekend. Slightly surprising, but by no means undeserved—this is a terrific actioner, and the first Bond film I can remember finding at least a little bit moving. It had a remarkable dramatic tactic: Bond fails at almost everything he tries to accomplish here, and you’re left feeling genuine pity for him.

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