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.

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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