One of America's great experimental writers died on June 4th in New York City, aged 82. Catherine Corman considers his legacy ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
No one is quite sure how to describe his novels, of which there are eight, in addition to a book of poetry, one of criticism and a few early "entertainments" (ie, crime novels). David Markson was not a typical storyteller. Each page of his fiction consists of ten or 15 paragraphs, each a sentence or two long, all of it discursive. Subjects include Anna Pavlova's last words, Michelangelo's discovery of the Laocoon, Queen Elizabeth I's translation of Boethius, the violets Mallarme brought to Verlaine's funeral, Baudelaire's prayer to Poe, Napoleon's attachment to the Mona Lisa at the Tuileries, and Shostakovich playing piano in a silent cinema house.
Despite the absence of plot and near absence of characters, we are transfixed. "The sentences proceed directly one from another," observed Amy Hempel in her review of "Wittgenstein's Mistress" (Dalkey Archive Press, 1988), perhaps Markson's best-known novel. His books move from thought to memory to historical moment in a way that feels familiar. Although this is not the way novels are typically structured, it is the way our minds work.
Perhaps an example would help:
During the thirty days grace between his conviction and the hemlock, Socrates memorized a long poem by Stesichorus.
I wish to die knowing one thing more.
Any and all public gatherings were prohibited in Venice during a plague in 1576. An edict that was unhesitatingly ignored at the death of Titian—so deserving was he felt to be of a state funeral.
Gainsborough, on his deathbed, to Joshua Reynolds: Goodbye till we meet in the hereafter—we and Van Dyck.
In his novel "Vanishing Point" (Counterpoint, 2004), Markson wrote, "Author had been scribbling the notes on three-by-five inch index cards. They now come close to filling two shoebox tops taped together end to end." When we read his novels, it can feel as if we are following his narrator's experience of reading, or re-reading, selections of what he found significant enough to copy onto notecards and place in a shoebox. (When Paul Maliszewski interviewed Markson for the literary journal n+1, he saw two shoebox lids filled with index cards, which Markson referred to as his next book. A few red cards indicated the appearance of the narrator.)
Ronald Christ, interviewing Jorge Luis Borges for the Paris Review, noticed that Borges "avoids personal statement as much as possible and obliquely answers questions about himself by talking of other writers, using their words and even their books as emblems of his own thought." Markson, who operated along similar lines, used a quote from Borges as an epigraph in his novel "Reader's Block": "First and foremost, I think of myself as a reader."
In Markson's work, reading and writing are hardly distinguishable. It is as if he had read the entire Western canon, and then presented us with his selections. For this reason, his books have earned a following among those who value old masters and modern artists, symbolist poets and classical dramatists, and who are similarly overwhelmed by the immensity of it all.
Bertrand Russell, rehaving contemplated suicide at sixteen:
I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more about mathematics. ("Reader's Block", Dalkey Archive Press, 1996)
Wittgenstein was similarly frustrated by the way readers expect an orderly explication of ideas, when his mind was naturally meandering and referential. The problem consumed him. "My thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them in any single direction against their natural inclination," he once wrote. Markson openly admitted to feeling so close to the man that he considered borrowing the numeric coding system of Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" for his own work.
Presenting us with beautiful, tragic, bleak, poetic and enigmatic moments culled from the entire history of art, Markson restrained from commenting. He pointed to an infinite diorama of Western culture without explaining the contents. He made no attempt to interpret, to master or to clarify. He refrained from offering plots or characters. Like Bartleby, his refusal increases our fascination, which is heightened by incomprehension.
In her New York Times review of "Vanishing Point", Emily Nussbaum mistakenly called the novel "Vanishing Act", which seems almost worthy of a line in a Markson novel. The review goes on to say that Markson's novels are "not for everyone, but perhaps they should be. It helps to love poetry."
This brings to mind two lines from Markson's last novel, called "The Last Novel" (Counterpoint, 2007).
He was greater than we thought.
Said Degas at the funeral of Manet.
Picture credit: ckaroli (via Flickr), Shoemaker & Hoard