The writer’s writer
In a publishing world ruled by chick lit, bestsellers and prize winners, David Markson offers a welcome return to avant-garde literature.
I open and read randomly from David Markson’s book, Reader’s Block. On page 2, I read: “Emily Dickinson became so extravagantly reclusive in the second half of her life that for the last ten years she did not once leave her house.” On page 30: “After fasting to a point of starvation, Gogol died in a religious delirium.” On page 88: “Keats wrote the four great odes in a month.” Markson’s book is made up of hundreds of literary and cultural anecdotes and yet it is a novel, not a literary list. It’s quietly ambitious: in a publishing world ruled by chick lit, bestsellers and literary prize winners, Markson offers a welcome return to avant-garde literature.
Twenty per cent of his novels contain the hero’s own jottings, the rest eighty percent are surprising facts about the isolation, despair and suicides of writers, musicians and thinkers in a discontinuous, non-linear, collage-like form. Much of his fiction looks at characters on the verge of madness, or after some great loss. The unnamed hero of his books is an aging writer working on a novel that seems stuck in his mind. In trying to think and write, the lives of other artistes crowd his consciousness and he notes them in the form of quotations, intellectual allusions and scholarly curiosities. All this is the residue of a lifetime’s reading. But is that all the hero of this book can now offer-his reading? Or will he, by the end of these numerous obscure literary factoids, conjure up a novel?
Out of all this incontestably fascinating material — the madness, calamity and the suicide of many writers — emerges an emotionally wrenching novel. In the end, it is a book about artistic struggle, melancholy, loss, loneliness, poverty, ageing and death. David Markson has been publishing since the late 1960s but his experimental, minimalist fiction didn’t catch on until 2007 when The New York magazine published an article called “The Best Novels You’ve Never Read” where several contemporary critics chose their favourite underrated or overlooked writer of the last 10 years. The highest votes went to David Markson.
‘David who?’ was the response of most readers who were hearing the name for the first time. His most recent work, The Last Novel was on most critics and novelists list for the best book of 2007. For bringing back avant-garde fiction, he received from the American Academy of Arts and Letters an award with the citation “for outstanding achievement in literature.” With renewed fame, offers have come from publishers to reissue backlists of Markson’s work- most recently a pack of two detective novels he wrote early in his career.
His 1970 book Going Down, rejected 54 times by publishers, is now being rediscovered. The narrative form he adapted in Reader’s Block (1996) — remarkable, obscure facts about artistes and philosophers in short paragraphs — is taken further in This is Not a Novel (2001), Vanishing Point (2004) and concludes with The Last Novel. His most admired work outside of this loose quartet is Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
He still works out of a typewriter and possesses no computer. What this tells us is, of course, that his encyclopaedic knowledge of literary references comes from his prodigious reading and study — not from Google. He has books from floor to ceiling in three rooms, possibly 2500 in each, and most of them heavily annotated in the margins. He uses index cards to store these intellectual odd and ends.
In his second work, the character called Reader becomes Writer and then Author and finally, Novelist. David Markson calls his style ‘personal genre’ and feels it is his invention. He also calls what he does ‘semi-nonfictional semi-fiction’. The protagonist in The Last Novel notes, “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke. All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write... Which is to say, writing in his own personal genre as... it were.”
Pared down style
In an interview, the author said what he was after with this pared down style is “poetic structure…a kind of aesthetic balance.” Markson calls his work “novels of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.” In one of the books, the hero declares his intentions: “A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever .../And with no characters. None .../Plotless. Characterless/Yet seducing the reader into turning the pages nonetheless .../with a beginning, a middle and an end/Even with a note of sadness at the end.”
In The Last Novel, two other such personal entries are: “Moments in which Novelist does something like leaving his desk to retrieve a book from across the room — and finding himself staring vacantly into his refrigerator…Nobody comes, nobody calls —/Which Novelist after a moment realises may sound like a line of Beckett’s, but is actually something he himself has said in an earlier book.”
Alongside such notes from Markson, he includes literary gossip of a strange kind, such as; “Curiously impressed by the fact that Auden paid everyone of his bills — electric, phone, whatever — on the same day that it arrived”. “Picasso made Gertrude Stein sit more than 80 times for her portrait. And then painted out the head and redid it three months later without having seen her again”. “Pablo Casals began each day for more than 70 years by playing Bach”. “Gray’s Elegy is 128 lines long. Gray spent seven years writing it”. “If forced to choose, Giacometti once said, he would rescue a cat from a burning building before a Rembrandt”. “Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall”. These facts take on a rhythm of their own, and interspersed with the sad ruminations of the narrator they take us into the body and soul of the modern artist in an original, illumining style.
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