When undertaking to read my way through (and then blog about) the Guardian 100 best novels in English, I hoped to find some hidden gems, some novels which I had not come across previously, which would then lead me on to discover more works by the author. Sadly that hasn’t happened thus far. But equally there haven’t been any complete stinkers, novels I simply wish I hadn’t bothered to pick up in the first place. Until now. ‘Hadrian VII’ finds whole new ways of being bad, and the fact it found a publisher in the first place, let alone somehow found a place in the Guardian’s list, is a cause for astonishment.
The novel is a thinly disguised and infantile personal fantasy. The protagonist, William George Rose, applied to join the priesthood as a young man, and was rejected. No clear explanation is offered for his rejection, but there are sufficient hints relating to his personal life to suggest that inappropriate sexual conduct was suspected. He then spends twenty years in splendid, bitter isolation, nursing his wounds. Although he is the first person narrator, and as such profoundly blind to his own faults, it is clear that some people simply can’t stand him. I normally take great pains to distinguish between the narrator and the author, but given the autobiographical nature of the novel’s setting I am not sure that is possible here. In fact as a reader I felt largely superfluous to the exercise – Rolfe is exorcising his demons, settling scores with anyone who crossed him in his life, and imagining his glorious career in the Church, and I was not needed in that process. The novel is for him, not me. The telling of a story, development of character or any of the other traditional things one looks for in a novel are largely ignored. I get the impression Rolfe would actually have been quite happy if this novel had not been read – it would have just confirmed his persecution complex.
Out of the blue Rose is approached by penitent representatives of the Roman Catholic Church which has collectively come to its senses. He is offered the priesthood, and a few pages of ecclesiastical nonsense later sees him catapulted him into the papacy, becoming Pope Hadrian 7th. There he reforms the church, meddles with international politics, and bests all his remaining enemies, only to succumb to an assassin’s bullet at the novel’s close.
The novel is badly written, with Rolfe/Corvo’s tendency to use obscure religious words (acolyth, matutinal, among many others) and deliberately misspell others (e.g. chymist) particularly irritating. The central character is unlikeable – hugely egocentric, arrogant, and he most unlikely priest or pope you will ever find – he practices astrology and admits to detesting his fellow man. The minor characters are ill-defined, and one who eventually kills Rose for no apparent reason, Jerry Sant, adopts a range of accents throughout the novel. Rose interferes in European politics, encouraging Germany to annex Austria and invade France and Russia. While this latter point might look prescient, speculation of this kind was commonplace at the time, and doesn’t suggest any particular insight by Rolfe. Even Robert McCrum, in choosing the book for his “top 100” list, accepted that this “eccentric and weirdly obsessive” novel is “contrived”, and can only offer as an explanation for his choice that it is “entertaining” and that it sheds light on the author. The latter point is certainly the case – but hardly a recommendation. As for entertaining – I’m afraid not. Arcane catholic dogma, speculative European statecraft, and unfunny, spiteful ‘comic’ portraits of working class characters provide little interest.
It is rare that a novel is bad in unique and interesting ways – if they are that bad they usually fail to find a publisher. That Hadrian 7th remains in print suggests there is something here I am missing. I am quite prepared to accept that the failing is mine, but the author writes so poorly and takes everything so seriously and so tediously that I found locating any wit, erudition or interest not worth the effort. Don’t read it.