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."