A Passionate Reader: On David Markson
We don't know much for sure about Kate, the narrator of David Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress. She is, or believes herself to be, the last person left on earth. She makes brief references to her son, who died long ago. She used to be a painter, but she has traded her paintbrushes for a typewriter in an abandoned house on an unnamed beach. She knows that she is writing, but the days have begun to blur together in a haze of uncertainty. She can't remember her exact age or the length of time she's been alone. When she sets out to compile a list of places where she has lived over the years, she admits, "Doubtless I have lost track of a good deal of that by now." Even language proves a slippery medium. Quoting Wittgenstein without attribution, she reflects, "The world is everything that is the case," and then admits, "I have no idea what I mean by the sentence I have just typed." She has forgotten where she learned the things she thinks she knows and at one point asks, "What do any of us ever truly know?"
Yet for all her cautious qualifications, her backpedaling and existential waffling, Kate doesn't hesitate to make outrageous assertions. She says she sailed to Byzantium on her own and then drove across Siberia. She says she has taken up residence in museums around the world. When she was living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she left her own paintings standing between those hanging in the second-floor galleries. She also shot holes in the skylight in the Great Hall so the smoke from the fire she built with the museum's artifacts could escape. Oh, and she sprained her ankle falling down the stairs there and then had fun maneuvering a wheelchair "from the Buddhist and Hindu antiquities to the Byzantine, or whoosh!"
She doesn't hide the fact that she might not be the most reliable narrator. She discloses that she was out of her mind for "a certain period." She remembers wearing more than a dozen wristwatches at one time, along with several gold pocket watches on a cord around her neck. She admits, "It did run on, that madness." Hinting that her madness might continue to run on, she quotes Pascal: "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness."
Her form of madness is to say something about any subject that comes to her mind, from Vivaldi to Vermeer, Giotto to Picasso, Sophocles to baseball, and everything in between. The entire novel is made up of digressions prompted by abrupt associations. She doesn't pretend to have a plan in mind. ("Actually," she reflects at one point, "the story of Turner being lashed to the mast reminds me of something, even though I cannot remember what it reminds me of.") But the beautifully unnerving effect of this narrator is that she gives the impression that she is always moving forward. Whether she's mad or sane, she is an extremely effective guide—witty, enthusiastic, with a capacious curiosity. And as she remembers, or imagines, traveling around a deserted world, she gives a powerful sense of what we miss when we take our cultural treasures for granted.
In the hands of a lesser writer, a novel full of rambling ruminations could end up seeming arbitrary or arid. But Markson hits no false notes. The book is artfully constructed and emotionally convincing, and the narrator, alternately tentative and bold and always fascinating, emerges as a bewitching teacher. Through her, everything is revealed to be worth a closer look.
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In the early 1980s, I spent a year working as an assistant at the Elaine Markson Literary Agency. Although Elaine and David had separated by then, Elaine continued to represent her former husband's work. As it happened, during the period that I worked at the agency, the manuscript of Wittgenstein's Mistress was being submitted to publishers. I remember opening the package containing Markson's manuscript, slipping out the latest rejection letter, putting in a new submission letter to a different editor and sending the manuscript back out. I'm not sure how many times I did this, though I know the effort continued without success for many months. By David Markson's account, the manuscript was rejected fifty-four times. When asked about the experience years later, he said with characteristic bluntness, "Some editors are not particularly bright."
Markson was an editor for Dell Books in the 1950s, but the work proved less than satisfying, and he set out to write a book of his own. He wrote The Ballad of Dingus Magee, a parodic western, and three crime novels with noirish plots and sharp, satiric edges. But then, as he'd later explain, he "got down to work more seriously." He'd already completed a master's in literature at Columbia, where he wrote his thesis on the fiction of Malcolm Lowry, and Lowry's influence can be felt in the novels Markson wrote during this period, especially in Going Down, with its Mexican setting and scenes of drunken confusion.
There is always a quality of gritty intensity in Markson's prose. His narrators tend to embed their strongest emotions in short, ironic comments. But when he started writing Wittgenstein's Mistress in the early 1980s, he began using single-line paragraphs that almost read like lists, creating an aphoristic style reminiscent of Wittgenstein's. And though in his earlier books he located the main drama in the interactions between characters, in Wittgenstein's Mistress he shifted his focus to create a portrait of a secluded individual. Suspense is generated not by action but by thought. The sparks fly when the narrator's consciousness is pushed to the edge of understanding.
Wittgenstein's Mistress, which was finally published by Dalkey Archive in 1988, marked a turning point in Markson's career. In the four books that followed—Reader's Block (1996), This Is Not a Novel (2001), Vanishing Point (2004) and The Last Novel (2007)—Markson honed a style that is even more jarring and seemingly random. Conventional syntax is often reversed, and sometimes portions of a sentence are left out altogether. At the same time, he toys with dropping certain basic fictional premises altogether. He maintains that he's not interested in plot. He communicates his frustration with the artifice of stories. He makes self-conscious comments about his role as author. But he continues to frame his comments as fiction. What he aims to write, he says, is "a novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of a novel." The key word here is novel. The narrator might be frustrated with conventional elements of fiction, but he remains committed to the idea of it.
Given the similarities among these books, I can't resist reading them as a single gargantuan narrative that follows a fictional writer through his final years. Although he often refers to himself in the third person, as Reader, Writer, Author or Novelist, his predicament, method and voice are consistent throughout the sequence. From early in the first book, Reader's Block, when the narrator announces, "I am growing older. I have been in hospitals," to the final page of the appropriately titled The Last Novel, when the narrator identifies himself as "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke," his reflections are colored by his battle with illness. Unlike Kate in Wittgenstein's Mistress, who casts herself as the product of an apocalyptic catastrophe, the narrator of these four books is not worried about the end of the world. Rather, he is facing a much more personal and inevitable catastrophe. He is dying, and there's nothing he can do about it.
Over the course of the books, Markson's narrator weighs life against death and death against art, testing the effects of time and the resilience of the human imagination. Beginning with Reader's Block, he explicitly considers the decisions he must make in order to get on with his book. In an attempt to sort through his options, he asks, "How much of Reader's own circumstances or past would he in fact give to Protagonist in such a novel?" Even as he's writing, he's considering the hypothetical novel he would like to write. He's both exhilarated and stymied by the freedom he has as a writer of fiction. Should he set his novel on a beach, he asks, or at the edge of a derelict cemetery? Should he write a book that is "Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?"
In his dizzying search for meaning, his questions and reflections share an underlying urgency. He knows that he is running out of time. Having grown impatient with certain conventions of narrative, he's eager to get right to the point: by transforming his thoughts into a work of literary merit that will outlast his mortal self, he is going to defy the cancer that is threatening to silence him before he's ready.