Henry Wessells: Mark, this question, which comes from Charles Lamb*, you have already answered more than once in a fictional mode, but perhaps there is still a candidate or two whom you might wish, as Lamb suggested, to encounter “in their nightgown and slippers, and exchange friendly greeting with them”: which literary figure from the past would you like to meet ?
Mark Valentine: I spend a lot of very agreeable hours rummaging in second-hand bookshops looking for the book I do not know I want until I find it, the one I have never heard of until it calls to me from the shelf. There is something about the title, or the author’s name, or the binding that makes me curious, so I ease it from its niche and look inside. Then I seem to know at once if it is for me, because of a certain elusive quality of the prose or the highly recondite contents, or both.
And so, resisting the urge to ask Dickens about the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to absorb a grape or two with Ronald Firbank, to risk the wrath of Baron Corvo, to ask about that remote inn The Dog at Clambercrown with Jocelyn Brooke, to sip cautiously at a glass of Dog & Duck punch with Arthur Machen, or a cocktail with Michael Arlen, to discuss the Holy Grail with Mary Butts, or Anne Ridler, or Charles Williams, or Sally Purcell, to ask Walter de la Mare whether there is anybody there, or to tell so many neglected writers that their time will come, has come, I shall opt instead to meet the yet-to-be-found, the discovery-to-be, the patiently waiting presence, the spirit that haunts all second-hand bookshops, the Unknown Author.
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Mark Valentine is author of, most recently, Sphinxes & Obelisks (Tartarus, 2021), and many volumes of fiction, including The Collected Connoisseur (with John Howard) and The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things. He is author of a monograph on Sarban and editor of Wormwood.
* in an essay by William Hazlitt : Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen (1826).