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

readers in real time

readers in real time : in the library at Astrea Academy Sheffield 


[photo by Charlie Pogson]

From Charlie Pogson, Head of English at the Astrea Academy Sheffield, last March: “I am writing to request your permission to use your poem, The Private Life of Books, as a permanent display in our school library. We would like to have the poem professionally painted or printed and displayed floor to ceiling on the entrance wall of our library space. The library is the heart of our school; it is the space in which we know we can transform the lives of the young people who we work with by showing them the world/s around them in books. Your poem perfectly encapsulates the gift that we want to give to our young people; a life-long, two-way relationship with books and stories.
“I heard your poem being read as the concluding voiceover on The Booksellers and was very moved by how it distilled the almost-indefinable magic of a book into words.”

And now that the installation is complete: “The children really love the poem – I see them being captured by it daily, and I think they revisit the library shelves having been invigorated by its reminder of how special their relationships with books are. [. . .] You’ll see a close up of your wonderful poem as well as a few of our scholars reading their own texts around it. You might also be able to see some glimpses of Sheffield in through the windows – it’s a city that’s both very green and very dilapidated in parts; a city where great stories are sorely needed.
“On behalf of all of us here at Astrea Academy Sheffield, we would like to thank you for gifting us your poem to accompany our reading experiences.”


[photo by Charlie Pogson]

time in the novels of Jon A. Jackson

special issue on re-reading : part three
time in the novels of Jon A. Jackson

Jon A. Jackson
The Die Hard. Random House, [1977]
The Blind Pig. Random House, [1978]
Grootka. Foul Play Press/Countryman Press, [1990]
Hit on the House. Atlantic Monthly, [1993]
Deadman. Atlantic Monthly, [1994]
Dead Folk. Dennis McMillan, 1995
Dead Folks. Atlantic Monthly, [1996]
Go by Go. Dennis McMillan, 1998
Man with an Axe. Atlantic Monthly, [1998]
La Donna Detroit. Atlantic Monthly, [2000]
Badger Games. Atlantic Monthly, [2002]
No Man’s Dog. Atlantic Monthly, [2004]

Readers of the ’shelf will recognize the name of novelist Jon A. Jackson, who wrote eleven novels featuring a Detroit detective known as ‘Fang’ Mulheisen, and Go by Go, a sharp novel of events in Butte, Montana, in 1917. I am pretty sure it was Dennis McMillan who first told me about Jackson, and I was intrigued, for I had read Red Harvest and knew that Hammett’s Poisonville was Butte, and I had spent one summer and one winter in Detroit in 1979, which was right around the time Jackson began publishing the Mulheisen novels. I began picking up the books, and have read and re-read them over the years. I have not revisited Detroit, so I have vivid memories of the sounds and smells and camaraderie of the zinc foundry where I worked that summer, and only a residual memory of the geography. The city is a character — if not quite to to the degree that Innsmouth is a character in Lovecraft’s story — or, more to the point, Detroit is an attitude that is felt throughout the novels. Detective Sergeant Mulheisen is nearing forty, a good detective despite the limitations of budget and pressure. He is smart and disinclined to move off the street into an administrative post. He is not the only recurring character in the Detroit novels: several characters take on lives and energies of their own, and Jackson had the sense to follow where they led him. Grootka, Mulheisen’s some-time mentor and a tough, even brutal cop of the old model, is the focus of the third novel, which ends with his death, but Grootka was so protean a figure that several years later Jackson answered the question What happened to Jimmy Hoffa? in Man with an Axe, a jazzy novel of Grootka’s notebooks and clues conveyed posthumously to Mulheisen. Joe Service, a troubleshooter for the Detroit mob from somewhere out west, and Helen Sedlacek, a mobster’s daughter, enable Jackson to range far afield from the Motor City, sometimes with Mulheisen in pursuit.

Among the notions that have interested me are the sense and function of time in the books. These are not novels of unchanging characters in an almost eternal present (examples being the musical comedies without music of the Wodehouse’s tales of Bertie Wooster, or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels), nor are they quite the large work in twenty-two novels which is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. It’s a funny thing, the internal elapsed time in a work of fiction, even more so when one thinks about a succession of books: which clocks are ticking, those a reader discerns within each book, and those unseen ones in the  spaces between books. It is of course a mug’s game to demand too much (any?) internal consistency within a fictional narrative, but the nature of attention is to observe and create patterns. The Mulheisen books describe a fairly tight sequence of murders, heists, and capers — much shorter than the nearly thirty-year  timeline of publication — during which Fang contemplates and rejects career changes, the face of the Detroit mob changes, and Joe Service remains a step ahead of the cops (mostly).

While Jackson brings computers into the series early on — the scam in Grootka which leads to murder is a computer program automating a shell game for access to money as information, a kid with a PC delivers critic messages to Mulheisen in Man with an Axe, and mobster Humphrey DiEbola finds his school sweetheart on a bulletin board — the world of Mulheisen and Joe Service is, however, an analogue one, where people walk and and talk and drive and learn things through unmediated experience.  Maybe that is one one the charms of the series for me. Mulheisen thinks about the colonial history of the Detroit, and the rumors and legends in the Detroit of his youth, so there is a tacit recognition that narratives of  human motivations and actions are meaningful.

The subjective experience of the reader is that all the action from The Die-Hard to La Donna Detroit occurs in just a few years, a reminder of the long continuity of human life before the ubiquity of smart phones. The last two are a little different. Badger Games brings home the aftermath of the Balkan wars into Joe Service’s rural arcadia. No Man’s Dog is definitely post-Patriot Act with elements of domestic terrorism and extralegal activities by disaffected government agents, and a clear sense that Mulheisen is an older cop in a changed world.

No great conclusions to offer, just a suggestion to pick up one of Jackson’s books if you see it. Go by Go, his novel of a raw Pinkerton op named Goodwin Ryder, recreates the wide open atmosphere of Butte in 1917. It is a retrospective narration of some complexity and features a cameo of Sam Hammett.

[Note: the idea of paying attention to internal subjective timelines in works of fiction arose in a conversation with Brendan Byrne about time in Liz Hand’s Cass Neary novels. Perhaps he (or I) will write that essay.]

 

reading the map of Glasgow

special issue on re-reading : part two
reading the map of Glasgow
Wm. McIlvanney, The Papers of Tony Veitch, dust jacket
— William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin. The Dark Remains. Europa editions, [2021].
— William McIlvanney. Strange Loyalties. William Morrow, [1991].
— William McIlvanney. The Papers of Tony Veitch. Pantheon Books, [1983].
— William McIlvanney. Laidlaw [1977]. Europa editions, [2014].

‘It’s the questions you don’t ask that count. People don’t give answers. They betray them. When they think they’re answering one thing, they’re giving an honest answer to something else.’

Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) were something else when they appeared, and still are. The books stand with the hardest urban noir but with a remarkable difference. Where some of the 1950s classics of the form are nihilist mirrors of a messed-up America, Glasgow detective Jack Laidlaw burns with “that anger against so many things” and McIlvanney’s narratives show life on the under side of things with compassion (a quality for which Laidlaw is mocked by some of his colleagues). McIlvanney is master of the raw, unpleasant simile: the father of a murder victim “was still following the relentless parade of his thoughts, like an Orange March nobody dare cut across”. Laidlaw’s “free-lancing” behavior, “separate from the main investigation” yet bringing matters to a solution, is a cognate of Janwillem van de Watering’s “looking at it from different sides”.
I really enjoyed re-reading The Papers of Tony Veitch, where the intensity jumps the boundaries. “Laidlaw remembered that one of the things he hated most was elitism. We share in everyone else or forego ourselves.” And Chapter 5 is a succinct one-act play, after hours “in ‘The Crib’, a strangely named pub not really suitable for children, where on a good night Behemoth would have been no better than even money.” It starts innocuously enough, “Licensing laws can be fun.”
In Strange Loyalties McIlvanney switched to a first person narration (with all the limitations and strengths of that mode). The novel again probes class structures, memory, and hypocrisies. Laidlaw’s hurtling inquiry into his recently dead brother’s past stirs things up as effectively as Hammett’s Continental Op did in Red Harvest. The hard man in the fancy house walks into the cell door Laidlaw has opened (closing a narrative thread begun in the first book), but the answers Laidlaw finds offer no comfort.
The Dark Remains, just published, was completed by Ian Rankin from a partial manuscript left at McIlvanney’s death. The novel is deftly plotted, set in the earliest days of Laidlaw’s career, but Rankin’s style is less explosive than McIlvanney (“His writing style is more poetic than my own” as Rankin put it in a recent essay). The Dark Remains evokes Glasgow in the 1970s, and the narrative is seeded with allusions to the earlier novels (almost to the point of egging the custard). It is a nice homage to McIlvanney, and a spur to read or re-read the originals, especially The Papers of Tony Veitch.

Little, Big by John Crowley

special issue on re-reading : part one
Little, Big

When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. [. . .] In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life.

— On Reading Old Books, from the Selected Essays of William Hazlitt 1778 : 1830. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Nonesuch, 1930.

John Crowley’s Little, Big is a book which I have read more times than I can count. It is also in that rare category of books which I give away (sometimes even the copy in my hand). Readers of the Endless Bookshelf will have seen allusions to my readings over the years (Appraisal at Edgewood, the summer of 2007, or Chapter XIV in A Conversation larger than the Universe or  “Strange Enough to Be Remembered Forever”). Everything which Hazlitt enumerates applies to re-readings of Little, Big. This year, when I picked up the novel, I paid attention to recurrences of words and parallels. I don’t say repetitions or doublings because the words often function — that is to say, carry meaning — in a new way when they return to the surface later in the book.
Contradictions across scale run through the book: rooms which seem larger than they are, or are smaller than they look — when Smoky is visiting the Woods (88), and Room 001 to which Sylvie delivers the package (331) — and the resonant phrase, the further in you go, the bigger it gets, is recited by Doctor Bramble in his lecture (43), by Hannah Noon at the wedding of Smoky and Alice (63), and by Auberon in the city park (351), with many echoes. “Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head” (178).
John Drinkwater told Violet, “I proved that every room needed more than two doors, but couldn’t ever prove than any could get along with only three” (50), which is a succinct an organizing principle of periodic recurrence as one could ask for. Take three examples. First: Smoky writes Alice that he has discovered a plaque reading Mouse Drinkwater Stone 1900 on a pillar at the entrance to a park (13) and a generation later Auberon begins brushing new leaving ivy and obscuring dirt from the plaque as Ariel Hawksquill holds a key to the gate (350). And second: the word constellation, invoked when Smoky is on his way to Edgewood (21), in the beautiful passage when Smoky and Alice and Sophie are looking at the stars on the last night of summer (177-8), and as Ariel Hawskquill contemplates the night-time paradox of the Cosmo-Opticon, when “the blackish Zodiac and the constellations could not be read” (343). And in between “Jolly, round, red Mr. Sun” who rises as a schoolboy reads from one of Doc’s fables of the Green Meadow in Smoky’s classroom (128) and the “ghastly red round sun” as it sinks late one afternoon when Mrs. Underhill takes Lilac on a tour of New York and Old Law Farm (312) are the lives of individual characters and the fate of afflicted nation under the Tyrant. In George Mouse’s successive awakenings from the effects of a “new drug he was experimenting with, of astonishing, just unheard-of potency” (500), familiar objects reassemble themselves into another fabric of reality. These recurrences in Little, Big are the Tale itself, inseparable now from the experience of the reader.

Little, Big is a source of great pleasure each time I read it. This pleasure is only increased by reading about the novel, in, for example, John Clute’s review in  the Washington Post Book World for 4 October 1981, or Snake’s Hands, edited by Michael Andre-Driussi and Alice Turner (which prints, twenty years later, Tom Disch’s contemporary review of Crowley’s “masterpiece”).

— — —

detail from an invitation, 1981

Little, Big was published on 16 September 1981. Above, detail from an invitation to Little, Big Day in August 1981. And below, the author’s inscriptions to Thomas M. Disch in copies of the novel :

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bantam trade edition (1981) and the Gollancz hardcover edition (1982) :

Little, Big (1981)

and the recent Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition (2015) with a fine, concise introduction by Graham Sleight :

 

In truth, with certain books, there are any number of reasons to have more than one copy. Little, Big is one of those personal “land-marks” (as Hazlitt calls them). To quote Tom Disch :

It’s readers who make a book a classic by reading it and getting their friend to read it, by treasuring it and making its wisdom part of their own. Little, Big deserves to be that kind of book.
So read it.

[HWW]

Sexual Stealing by Wendy Walker

Sexual Stealing, a beautiful and dangerous book by Wendy Walker, with a preface by Daniel Levin Becker.
Published 1 September 2021 by Temporary Culture.

Sexual Stealing - binding detail  Sexual Stealing - title page

 

Sexual Stealing is a formally innovative interrogation of the Gothic, slavery, and sexual exploitation, written using a simple constraint to extract a secondary, heretofore hidden text from Anne Radcliffe’s 1794 novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. Walker probes the obsessions and anxieties underlying the early Gothic novels, and dramatizes a tale of forcible taking, the brutal exercise of wealth and power, and the revolution that follows. She notes, “Sexual Stealing is poetic in that its form reflects its subject; it searches for a way to write the voices that are buried in full view, and subverts available genres to talk about something widely felt and intuited but not discussed.”

— — — —

WALKER, Wendy. Sexual Stealing. [With a preface by Daniel Levin Becker]. With color and black and white illustrations throughout, pictorial endsheets. Book design by Jerry Kelly. 192 pages, 7 x 10 inches. [Upper Montclair, New Jersey:] Temporary Culture, 1 September 2021. Edition of 125 copies signed by the author. Red brillianta cloth with letterpress spine label.
ISBN 09961359-5-2 ISBN13 978-0-9961359-5-5.
Price: $200.00
ORDER FROM TEMPORARY CULTURE

Wendy Walker is author of eight books, including The Secret Service (Sun & Moon, 1992) and My Man and Other Critical Fictions (Temporary Culture, 2011).

recent reading : july & august 2021


— Michael Swanwick. The Lonely and the Rum. A Conversation between Greer Gilman and Michael Swanwick. Dragonstairs, 2021. (Edition of 125 copies).
——. Five Rings. Dragonstairs, 2021. (Edition of 32 copies).
——. The Thousand Year Old Fan Reminisces about His Youth. Dragonstairs, 2021. (Edition of 5 copies).

— — —

we might find our selves
in some place we did not know

— Mark Valentine. Astarology. Salo Press, [2021]. Flirtation no. 14.
Collection of verse and found poetry.

— — —

— John Le Carré. The Constant Gardener. A Novel. Scribner, [2001].
Intense book, and reading it now evokes such a sense of the world before . . . [from the Camden Public Library book sale tent].

— Mark Samuels. The White Hands and Other Weird Tales. Tartarus, 2003.

— L. P. Hartley. The Collected Macabre Stories. [Edited and with an introduction by Mark Valentine]. Tartarus. 2001.

— I. U. Tarchetti. Fantastic Tales. Edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti. Original illustrations by Jim Pearson. Mercury House, [1992].

— [John W. Wall]. Ringstones and Other Curious Tales by “Sarban”. Peter Davies, [1951].

— John Burke. We’ve Been Waiting for You and Other Tales of Unease. Introduction by Nicholas Royle. Ash-Tree Press, 2000.

— Richard Grant. Another Green World. Knopf, 2006.
Dark, dark, dark green. A fabulous cosmopolitan novel of the interwar years and the descent into the maelstrom of the second world war.

— Emma Tennant. Two Women of London. The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. Faber and Faber, [1989].
——. The Bad Sister. A Novel. Gollancz, 1978. Excellent, dark book with resonances of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
——The Last of the Country House Murders. Jonathan Cape, {1974].
Tennant’s books comprise an astute feminist critique of the British class system, with pitch perfect observation of the modes of speech and the assumptions prevalent among the caste into which she was born and whose primacy the novels reject. She plays nimbly with literary model and precedent, even in the near future dystopian pastiche detective story, The Last of the Country House Murders. Is she taking an axe to the furniture or chopping new path through the woods?

— H. R. Wakefield. They Return at Evening. A Book of Ghost Stories [1928]. Ash-Tree Press, 1995.


— Elizabeth Hand. Black Light. Harper Prism, [1999].
High school and the psychogeography of Kamensic.

— — —

— Ian McEwan. My Purple Scented Novel. Vintage, [2018].

— Ithell Colquhoun. The Living Stones [1957]. Cornwall. With a foreword by Stewart Lee. Peter Davies, [2020 reprint].

— Margery Allingham. The White Cottage Mystery [1927]. Bloomsbury Reader, [2016; 6th ptg]. Melodrama.
——. Sweet Danger [1933]. Penguin, [1963]. How Campion met Amanda, with a Ruritanian meander.
——. Police at the Funeral [1931]. Macfadden, [1967]. Your family is not as dysfunctional as this one.
——. Flowers for the Judge [1936]. Heinemann, [1967].
——. Coroner’s Pidgin [1945]. Heinemann, [1965]. The world was different, once.

— Max Beerbohm. Seven Men [1919]. Introduction by Joh Updike. NYRB Classics pbk.
Enoch Soames, ‘Savonarola’ Brown, et al.

A singular interview with Michael Swanwick

Henry Wessells: Michael, you are a resident of Philadelphia, a Philadelphian, even, of long standing (probably as long as I have been an ex-Philadelphian): what is the oddest thing (or incident) you have ever seen or witnessed in Billy Penn’s Town?

Michael Swanwick: There’s a lot of competition. Philadelphia was a much grittier place when I came here in the early Seventies. The sin district, with its stripper bars, burlesque theaters, and hookers, was right next to City Hall. But I remember one evening when I was walking along 12th Street with Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper, approaching Market Street, where the Terminal Hotel used to be. There was a let-up in the traffic, so I crossed the street. When I got across, I looked back and saw that Gardner and Susan were still on the far side, walking. Then a car came screeching down the street and the driver, seeing the two of them, drove up on the sidewalk and tried to run them down. No reason at all. It was just madness.

Susan and Gardner both threw themselves against the wall so the driver couldn’t kill them without crashing into the hotel. He slammed the car back into the street and roared off. This was before Gardner became editor of Asimov’s. So his death then would have changed the course of science fiction.

Things like that happened in Gardner’s presence. Once, on South Street, he saw a man stabbed to death with a fork. But that’s not really my story to tell.

— — — —

Michael Swanwick is author of, most recently, The Book of Blarney (Dragonstairs, 2021), The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus (Subterranean, 2020), an The Iron Dragon’s Mother (Tor, 2019), as well as critical monographs on Hope Mirrlees and James Branch Cabell. He is the originator of this useful conceit, the Singular Interview.

Sexual Stealing by Wendy Walker

Forthcoming from Temporary Culture :  Sexual Stealing by Wendy Walker

 

Sexual Stealing is a formally innovative interrogation of the Gothic, slavery, and sexual exploitation, written using a simple constraint to extract a secondary, heretofore hidden text from Anne Radcliffe’s 1794 novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. Walker probes the obsessions and anxieties underlying the early Gothic novels, and dramatizes a tale of forcible taking, the brutal exercise of wealth and power, and the revolution that follows. She notes, “Sexual Stealing is poetic in that its form reflects its subject; it searches for a way to write the voices that are buried in full view, and subverts available genres to talk about something widely felt and intuited but not discussed.” It is a beautiful, dangerous book.

— — — —

WALKER, Wendy. Sexual Stealing. [With a preface by Daniel Levin Becker]. With color and black and white illustrations throughout, pictorial endsheets. Book design by Jerry Kelly. 192 pages, 7 x 10 inches. Temporary Culture, 1 September 2021. Edition of 125 copies signed by the author. Red cloth with printed labels.
ISBN 09961359-5-2 ISBN13 978-0-9961359-5-5.
Price upon publication: $200.00

Wendy Walker is author of eight books, including The Secret Service (Sun & Moon, 1992) and My Man and Other Critical Fictions (Temporary Culture, 2011).