A. J. A. Symons

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Alphonse James AlbertSymons (16 August 1900 – 26 August 1941) was an English writer and bibliographer. Symons was the son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants. He was a self-educated man who in his youth had been apprenticed as a furrier.

In 1922, he founded the First Edition Club to publish limited editions and to organize exhibitions of rare books and manuscripts. In 1924 he published a bibliography of first editions of the works of Yeats, and in 1930 he founded the Book Collector's Quarterly. He was an authority on writers and editions of the 1890s, and he published An Anthology of 'Nineties Verse in 1928.

Symons completed his first biography, Emin, Governor of Equatoria, in 1928. In 1933 he brought out a biography of the explorer H. M. Stanley. Neither created much of a stir. In 1934, however, Symons published his masterpiece, The Quest for Corvo, a biography of the English author and eccentric Frederick Rolfe (the self-styled Baron Corvo). Subtitled "An experiment in biography," The Quest for Corvo was a groundbreaking work: rather than being a simple narrative of a life, it describes an author's search for understanding of his subject, revealing aspects of Rolfe's life and character as they are revealed to the author. Though it appears entirely natural, the work is very skillfully orchestrated. The result is a vivid, prismatic portrait of Rolfe, those who knew him, and of Symons himself.

A dandy and an epicure, Symons devoted much of his energy to fine living. In 1933, he founded the Wine and Food Society with André Simon. In 1936, his marriage of twelve years to Gladys Weeks ended in divorce. In 1939 he fell ill, suffering from partial paralysis. He died in 1941 of a tumour of the brainstem.

Symons wrote with difficulty and sought help in the study of psychoanalysis. He left several unfinished works, including a long-contemplated biography of Oscar Wilde, at his death. His author brother Julian Symons (1912–1994) published his biography in 1950.


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