Singular Interviews, by Michael Swanwick. Tenth in an Occasional Series
Henry Wessells is not only a writer of fiction, criticism, and critical fictions but a bookman as well — a professional dealer in rare books and related materials. It is in this latter capacity that this question was posed.
Michael Swanwick: If you could own one essentially unobtainable rare genre book, what would it be?
Henry Wessells: I would like to own Erasmus’ own copy of Utopia (Louvain, 1516); or, failing that, More’s own.
But you know me very well, Michael, to ask such a question, for I (or a character calling himself “I”) have answered your question twenty years ago in the pages of NYRSF, when I summoned into being an imaginary book “I” needed to know in order to write about the work of Don Webb. That book is Irimari, ou, la reine zombie de la Guiane (Brussels: Auguste Poulet-Malassis, 1866) by Gérard de Kernec, and its English translation by Swinburne, Eurydice in Guiana, published anonymously in 1871 by John Camden Hotten. In “Book becoming power” (NYRSF, March 2000), D. owned Lester Dent’s copy of that book, and even now I wouldn’t mind owning a copy of either edition myself.
That was easy; there was no hesitation, for I have been thinking about the literature of the fantastic ever since I was seven years old. Not that I read Utopia at that age. I have seen the copy of Frankenstein which Mary Shelley inscribed to Lord Byron (one genius to another), but I never felt I needed to possess it.
I did, of course, answer your singular question in a concrete sense, by thinking about a book which did once exist, for a key aspect of our mode of literature is the literalization of metaphor.
— — —
First published in the New York Review of Science Fiction 355 (June 2021).
Copyright © 2021 Michael Swanwick. Reprinted by permission of the author.