A Passionate Reader: On David Markson

A Passionate Reader: On David Markson

Remembering David Markson (1927–2010), whose playful novels pushed storytelling to the edge of understanding.


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.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

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