A Passionate Reader: On David Markson
Markson's ambition may best be exemplified in This Is Not a Novel, his playful, acerbic and powerfully moving antinovel. His narrator, Writer, begins by expressing his weariness with making up stories. He announces that he's going to attempt to write "a novel with no intimation of a story whatsoever." It will be plotless, characterless, actionless, even without a subject, "yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless." What, then, is left? Plenty, including a protagonist, language, the world and all of history to consider.
The narrating Writer of This Is Not a Novel shares with the narrator of Wittgenstein's Mistress a desire to know as much as possible, and at the same time a skepticism about knowledge. In thinking about how history is recorded, for example, he considers that "much of what we have of Aristotle was not strictly speaking written by Aristotle at all. But would appear to be classroom notes taken down by others." He goes on to wonder about the chamber pots of Jane Austen and Bishop Berkeley, and whether Kierkegaard's father really had venereal disease. He wants to know what Hamlet is reading in Act II, Scene ii, when, in response to Polonius's inquiry, he replies, "Words, words, words."
Most of all, this ailing Writer wonders about death. He tells us, "Benny Goodman died of a heart attack while practicing Mozart," "Thomas Mann died of phlebitis," "Schopenhauer was found dead sitting at his breakfast" and "Marshall McLuhan died of a stroke." He tells us about the causes of death for countless other famous people. What he can't explain is how he will die, or when, or what it means to die, or what he will discover, if anything, about death when he dies. The great mystery hangs over the book, driving Writer to keep looking for clues among the ruins and riches of the cultural past.
The museums that sheltered Kate in Wittgenstein's Mistress have no roof or walls in This Is Not a Novel. The entire world is a museum, and in its permanent collection is… just about everything. The title invokes Magritte, who by declaring that a painting of a pipe is not a pipe reminds his audience to think about what's really there on the canvas. In This Is Not a Novel, Writer invites his reader to consider all the fascinating details of things that can be packed onto a page. Isn't it interesting, for instance, that "Beethoven was left-handed," that "Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray"? Arranged with an emphatic beat that manages to highlight every line, these facts are among many that Writer has gathered in his explorations.
But Markson's method in these books doesn't just involve the collection of facts. Momentum remains as important as in his earlier work. As he abandons elements he considers distracting, he is still intent on "getting somewhere in spite of this." There will be a beginning, a middle and an end, he assures us—"even with a note of sadness at the end." He may be weary of inventing stories, but by arranging his discoveries in a sequence as he's doing, with carefully orchestrated echoes and returns, he is telling a story about one man's encounter with a world that he has experienced as entertaining, absurd, cruel, befuddling and ultimately so nourishing that the thought of leaving it is as unbearable as it is inevitable.
In The Last Novel, published by Shoemaker & Hoard three years before Markson was found dead in his apartment in Greenwich Village, the narrator signals with the title that the text we're reading, despite its load of facts, is fiction. He identifies himself as Novelist. As in the previous three books, the narrator is telling a story about his observations and interests. But whereas in Reader's Block the narrator is trying to figure out how to write a novel, here he announces that the book we're reading "is the last book Novelist is going to write."
Many of the concerns that surfaced in Reader's Block remain the same. The narrator continues to ponder information about the deaths of important figures, and he remains vexed by his own ill health. Old age is a recurring topic—"Dispraised, infirm, unfriended age. Sophocles calls it." He pays homage to artists and writers who were neglected or dismissed by their peers. His survey of the past includes quotes about the horrors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Civil War. But still there is a persistent strain of whimsy in the selections, with insults and absurdities offered up in equal measure. He tells us that Heraclitus judged the sun to be "as wide as a man's foot." He tells us that an early New York Times review called Degas "repulsive." He quotes John Updike's definition of critics: "Pigs at the pastry cart." And all the while, he is telling us about the invention of the fictional narrative he is writing.
Markson's final books have an astonishing fluidity despite their staccato rhythm. But what really sets them apart is the complex portrait of the fictional writer who lies at their center. There's no one like him elsewhere in literature. He is an old man who is trying to figure out what his life adds up to. He makes some disclosures about his struggles and ambition, but mostly he reveals himself in his selections, his syntax, the arrangement of quotations. His personality is immediately discernible yet continues to develop as he keeps on with his encyclopedic efforts. He has a dependable cohesiveness yet keeps us guessing about what he will come up with next. He is as hilarious as he is melancholy. He is cranky yet easily delighted. He has been brutally treated by the world, yet he can't stop loving it. He's dying, but he's not ready to die. There's so much he doesn't know, so much he wants to remember and admire. Time is running out for him, and he's trying to understand who he is before he's gone altogether. He is fading before our eyes. And yet over the course of these four books, the narrator manages to emerge as one of contemporary fiction's most vivid and enthralling characters—a Reader, Author, Writer, Novelist—with an essential story to tell.
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The past is full of examples of renegade writers who were overlooked in their time not only because their work didn't fit neatly into potted categories but also because they avoided the self-promotional efforts of their peers. Although Markson lived in New York City for many years, and his friends included Jack Kerouac, William Gaddis and Kurt Vonnegut, he kept a low profile in the literary world. Late in his life he received recognition in the form of an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he had many advocates among a wide range of fellow writers. David Foster Wallace called Wittgenstein's Mistress "a work of genius," and Ann Beattie described it as "original, beautiful, and an absolute masterpiece." But besides Amy Hempel's full and enthusiastic response to Wittgenstein's Mistress in The New York Times Book Review, critical attention was too often sparse and dismissive.
Markson composed a moving story about the struggles of a fictional writer who keeps working despite the indifference of the public. He may be old, tired, alone, broke and fatally sick at the end, but as long as he can discover other artists to admire, he doesn't lose heart. When he takes his final bow at the end of The Last Novel, he reminds himself, and us, "The old man who will not laugh is a fool."
Markson would be laughing now, I suspect, to see how his story has continued, and how the obscurity he experienced in life is transforming into something quite different after his death, thanks to a combination of his ingenuity, his methods and his generosity. Before he died, Markson directed that his personal library be sold back to the Strand, the used bookstore where he'd acquired most of his collection. He had inscribed his name on all his books and read with a pen in hand. A few lucky customers who happened to purchase books that Markson had owned discovered that they were filled with his fascinating annotations. Some of his comments have been posted online. Book collectors rushed to the Strand. On the London Review of Books blog, Alex Abramovich wrote in July about buying Markson's copies of Joyce, Balzac, Pater, Lao-tse, Tacitus and many others—twenty-seven books in all, for which he paid $262.81.
David Markson seems destined to become an increasingly important writer on the stage of late twentieth-century American literature. Newsweek recently described him as "one of the most pleasingly restrained and skillful" writers and "a postmodern giant." But he is even more than that: an artist of his time who has something to say to an audience beyond his time. How appropriate it is that his handwritten marginalia are spurring widespread interest, and that Markson is becoming known as a great writer because he was such a passionate reader.