Ambrosia Arabica : Books & Coffee in History

Arbre du Café, from Voyage de l’Arabie heureuse, 1716

For many readers, a cup of coffee is the ideal accompaniment to a carefully chosen volume. The recent vogue of uniting bookstores with coffee shops that is rippling through the book world is but a modern revival of older custom. For of all foods and beverages, coffee has perhaps the closest and most interesting connections with the printed word. Its introduction into seventeenth-century Western Europe from the Middle East came at a time when geographical and scientific knowledge was increasing, and in turn the rise of the coffee house transformed many areas of social, intellectual, and commercial life.

Newspapers, the Lloyd’s insurance and maritime intelligence operations, the New York Stock Exchange, the British postal system, and political and social clubs are some of the diverse institutions that trace their origins to these places where people gathered to drink coffee. Coffee figures in early botanical, medical, and Orientalist books, and in numerous volumes recounting seventeenth-century travels and explorations. In literature and the arts, coffee is at the core of a similar array of books and musical and theatrical compositions.

To be sure, wine has a longer literary heritage, with various threads extending back to Ancient Rome, Persia, and China. In the end, however, the fruit of the grape induces somnolence rather than the alertness and perspicacity that are characteristic of many book people. So with all due apologies to those who favor a glass of port and a comfortable armchair for their reading on a wintry evening, this essay will look at the relationship between coffee and modern culture, with particular attention to the printed book. One of the most venerable myths about coffee — concerning its introduction to Vienna — will be dispelled, and the truth made known.

The origins of coffee in Southern Arabia are well known, but it is interesting to trace how the beverage spread through the Middle East in the middle of the fifteenth century. Many of the dramatic — even revolutionary — social changes that unfolded in London and continental Europe in the late 17th century were almost identical in nature to the changes coffee brought to Islamic society. The coffee tree (Coffea arabica) is a flowering evergreen shrub indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen in Arabia. (Related species C. liberica and C. robusta were discovered growing wild in other regions of Africa.) The earliest mention of coffee may be a reference to bunchum in the works of the ninth century physician Razi (akin perhaps to bunn, the Arabic word for the coffee berry and tree), but more definite information on the preparation of a beverage from the roasted coffee berries dates from several centuries later. Qahwa is the Arabic word for the beverage. All European words for coffee are derived through the Turkish pronunciation of the word, kahveh.

The most important of the early Muslim writers on coffee was ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, who in 1587 compiled a work tracing the history and legal controversies of coffee entitled ‘Umdat al safwa fi hill al-qahwa. He reported that one Sheikh Jamal-al-Din al-Dhabhani, mufti of Aden, was the first to adopt the use of coffee (circa 1454). Its usefulness in driving away sleep caused it to become popular in Sufi circles. Al-Jaziri’s manuscript work is of considerable interest in the history of coffee in Europe, as a copy reached the French royal library, where it was translated in part by Antoine Galland as De l’origine et du progrès du Café. Sur un manuscrit arabe de la Bibliothèque du Roy, published in Caen (Normandy) in 1699. Galland, an important Orientalist and numismatist, was the first European translator of the Arabian Nights, Les Mille et une nuits (1704-1717). There is a strong measure of the exotic in his translation of al-Jaziri, which traces the spread of coffee from Arabia Felix (the present day Yemen) northward to Mecca and Medina, and then to the larger cities of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Istanbul. The 19th-century orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy edited the first two chapters of al-Jaziri’s manuscript and included it in the second edition of his Chrestomathie Arabe (Paris, 1826, 3 vols.). Galland’s 1699 work was recently reissued (Paris: Editions La Bibliothèque, 1992).

Religious disapproval followed swiftly when it became clear that the new coffee houses were places where men gathered to sing, dance, and play musical instruments as well as the games of chess and mancalah (rules for which are given by Galland). Coffee was held by some religious leaders to be analogous to wine and thus forbidden to Muslims. Public consumption of coffee was suppressed for a time in Mecca in 1524 and in Cairo there were religious riots against the coffee houses in 1534. The first coffee house in Istanbul was opened in 1554 and as in Cairo outbursts of religious zeal against coffee occurred between approximately 1570 and 1580. It is at this time that the first European reports of coffee began.

Not surprisingly, these 16th-century government prohibitions of coffee houses failed to legislate morality. The coffee house in its many forms remains a central part of the culture of Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa to the present day. An excellent treatment of the early history of coffee in the Middle East (with English translations of portions of al-Jaziri’s work) is to be found in Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East by Ralph S. Hattox (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988).

From Mocha to Martinique

The German botanist and physician Leonhart Rauwolf of Augsburg traveled to Jerusalem (1573-1576), and upon his return published Aigentliche beschreibung der Raiß … inn die Morgenländer in Lauingen in 1582. Rauwolf’s account of his journeys represents the earliest printed reference to coffee in Europe. Venetian traders in Istanbul were also aware of the beverage, and the Italian physician and botanist Prosper Alpinus took note of coffee on his voyage to Egypt in 1580, and published discussions of coffee in De Medicina Aegyptorum Libri quatuor (1591) and De Plantis Aegypti Liber (1592). The latter volume, on the flora of Egypt, includes the first published illustration of the coffee plant. The first mention in English (as chaoua) appears in an edition of Linschooten’s Travels translated from the Dutch and published in London in 1598. A more recognizable form of the word can be found in Sherley’s Travels (1601), in a passage describing “a certain liquor which they call coffe.” The spelling was still in flux, for in 1603 the English adventurer Captain John Smith (founder of Virginia) refers to “coffa” in his volume of travels.

The Venetians were in fact the first Europeans to import coffee, in 1615. The Dutch first shipped it directly from Mocha in Arabia the following year, although regular importations were still some decades away. Articles for preparing coffee were among the household effects carried by the Pilgrims on the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620, but not until 1670 was coffee sold in Boston. Early mentions of coffee are to be found in the works of Francis Bacon, in Historia Vitae et Mortis (1623) and Sylva Sylvarum (1627), as well as in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1632). The first botanical description of coffee in English was published by Parkinson in Theatrum Botanicum (1640). The use of coffee spread rapidly throughout Europe after mid-century. Venice was the site of the first coffee house, opened in 1645, and one was opened in London in 1652. In Lyons in 1671, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour published De l’Usage du Café, du Thé et du Chocolat. Dialogue entre un médecin, un Indien, et un Bourgeois, the first substantial work on coffee in French. The first coffee house in Paris opened the following year.

One of the most important and widely read works on coffee, although somewhat later, is Jean de la Roque’s Voyage de L’Arabie heureuse … (1716), which recounted the history of French expeditions in the Red Sea from 1708 to 1710 and a second mission to the port of Mocha and the court of the King of Yemen during the years 1711 to 1713. La Roque described the coffee tree (with engraved plates), and provided a critical discussion of the history of the introduction of coffee into France in the latter part of this work, entitled Un Mémoire Concernant l’Arbre & le Fruit du Café. The Paris edition was followed by one published in Amsterdam the same year, with newly engraved plates. Gründliche und sichere Nachricht vom Cafée und Cafée-Baum, a German translation of the portion of the work concerning coffee, was published in Leipzig in 1717. An Italian translation of the entire work appeared in Venice in 1721, and English editions in 1726, 1732, and 1742. A notable Italian work dealing with the origins, cultivation, roasting, and preparation of the coffee, Ambrosia Arabica overa della Salutare Bevanda Cafe, by Angelo Rambaldi, was published in Bologna in 1691.

The Dutch were the first to experiment with growing coffee outside Arabia. Early plantations in Ceylon from the 1650s were followed by efforts to establish coffee in Java in 1699. A coffee seedling from Java was successfully transported to Amsterdam in 1706, and a plant grown from a seed of that tree was presented to Louis XIV of France in 1714. It was in this period, 1715 to 1725, that coffee was first grown in Surinam in South America, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, as well as on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Coffee was introduced to Brazil from the settlement at Cayenne in French Guiana in 1727.

Intrigue, Insurance and Literature

The history of coffee and coffee houses in London is particularly revealing of how coffee shaped the emergence of modern society. The first coffee house opened in London in 1652. A man named Bowman, servant to a merchant in the Turkey trade, opened it in partnership with Pasqua Rosee in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. An advertising handbill from the shop, The Vertue of the Coffee Drink, is preserved in the British Museum. The first newspaper advertisement for coffee dates from 1657, the year in which chocolate and tea were first sold publicly in London. Political activity was linked with the coffee houses from the beginning. Pepys notes the formation of the Coffee Club of the Rota in 1659, a forum for exchange of republican views which met in the Turk’s Head. The number of such establishments (most near the Royal Exchange) grew markedly following the Restoration, so that by 1663, there were licensing requirements. These early coffee houses offered minimal accommodations, often consisting simply of a large room with several tables. Neither the plague years 1664-1665 nor the Great Fire of London in 1666 diminished the growing role of the coffee house. In fact, the rapid reconstruction of the Royal Exchange (completed by 1669) was accompanied by the opening of many new coffee houses.

Controversy accompanied the introduction of the new drink. Broadsides and pamphlets such as A Coffee Scuffle (1662) or The Character of a Coffee House … by an Eye and Ear Witness (1665) presented opposing views of the social, cultural and even medical questions raised by coffee. In the 1670s, political intrigue was the chief focus of concerns. Coffee houses were characterized as “seminaries of sedition.” King Charles II issued an order for the suppression of coffee houses in late December 1675, but this was rescinded before it ever took effect. Coffee houses were again at the focus of inquiries into the Popish plot of Titus Oates in 1679-1680.

“In a coffee house just now among the rabble, I bluntly asked, which is the treason table?” was how a 1681 comedy described the state of affairs. And yet, as a place where political opinions were exchanged, and where news, newsletters, and mail were distributed, coffee houses played an undeniable role in the growth of English political liberty.

At a time when the streets of London were largely unpaved and only barely passable, and when few merchants had offices, coffee houses served an equally important function for the trading community. The most celebrated example is Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in 1691. Lloyd had special arrangements to receive news of shipping, and the Lloyd’s insurance institution as well as the Register of Shipping originated in these gatherings. Similarly, London stockbrokers first met in Jonathan’s coffee house. Some years later, the Tontine coffee house played an identical role in the formation of the New York Stock Exchange, just as the City Tavern, or Merchants Coffee House in Philadelphia was a gathering place for political leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. The East India Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, and the African, Russian, and Levant Companies all met in coffee houses in the early years of their operations. Coffee houses even served as the forum for slave trading upon occasion.

The eighteenth century was the heyday of the London coffee house, and scenes from life in these establishments were recorded by authors such as Addison, writing in the Spectator, Steele, in the Tatler, and Mackay, in Journey Through England (1724). The literary gatherings that were held at the Turk’s Head in the Strand from 1763 to 1783 included such figures as Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, the actor David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Sir Joshua Reynolds the painter. Other members of the circle were Thomas Percy, historian Edward Gibbon, and economist Adam Smith.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, coffee houses were a central part of the life of upper and middle class men. Over the course of the century, more formal associations were formed, so that by the close of the century, the London club came to serve a similar function. The decline of the London coffee house was further cemented by reforms in the governmental postal system and by another fire at the Royal Exchange in 1838. It was not reopened until 1845, and thereafter coffee houses played a much lesser role in British commercial and public life. A classic work on this period is Edward Forbes Robinson’s The Early History of Coffee Houses in England (London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1893). A more recent work, London Coffee Houses: A Reference Book of Coffee Houses of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries by Bryant Lillywhite (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1963) is a vast compendium of information on the complex social, economic, and political history, arranged alphabetically by the name of coffee house.

All About Coffee

The single richest source on the cultural and commercial history of coffee remains the second edition of All About Coffee by William H. Ukers (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935). Ukers (1873-1954) was for many years the editor of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal and brought a truly encyclopaedic perspective to this book. The original edition of 1922 was the first serious and comprehensive treatment of coffee in English in several decades (and won a gold medal at the 1923 Brazil Centennial Exhibition). The second edition of All About Coffee is abundantly illustrated with photographs, engravings and line drawings on all stages of the growth and processing of coffee, as well as the history of coffee house. There are also numerous reproductions of title pages and other early printed references to coffee. Ukers divided his work into six books, exploring historical, technical, scientific, commercial, social, and artistic facets of coffee. His chapters on the evolution of coffee apparatus and preparing the beverage provide a particularly diverse range of illustrations, while his selections of poems and references to coffee in literature and in the arts are witty as well as wide-ranging. The work includes a coffee dictionary and a substantial bibliography of books and periodical works, as well as a coffee thesaurus of “Encomiums and Descriptive Phrases Applied to the Plant, the Berry, and the Beverage.” These range from the poetic (“the most exquisite perfume of Araby the blest” and “favored liquid which fills all my soul with delight”) to the banal (slogan such as “the family drink” or “the King of the American breakfast table”). This edition of All About Coffee is much sought after by collectors of works on culinary history. It was reprinted in 1976 by the Gale Research Company of Detroit, Michigan. Ukers was also author of All About Tea (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935, 2 vols.) and The Romance of Tea: An Outline History of Tea and Tea-Drinking Through Sixteen Hundred Years (New York, Knopf, 1936).

Coffee and the Siege of Vienna

Legend has it that Georg Franz Koltschitzky established a coffee house in Vienna in 1683, using beans left behind in the aftermath of the Turkish siege of city in that eventful year. This story, repeated by Ukers and even in such recent works as Mark Pendergast’s Uncommon Grounds (1999), is entirely apocryphal.

The actual pioneer was Johannes Diodato, an Armenian, who opened the first coffee house in 1685, the same year that Bevanda Asiatica …, by the Italian naturalist, diplomat and bibliophile Count Luigi Marsili was published in Vienna. Another key figure is Isaak de Luca, der bürgerlicher Cavesieder, the “citizen coffee-maker,” whose Imperial Privilege was granted somewhat later. The life and exploits of the Polish-born Koltschitzky and origins of Viennese coffee houses are discussed in the monograph Die Einführung des Kaffees in Wien: Georg Franz Koltschitzky, Johannes Diodato, Isaak de Luca by Karl Teply (Vienna: Verein für Geschichte der Stadt Wien, 1980).

Another essential source for information concerning early works on coffee is the Bibliographie des Kaffee, des Kakao, der Schokolade, des Tee und deren Surrogate bis zum Jahre 1900 by Wolf Mueller (Bad Bocklet: Walter Krieg Verlag, 1960). Mueller described his work as “the fruit of decades of collecting and research activity.” In his foreword, Mueller wrote that he had published separate essays on the bibliography of coffee and cocoa in German journals during the early 1930s. During the Nazi era, Mueller’s professional activities were restricted (for undisclosed reasons), but he continued to have access to the former Prussian State Library, and so devoted himself to bibliographical work. Mueller also noted the importance of a wide range of international correspondents, including Ralph Holt Cheney, author of Coffee: A Monograph of the Economic Species of the Genus Coffea L. (New York: New York University Press, 1925), a work that Cheney dedicated to Mueller. Mueller’s bibliography provides title page transcriptions, date, size, pagination, as well as brief identifying notes (in German only) describing the author or particular significance of the work. Later editions and translations of popular works are also noted.

Oceans of Coffee

This essay has looked at a few of the highlights of the vast literature of coffee. Equally enormous and rich in anecdote is the subject of coffee in literature. Four examples will serve to hint at the variety of coffee lore. Voltaire, for example, was said to have drunk 50 cups of coffee a day, and also composed a pseudonymous comedy, Le Café, ou l’Ecossaise (1760), purportedly translated from the English of “Mr. Hume.” Balzac (1799-1850) also seems to have subsisted on coffee and perhaps it hastened his death — one modern-day Philadelphia coffee roaster named a blend La Mort de Balzac (“Balzac’s Death”). Balzac also composed a Treatise on Modern Stimulants, in which he linked coffee with the movement of ideas “like the battalions of the grand Army on the battlefield … Things remembered arrive at full gallop.”

The nineteenth century Dutch author Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker) published a scathing satirical attack on colonial policies in the Netherlands East Indies, Max Havelaar of de Koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappy (1860). His bourgeois character Droogstoppel (Drystubble) is an Amsterdam coffee broker of excruciating respectability. Multatuli’s book was altered (and considerably toned down) by it unscrupulous first publisher, and not until 1875 was the author’s intended text published. In an introduction to the 1927 Knopf edition of Max Havelaar, or, the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, D.H. Lawrence compared Multatuli’s “passionate, honourable hate” to Mark Twain’s acerbic satires on human nature. Max Havelaar ultimately provoked a dramatic reassessment of Dutch policy in the East Indies, and remains one of the key works of anti-colonial literature.

In The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, the detective Philip Marlowe narrates in considerable detail making coffee in his kitchen before driving his friend Terry to the Tijuana airport. This is but one instance of the oceans of coffee consumed by the hard-drinking Marlowe in the course of Chandler’s novels.

Some three centuries after its introduction to the wider world, coffee still retains a considerable mystique. Ukers writes, “There is something more to coffee than its caffeine stimulus, its action on the taste-buds of the tongue and mouth. The sense of smell and the sense of sight play important rôles. To get all the joy there is in a cup of coffee, it must look good and smell good, before one can pronounce its taste good. It must woo us through the nostrils with the wonderful aroma that constitutes much of the lure of coffee.” This survey of some aspects of the connections between books and coffee will perhaps add an intangible and exotic dimension to the next cup of coffee that finds its way into the reader’s hand.

[Original published in slightly different form in AB Bookman’s Weekly, December 15, 1997. Copyright 1997, 2023, by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.]

The Philosophical Exercises of Janwillem van de Wetering. By Henry Wessells

With A Checklist of Books by Janwillem van de Wetering

Author of a highly acclaimed series of mystery novels, world traveller, former Zen student, and former police officer Janwillem van de Wetering brings an unusual perspective to the detective genre.  His novels and stories feature a diverse and richly drawn cast of characters and settings that range from the streets of Amsterdam to the Caribbean and from rural Maine to Japan, South America, and New Guinea.  A careful eye for the details of police investigations is joined with a quirky sense of humor and a keen interest in philosophical and spiritual matters.

    With publication of Outsider in Amsterdam, van de Wetering gained a following in both Europe and America.  In this novel and  others in the series, van de Wetering created one of the more unusual detective teams in modern crime fiction: the trio of “Amsterdam Cops”: Sergeant Rinus de Gier, youthful, handsome, and highly athletic; Adjutant Henk Grijpstra, somewhat older and more phlegmatic; and the unnamed commissaris, their senior officer and spiritual guide.  Outsider in Amsterdam, with a plot that involves spiritual fraud and reflections on Western ideas about the exotic East, explores in fictional form ideas that had long been a concern of the author.  Philosophical and existential questions are intertwined in all of his subsequent novels.

    His first published book, The Empty Mirror, was a nonfiction account of his experiences as a Zen student in Japan in the late 1950s; it appeared in Dutch in 1971, and in an English edition in 1973.  A companion volume, Glimpses of Nothingness, recording impressions during a stay in an American Zen community, appeared in 1975. Van de Wetering published four children’s books that explore spiritual and philosophical themes. His 1987 biography of Dutch mystery author and diplomat Robert van Gulik (reissued in paperback by Soho Press in June 1998) is similarly concerned with understanding spiritual matters.  Most recently, a collection of van de Wetering’s essays entitled Afterzen has just been published by St. Martin’s Press.

    Before he turned his hand to writing, van de Wetering lived on four continents and his varied experiences pop up throughout his novels and stories.  His years in Japan give a rich texture to The Japanese Corpse and the stories that make up Inspector Saito’s Small Satori, while Mangrove Mama is a recent collection of stories that evoke van de Wetering’s memories of England, Japan, South Africa and South America as well as more recent travels to Key West and New Guinea.

    Janwillem Lincoln van de Wetering was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, on February 12, 1931. His father was a merchant whose American contacts prompted him to give his second son the middle name, Lincoln.  The signal event of his childhood was the Second World War: “When the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam the Junckers (obsolete cargo planes, bombs were thrown out by hand) stopped two streets short of our house.”  One of the stories in van de Wetering’s collection The Sergeant’s Cat, “Jacob Sanders,” is the first chapter of a projected novel set during the Nazi occupation of Rotterdam, that features “many of my own adventures.”

I was 14 when the war was over and had become difficult to handle so my parents sent me to graduate (age 16) at a country school and I lived in a teacher’s house. After that I ran away and worked  at a farm until my father tracked me down. I then studied at the Castle of Nijenrode College, an elite “business management” school that has since become Nyenrode University (the name was anglified).
Rotterdam, where I grew up, is a city of hard working folks who save. They spend some of their savings in Amsterdam which is a center of the arts, has a famous pleasure quarter, and collects the odd and weird. Rotterdam people are straight, they work, then they die.  This may be a biased opinion. I never went back to check and they now have famous film and jazz festivals. Maybe I’ll go back when I am older. Merely thinking about going there gives me asthma.

    After graduating at age 19, van de Wetering worked for a year in Amsterdam and then set out for Cape Town, South Africa, where a job had been arranged through a company connected with his father’s interests.  Life in Cape Town proved very attractive and he refused a transfer to Johannesburg, whereupon his father fired him.  “Working at this and that,” he stayed on for six years.  He was for a time a member of a motorcycle gang inspired by Dostoievski’s “Young Devils” and the French “poètes maudits” (Rimbaud was van de Wetering’s favorite). The story “Quicksand” in Mangrove Mama describes some of the gang’s antics.  He was briefly married to a local artist who taught him “how ideas can be realized into more substantial forms through pottery and sculpture.”

    When his father died, van de Wetering returned to Europe, and moved to London, where he followed a course of philosophy lectures at University College in London, “as a ‘reader’, I had no interest in a degree.”  He rode an ex-Army Norton motorcycle and spent a year in coffe-shops working his way through a list of philosophical works recommended by professor (later Sir Alfred) A.J. Ayer.  He became infatuated with existentialism, but “the resulting dogma that ‘we are condemned to liberty’ seemed too dour.”  Ayer suggested that van de Wetering consider Zen Buddhism.

Sojourn in Japan

    For two years (1958-1959), van de Wetering studied at the Zen monastery Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, Japan.

Here, for the first time, a glimpse of a possible answer occurred. The Buddhist idea of emptiness, concentrated in the Zen “mu” (nothingness) koan, a meditation subject his teacher made him concentrate on for endless painful hours in a dark hall where police monks beat the unwary, proved to be quite cheerful. No-purpose, happenstance, breaking down of illusionary ego walls, giving in to the only useful desire (the desire to break desire), sublime indifference, moral detachment, non-judgment, and still performing optimally for no reason whatsoever definitely for no reason, were ideas that radiated gloriously from the old abbot’s subtle but forceful being.

    Van de Wetering remarks: “Japanese, as I found out, is not easy to get into. It is ranked with Finnish and Hungarian as the world’s most impossible languages. Japanese is liked a cloud, you can’t get hold of it. After a year there I could ask all sorts of questions but the answers eluded me. I mastered the phonetic script, 104 scribbles, in little time, but it took almost two years to learn 300 characters and one needs 1850 to read a newspaper. Now I have forgotten it all, but I often gaze at Japanese books (I have read many of the great Japanese novels in translation) and dream about the beautiful script and the wonderful associations.”

    Eventually, van de Wetering’s stay in Japan ended — he ran out of money.  He found work with a Dutch trading company in South America and the Dutch Caribbean islands.  He married again, and in 1963 moved to Australia, where he sold real estate.

Amsterdam Cop

    Two years later his wife’s uncle died in Amsterdam, leaving a textile business in disarray.  “I went over to get it going again and spent 10 years in the Inner City of Amsterdam. The Dutch Army accused me of violating the conditions of a leave of absence, granted when I left the country at age 19.  In order to appease the authorities I volunteered for the Amsterdam Reserve Police, doing uniform duty as a constable, later constable-first-class, and passing sergeant and inspector exams.”  Van de Wetering also had the means to indulge his love of motorcycles: “In Holland, when I ran the textile business, I bought a 1943 ‘Liberator’ from U.S. Army stocks, in parts, and had it assembled.”  A Harley-Davidson of this vintage — familiar to the Dutch who witnessed the arrival of Allied troops at the end of the Second World War — figures significantly in his first novel.

    During this same period, his philosophical curiosity had been aroused again when he met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Scotland.  Studies at “The Tail of the Tiger” led in due course to visits to another Buddhist center, “Moon Spring Hermitage,” on the Maine coast.  This center was run by a senior American disciple of the (now deceased) Japanese abbot of Daitoku-ji.

    Van de Wetering describes the origins of his Amsterdam Cops series:

By that time I was bored with my job and reading the novels of George Simenon, a Belgian/French mystery writer, a multi-millionaire author with some 300 titles to his name. I read both his excellent prose, and that of Sartre, to improve my French to better my company’s export business.  It then dawned on me that here was my chance. I could write a series of police novels set in Amsterdam with connections to the foreign places I knew, both in English and Dutch.  In America I had been successful with my “Zen” books The Empty Mirror and  A Glimpse of Nothingness, the first describing my Japanese stay, the second reporting on a number of visits to an American Zen community. I knew Maine well by then and had bought land there.  In 1975 I left Amsterdam, settling in Surry, Maine. The Zen community I intended to join collapsed after a short while but I liked the setting and stayed, boating in summer, writing in winter.

    His decision to move to America came at a time when his Amsterdam Cops novels had “taken off internationally.”  In the first novels in the series, Lijk in de Haarlemmer Houttuinen (Outsider in Amsterdam), Buitelkruid (Tumbleweed), De Gelaarsde Kater (Corpse on the Dike), and Dood van een Marktkoopman (Death of a Hawker), van de Wetering constructed plots that enabled him to reflect upon a wide range of cultural and social issues affecting Dutch life — from the sexual revolution to attitudes toward Jews and immigrants in late 20th century Dutch society — while taking readers on a tour of the neigborhoods of the city of Amsterdam.  Later novels explored other parts of the Netherlands:  De Ratelrat (The Rattle-Rat) is largely set in the rich agricultural province of Friesland, where the stereotypical image of piety and conformity is revealed to be sharply at odds with the reality of corruption, hypocrisy, and deceit.

    Insofar as these novels present seemingly accurate details of the progress of a police investigation, van de Wetering respects the conventions of the detective genre, but the novels incorporate jazz improvisation, shamanistic ritual, dreams, and other crime-solving approaches not seen in ordinary police precincts.  The interplay between de Gier, Grijpstra, and the commissaris is not the fixed routine of formulaic writing, but an evolving process that reveals van de Wetering’s increasing ability to get beyond the limits of the detective genre.

    There are hints of this in Een Dode uit het Oosten (The Japanese Corpse), which takes de Gier and the commissaris to Japan to looking into the organized crime roots of a murder in the Netherlands that Grijpstra is investigating.  The sections set in Japan are part travelogue and part reflection upon the differences and resemblences between East and West, part thriller and part philosophical digression.  Except that the digressions are not digressions but are woven into the fabric of the novel.

    Similarly, Het Werkbezoek (“The Working Visit,” published as The Maine Massacre), which in its French translation won the Grand Prix Policier, brings the commissaris and de Gier to the Maine woods in winter, where they solve a series of murders and along the way encounter a very intellectual gang of young nihilists and a rich hermit.

    In De Zaak IJsbreker (Hard Rain) van de Wetering pushed even harder at the limits of the genre, for in this novel the three cops act outside the law to solve murders linking a prominent banker to prositution and the drug trade.  Suspended from active duty because of baseless charges fabricated by a corrupt bureaucracy, the elderly commissaris encounters an adversary who is in a sense his mirror-image, a man of his age and social class who has chosen to follow the path of crime.

    After Hard Rain (1987), van de Wetering published no new novels in the Amsterdam Cops series for more than six years.  Van de Wetering notes candidly,

Everything went well but my wife complained about my drinking, mostly in Amsterdam, where I had become a celebrity, and was spending a fair amount of my time. I quit (13 years ago now) but my personality fell apart, I needed to build a new mask, set up new habits.  That process took eight years.  Instead of writing I was mostly puttering about in an old lobster yacht and doing junk sculpture on my acres of coastal land. Gradually we began to travel.  Juanita and I visited Papua New Guinea and Mexico. We discovered Key West and Arizona. By 1993 I began writing again, using a new formula for my Amsterdam Cops. As private detectives, financed by found drug millions, they can finally be amoral.

    Van de Wetering clarifies the focus of the new novels and his use of the word amoral by citing a passage from Robert Powell’s epilogue to The Wisdom of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Globe Press/Blue Dove Press, 1992):

The point is that man freed from his fetters is morality personified.  Such a man therefore does not need any moralistic injunctions in order to live righteously. Free a man from his bondage and thereafter everything else will take care of itself. On the other hand, man in his unredeemed state cannot possibly live morally, no matter what moral teaching he is given.  It is an intrinsic impossibility, for his very foundation is immorality.  That is, he lives a lie, a basic contradiction: functioning in all his relationships as the separate entity he believes himself to be, whereas in reality no such separation exists.  His every action therefore does violence to other `selves’ and other `creatures,’ which are only manifestations of the unitary consciousness.  So Society had to invent some restraints in order to protect itself from its own worst excesses and thereby maintain some kind of status quo.  The resulting arbitrary rules, which vary with place and time and therefore are purely relative, it calls `morality,’ and by upholding this man-invented `idea’ as the highest good — oftentimes sanctioned by religious `revelation’ and scriptures — society has provided man with one more excuse to disregard the quest for liberation or relegate it to a fairly low priority in his scheme of things.

    Van de Wetering observes, “Not so the commissaris, he is out there, since his retirement quite free of current morality and dragging his disciples along on weird and wonderful paths.  Of course they like being dragged, and will have some escapades of their own, while being guided.”

    Just a Corpse at Twilight (1994) was the first of these new novels in the series to be published by Soho Press in New York (also publishers of a uniform edition of the earlier novels in the series).  Much of the novel is set along the Maine coast (in the same locale as The Maine Massacre), and it offers a glimpse of the fundamental Dutchness of de Gier and Grijpstra as they trace a murder back to its perpetrator against an American backdrop.  Spiritual questions are very much at the forefront.

    The most recent books in the series, The Hollow-Eyed Angel (1996) and The Perfidious Parrot (1997), explore misdeeds in New York City and the Caribbean, respectively, that prove to have their roots in the Netherlands. (These books were reviewed in the April 27, 1998, issue of AB together with Judge Dee Plays His Lute, a new story collection.)  In the autumn of 1999, Soho Press issued a collection of short stories, The Amsterdam Cops.

Robert van Gulik

    Van de Wetering has published a wide variety of books outside the Amsterdam Cops series for which he is best known.  Perhaps the most significant of these is Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987), a profile of his compatriot and fellow mystery author who created the Judge Dee series of novels set in ancient China.  “Writers tend to bare some of their usually hidden thoughtlife while the typewriter hums and clacks, so even the respected scholar/diplomat van Gulik may perhaps reveal himself somewhat in his work.  . . . Van Gulik thoroughly enjoyed decribing his lieutenants’ adventures. Fantasy is connected to our conscious and subconscious desires.  The lieutenants were the more material parts of his favorite hero.” What van de Wetering writes about van Gulik and his connections to Judge Dee, jovial Ma Joong, and introverted Chiao Tai, applies equally well to his own work: the commissaris, de Gier, and Grijpstra.

     This brief and complex biography was originally issued by mystery specialist publisher Dennis McMillan in a signed edition limited to 350 copies.  The first edition of Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work is a small, carefully produced hardcover volume with decorated red and gold endpapers and an illustrated dustjacket.  The 1998 Soho Press reprint in paperback adds a new introduction by Arthur P. Yin; a hardcover reprint was initially announced but was not produced.

    Van de Wetering had earlier been connected with a Dutch reissue of van Gulik’s novels, and in the biography he discussed the reception of the Judge Dee books in the Netherlands, as well as van Gulik’s scholarship and translation of Chinese poetry.  He also treats one of van Gulik’s less well-known works, The Given Day, which describes events in the life of Mr. Hendricks, a former colonial official from the Dutch East Indies.   In bleak post-war Amsterdam, Hendricks finds himself caught up by accident in the activities of an international drug gang.  He also confronts elements from his own past in the course of novel and years after his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese, Hendricks puzzles out the Zen koan taught to him by his interrogator, and finds a more meaningful understanding of his own existence.

    Written in English and first published in an edition privately printed in Malaysia in 1964, van Gulik’s mystery novel was first published in the United States as The Given Day: An Amsterdam Mystery (San Antonio, Texas: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1984), in an edition of 300 copies with an afterword by van de Wetering. (This volume dropped one page of the afterword although the pagination is not interrupted.  The 1986 paperback reprint from the same publisher, with a Miami Beach imprint, does not use the subtitle but contains the complete text of the afterword.)

    Van de Wetering notes in his afterword, “The Given Day took the Dutch critics by surprise, and most judged harshly.  They couldn’t understand what the author had been up to and vindictively banished the book to the trash heap. … I handed out copies of the manuscript to American friends who were mostly disappointed.  They wanted another Chinese thrilling tale … The force of habit.  More of the same.  Once we see something we can appreciate we ask for endless repeats.  Artistic development, however, is subject to change.  Picasso painted for years, then tried to bake pots.  Gillespie dropped traditional jazz patterns and switched to bop.  We do it ourselves; we may continue in a given and successful direction for years on end until a crisis makes us veer off.  What we do afterward may not be as easily understandable, or appreciated by others.”

    Children’s books by van de Wetering include Little Owl, a discussion of the Buddhist Eightfold Path with black and white illustrations by Marc Brown, and three books featuring the adventures of Hugh Pine, a porcupine, and his friends.  He has also translated Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willowsinto Dutch.

Alexandra David-Neel

    In the early 1980s, van de Wetering convinced his U.S. publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to issue The Power of Nothingness, his translation of La puissance du néant, one of three novels by Alexandra David-Neel and her adopted son, Lama Albert Arthur Yongden. The novel charts the adventures and frequent distractions of Munpa, loyal servant of a hermit who appears to have been murdered for a jewel he possessed. Van de Wetering remarked in conversation that he had to rewrite certain passages, for David-Neel was curiously prudish and repeatedly turned away from writing about sex. The Power of Nothingness is, in a sense, a Tibetan murder mystery novel, although questions of who was murdered, and by whom, reveal themselves to be inextricably and comically linked with questions of ultimate identity and egolessness.  It is without doubt the least well known and appreciated of van de Wetering’s books.

    An illustrated mystery novel, Murder by Remote Control,was written as a script outlining the panels of the “comic” strip and “drawn conscientiously by Paul Kirchner, a most talented artist, brother of a Zen monk I got to know in Japan.”  It was issued as a lavish volume in the Netherlands in 1984 and as a paperback original in the United States in 1986.

    Two other recent story collections of note have been issued by specialty publishers.  Mangrove Mama, a volume gathering material from a variety of magazines as well as original stories, was published in 1995 by Dennis McMillan, now located in Tucson, Arizona.  McMillan published both a trade edition and a signed edition of 100 copies issued jointly with Wonderly Press of Bar Harbor, Maine.  In 1997, Wonderly Press published Judge Dee Plays His Lute in a signed edition (150 copies) as well as in hardcover and trade paperback.  Stories in both of these collections feature the Amsterdam Cops.

    Van de Wetering is at work upon further adventures of de Gier, Grijpstra, and the commissaris, featuring settings as varied as New Guinea and Arizona.  He is also writing a variety of shorter pieces, such as “Ganesh,” a story exploring the consequences of greed for a series on the seven sins planned by his German publishers.  Another fine novella, “A Walk in the Park,” recounts an adventure of the commissaris on his own in Maine.

    About his reading of other writers, he notes, “In Australia I read the collected works of Arthur Upfield, in America the collected works of Charles Willeford. I also like Jim Thompson and Frederic Exley (not quite birds of the same feather).  Lately I have been reading South American literature, I learned Spanish when I worked in Colombia and Peru.  I spent years reading Chinese and Japanese literature, always in translation, unfortunately.”

    In warm weather, however, van de Wetering spends lots of time boating.


    This article draws upon an interview with Janwillem van de Wetering conducted over the past several months.  I would like to acknowledge his generosity in responding to my questions about his books and his life. Our correspondence has ranged far and wide since I initially wrote to inquire about a mutual interest in Robert van Gulik, about whom he recently noted, “My favorite author is probably Robert van Gulik. I often think I am done with him but then something comes up.” I would also like to acknowledge permission granted by Blue Dove Press of San Diego, California, to reproduce the passage by Robert Powell from The Wisdom of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

A van de Wetering Checklist

     The full history of van de Wetering’s publishing career is extremely complex: “I usually write in Dutch, then rewrite in English.  The English versions are shorter and I don’t get too exuberant with word play.  Sometimes the plot lines differ, in some books even the characters differ. I never aim to translate. Many short stories were never written in Dutch. The other way round too.”  In matters of pacing and structure, the Dutch text of Het Werkbezoek, for example, differs noticeably from the novel that English-language readers know as The Maine Masacre.

    Van de Wetering’s novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages; he is particularly popular in Germany, where a new television series based upon his novels is in the works. Outsider in Amsterdam and The Rattle-Rat were earlier filmed with Rutger Hauer in a starring role.

    In the following checklist of books (in English) by Janwillem van de Wetering, novels in the Amsterdam Cops series are marked with an asterisk (*):

1. The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.
London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1973; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
2. A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community.
London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1975; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
3. Outsider in Amsterdam.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975; London: Heinemann, 1976.*
4. Tumbleweed.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976; London: Heinemann, 1976.*
5. The Corpse on the Dike.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976; London: Heinemann, 1977.*
6. Death of a Hawker.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977; London: Heinemann, 1977.*
7. The Japanese Corpse.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977; London: Heinemann, 1977.*
8. The Blond Baboon.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978; London: Heinemann, 1978.*
9. The Maine Massacre.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979; London: Heinemann, 1979.*
10. Little Owl: An Eighfold Buddhist Admonition.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
11. Hugh Pine.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
12. Hugh Pine and The Good Place.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
13. The Mind-Murders.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981; London: Heinemann, 1981.*
14. The Power of Nothingness by Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden.
Translated by Janwillem van de Wetering.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
15. The Butterfly Hunter.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982; London: Severn House, 1983.
16. Bliss and Bluster; or, How to Crack a Nut.
Illustrated by Joe Servello.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
17. Hugh Pine and Something Else.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
18. The Streetbird.
New York: Putnam, 1983; London: Gollancz, 1984.*
19. The Rattle-Rat.
New York: Pantheon, 1985; London: Gollancz, 1986.*
20. Inspector Saito’s Small Satori.
New York: Putnam, 1985; London: Gollancz, 1985.
21. Murder by Remote Control.
Designed and illustrated by Paul Kirchner.
New York: Ballantine Books/Available Press, 1986.
22. Robert Van Gulik: His Life, His Work.
Miami Beach, Florida: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1987; New York: Soho, 1998.
23. Hard Rain.
New York: Pantheon, 1986; London: Gollancz, 1987.*
24. The Sergeant’s Cat and Other Stories.
New York: Pantheon, 1987; London: Gollancz, 1988.*
25. Distant Danger.
New York: Wynwood Press, 1988.
Edited by Janwillem van de Wetering.
Mystery Writers of America Anthology
26. Seesaw Millions.
New York: Ballantine, 1988; London: Gollancz, 1988.
27. Just Another Corpse at Twilight.
New York: Soho, 1994.*
28. Mangrove Mama & Other Tropical Tales of Terror.
Tucson, Arizona: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1995.
29. The Hollow-Eyed Angel.
New York: Soho, 1996.*
30. The Perfidious Parrot.
New York: Soho, 1997.*
31. Judge Dee Plays His Lute: A Play and Selected Mystery Stories.
Bar Harbor, Maine: Wonderly Press, 1997.*
32. Afterzen.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
33. Amsterdam Cops.
New York: Soho, 1999.*

[This article was first published in slightly different form, as “The Mystery Novels of Janwillem van de Wetering” in the September 7-14, 1998, issue of AB Bookman’s Weekly.This digital version was for a long time posted at the Avram Davidson website. All rights reserved.]

A singular interview with Henry Wessells, by Michael Swanwick

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.


R. H. van Gulik: Diplomat, Orientalist, Novelist

special issue on re-reading : part four
R. H. van Gulik: Diplomat, Orientalist, Novelist

R. H van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders, 1956

Every year I re-read a few of the mysteries of Robert van Gulik, always with pleasure, for these tales of Judge Dee evoke an entire world. This is a long-standing interest: in 1997, back in the days of AB Bookman’s Weekly, I wrote a feature essay on the life and publications of this fascinating person, who accomplished many things during a comparatively short life (see below). And of course, the world being a place where “the impossible invariably occurs”, not long after I turned in that article, on a shelf in a bookshop I found a copy of Judge Dee Plays His Lute by Janwillem van de Wetering, and learned that a decade earlier he had written a monograph on van Gulik. This discovery led to meeting van de Wetering (and Dennis McMillan), but those are stories for another day.

In the early days of the Endless Bookshelf, in 2007, I republished the article on van Gulik. Sometime after that I met film-maker Rob Rombout, who  returned to New York a couple of years later to film a segment of his marvellous globe-trotting documentary, On the Track of Robert van Gulik. And when I visited Boston a few years back to research in the Gotlieb Archival Research Center at BU, I  had a look through some of the papers of van Gulik.

The Judge Dee books are in print from the University of Chicago Press, and are well worth seeking out. Here is the opening passage of the biographical article :

R. H. van Gulik: Diplomat, Orientalist, Novelist

The writings of Dutch diplomat and author Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967) reveal his considerable talents as a storyteller as well as the conscientious scholarship and varied interests that characterized his life. His nonfiction works cover a broad range of subjects from Chinese culture, folklore, art, and music, such as Chinese Pictorial Art as Viewed by the Connoisseur, Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period, and The Gibbon in China.     He is also widely known for his detective fiction, beginning with Dee Goong An : Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee (a translation of a Chinese work), which led him to write a series of seventeen books featuring the Chinese magistrate Judge Dee, from The Chinese Maze Murders to Murder in Canton and the posthumously published Poets and Murder.

Read the full essay in the Endless Bookshelf archives

R. H. van Gulik, The Lacquer Screen, 1962. This copy inscribed to Anthony Boucher

The original edition of The Lacquer Screen, published in Kuala Lumpur in 1962 while van Gulik was posted there. Below, the cover of the 1998 Soho reprint of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Robert van Gulik His Life His Work.

Janwillem van de Wetering, Robert van Gulik His Life His Work, 1998, inscribed by the author