When I was in my senior year at the University of New Hampshire, having just transferred there from New York University, the library was under a massive renovation that caused most of the books to be locked in storage and only a tiny percentage to be on temporary shelves in a little building at the far end of campus. At the time, this seemed to me a perfect metaphor for my life and aspirations. (I was fond, then, of quoting a line from Harry Kondoleon's play Zero Positive: "I used to have desires, dreams, the usual things, they got so banged up and hard to look at I took them out one afternoon and shot them.") One day, I was looking at the few shelves of contemporary U.S. writers, and there was book called Reader's Block. I liked the title. I flipped through the pages. "What is this?" I thought.
Protagonist living near a disused cemetery, perhaps?I flipped pages...
A sense somehow of total retreat? Abandonment?
Albert Camus' father was killed in the Battle of the Marne when Camus was only months old. His mother was an illiterate charwoman.
Once, at dinner, with great delicacy Brahms told Tchaikovsky that he did not approve of his work.
With equal delicacy Tchaikovsky told Brahms that he did not approve of his.
Tacitus was an anti-Semite.I was entranced. From an early age, I've loved random facts about artists. I've only read a few biographies cover-to-cover, but it's a rare month that I'm not reading around in some biography or another of a writer, painter, musician, filmmaker, etc. (The habit began when I was young and thought writers' lives would contain the Secret Secret of Writing, and if I just learned enough about the writers, I'd learn how to write.) I imagined David Markson, the writer of Reader's Block, was only a few years older than me, probably the product of a "good education", and thus crammed full of random facts and factoids.
How would the woman have lost her leg?
Does Reader remember with any certainty which leg it was?
Was Santorin also the origin of the Atlantis myth?
In Walter Scott's The Antiquary, there are two Tuesdays in one week.
And the sun once sets in the east.
Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief.
The name of the slough was Despond.
Blake was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.
For six years, in his twenties, Edward Elgar conducted a band in a lunatic asylum.
I checked the book out of the library and my memory is that I kept having to renew it, because I just couldn't let it away from me. The book bothered me in the best sense of that word -- I couldn't stop reading and rereading it, but at the same time I couldn't bring myself to admit how great it was, what a hold it had on me. I kept telling myself the technique was too easy, that it wasn't any way to write a novel, that it was a trick, a gimmick, not Serious Art. And I was all about Serious Art in those years.
I was too young and inexperienced both as a reader and a writer to really know how extraordinary Reader's Block is as a book, and I was too invested in the idea of Serious Art as hard work to recognize that the effort to create or to understand a piece of art isn't what matters, and it certainly doesn't guarantee wisdom, beauty, or any of the other high-falutin' concepts devotees of Serious Art so venerate. But I'm a New Englander, and the Protestant Work Ethic is at the core of our being, and anything lacking clear evidence of sweat and toil is suspect (it may be the Protestant Work Ethic, but we're Puritans at heart. I live in the town where Nathaniel Hawthorne died.)
I was also too young and inexperienced to trust my response to Reader's Block, a book that mesmerized and obsessed me. I didn't know then what skill it takes to make the unrandom seem random while slowly unfurling its structure and shape. I let my feeling that the form was too light blind me to the fact that this book spoke to me in a way few ever have, and that it contained extraordinary wisdom -- wisdom I needed, wisdom I benefitted from.
It was too bad Markson hadn't yet written This is Not a Novel, one of my favorites of his works. It begins:
Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.That was me in my senior year of college, burnt out from three years of working hard to try to become a Great Playwright. Reader's Block so captivated me at the time because it spoke directly to all the paradoxes and discontents that come to someone who cares about reading and writing. Or so it seems to me. Perhaps it's just that the book shares some of my neuroses. Perhaps the book created some of my neuroses...
Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.
A few years after my year at UNH, more experienced and more content, I came upon Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress. I was intrigued by the description on the back: "Wittgenstein's Mistress is a novel unlike anything David Markson -- or anyone else -- has ever written before. It is the story of a woman who is convinced -- and, astonishingly, will ultimately convince the reader as well -- that she is the only person left on earth. Presumably, she is mad."
Again, I couldn't stop reading it. But it was a different experience from Reader's Block. It does what I so enjoy in fiction: delves deeply into a representation of consciousness. It's full of references to writers and artists, but it's a different sort of technique from Reader's Block and the novels that followed -- less collage than stream of consciousness. It's funny and strange, and then at the end it's emotionally devastating.
And that's the genius of Markson -- indeed, the uniqueness of Markson. The effect of his novels from Wittgenstein's Mistress on is slyly, brilliantly accumulative. The text plants thousands of tiny boobytraps in your brain, none of them particularly powerful on their own, and then in the last pages, they all go off.
I would probably not be lying if I said Wittgenstein's Mistress contains the single most powerful last line of any novel I've read.
I would probably not be lying if I said that This is Not a Novel contains the single most powerful surprise sentence in a novel I've ever read.
There are people to whom I have almost said, "If you die without reading Wittgenstein's Mistress, you will have lived a wasted life." Hyperbole, of course, but the impulse was an honest one.
David Markson's last novel was called The Last Novel.
The last chapter of David Markson's novel Springer's Progress consists of two words: