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David Markson

David Markson is the author of eight novels including Springer’s Progress, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and Reader’s Block. He died of heart failure at his home in Greenwich Village in 2010.

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"A book often dreamed about by the avant-garde but never seen…utterly fascinating”

– Publisher’s Weekly

“No one but Beckett can be quite as sad and funny at the same time as Markson can.”

– Ann Beattie

“One of the most original novels of its time. . . unputdownable."

– American Book Review

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Reader's Block

The Last Novelist

06/05/12

I am considering abandoning this review of David Markson’s "Notecard Quartet."

It’s rare that I get to review a book I would much rather just hand you, rarer still I’d have to hand it off while admitting, I have no idea why this works, it should fall apart, but it’s beautiful. As a writer, I need to understand how fiction is made, so I can steal from it. And as a critic, I need to intellectualize and make myself feel superior to the text, especially a text I admire, by being able to say, I see what you did there. So when a book comes along — in this case, four of them — that seems to’ve invented its own reason to exist, its own set of rules, and that seems so simply conceived and executed you wonder why no one has done it before, even as you realize that the work is inimitable, the result is a kind of ecstasy, a simultaneous lifting of spirit and sublimation of the skeptical mind that would tell you, This shouldn’t succeed, and of course you can’t explain ecstasy to anyone who hasn’t felt it for themselves without looking like a madman from the mountaintop.

Nevertheless, that’s where we are with Markson’s Reader’s Block This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel — a quartet arranged as a series of seemingly disconnected facts, anecdotes, and minutiae on famous artists’ lives, their financial troubles, their affairs and illegitimate children. Biographical notes, unattributed quotations, literary allusions. Philosophy, history, metaphysics. Stays in debtor’s prisons, hospitals, madhouses.

And artists’ deaths. Let’s not forget that. Lots and lots of artists’ deaths.

These facts or vignettes, culled from the pages of Markson’s extensive personal library — in notes and checkmarks, scribbled questions and underlined quotations, talkback — he would copy onto index cards which he kept in shoebox tops, and when he’d filled a certain number of these, he had a new manuscript.

And why do I say arranged, several lines up, instead of structured?

Dinnerplates are arranged.  Wooden blocks are arranged.  Novels are structured.

Are these not novels?

Of course they are, though I’m not certain I can tell you why.

Emily Dickinson’s refusal to sit for a photographer.

Kant almost certainly died a virgin.

Sure I posed.  I was hungry.

William Faulkner once allowed himself to be interviewed on radio during a University of Virginia football game.

And was introduced as the winner of the Mobil Prize.

Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray.

The above excerpts, just to illustrate, have been pulled from not one but all four of the books, and put together via good old cut and paste. Or, not “good old” cut and paste, which would imply scissors and glue, which is how Markson would have managed — working on a typewriter up to his death in the untypewriterly year 2010, copying vignettes onto index cards longhand, marginalia from the actual margins of actual books, rather than a simple search of the Google. Upon Markson’s death this personal library, half-marked with annotations toward a fifth notecard novel, was donated to his beloved Strand bookstore, a purveyor of new and used books.

Which promptly put the books out on the shelves, among the other used books, and sold them off, one slashed coverprice at a time. [1]

How Marksonian.

Salvador Dali’s perception of Jackson Pollock. Fish soup.

Roland Barthes died after being hit by a laundry truck.

Nobody comes. Nobody calls.

My music is best understood by children and animals.

Said Stravinsky.

Thomas Mann’s definition of a writer.  Someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

The likelihood that Anne Hathaway could not read.

How these books take on a form and subject which don’t automatically scream novel at all, prompting Reviewer to consider such questionably non-specific terms as novelness — i.e., “the essential novelness of these books” — which I admit makes my eyes roll back in my head and I’m the one who typed it. Fiction or non-fiction? Personal essay? Lyric essay? No characters, no plot, yet clearly novels, because they evoke that feeling within me. Only, made up of non-fiction . . . and I don’t mean in the sense of the “non-fiction novel,” a term hardly anyone uses anymore, and which I suspect was invented just so Norman Mailer could refer to himself in the third person.

Prepared to re-abandon this review upon typing novelness.

Adding novelness to my laptop dictionary with shame.

How Markson’s life and work seem inseparable here, a fallacy of some sort, one would think, with his narrator someone the reader associates with the never-named character of David Markson, though the narrator is never called that, and is actually referred to differently in each book — in Reader’s Block, Reader; in This Is Not a Novel, Writer; in Vanishing Point, Author; The Last Novel, Novelist. But it is undeniably narrator-as-Markson, or the reverse, even in the narrator’s attempt to find a form that would give us the very book we hold in our hands, and which places the narrator’s artistic trials within the context of those famous artists' struggles which make up the text. Almost as if the whole of art were a single continuous unbroken act, the drive toward creation, of finding a new way to say it, passed on from previous generations back to the beginning of art, passed on to us, and then by us to the next . . . and, at a precise moment within the continuum, aware of it and taking a long look around, Markson’s quartet. But these books also suggest and exemplify how art need not be bound within tradition to be part of it, needs no proscribed form or approval, no recognition or monetary award (the anecdotes bear this out faithfully, bleakly) nor any more justification to exist than the simple fact that it exists.

As in:

Writer is sick unto death of making up stories.

A lament of Schopenhauer’s:

Over how frequently the mere purchase of a book is mistaken for the appropriation of its contents.

A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to conceive.

Raymond Chandler lived with his mother until her death when he was thirty-five. And then almost immediately married a woman seventeen years older than he was.

Plotless. Characterless.

This is even an epic poem, if Writer says so.

Requiring no one’s corroboration.

What is a novel, anyway?

What makes Markson’s “Notecard Quartet” remarkable as a work of experimental fiction is not that it points to novelistic conventions in order to “free” the novel of them, the approach of countless well-intentioned and ultimately antiseptic literary exercises. There is no linear (or nonlinear) sequence of events to exploit with a wink-nudge because there is no novelistic time employed at all, no events that would require such sequencing. The novels don’t merely attempt to reveal their own construction while being constructed, pointing to the trap doors or mirrors or invisible wires that make the trick work, never mind that looking at invisible wires is about as thrilling as looking at an invisible naked person.

Instead Markson frees the novel of its conventions by freeing the novel of its conventions. And the voila of the trick is in the revelation that a novel is less about what it’s made up of than about its particular effect upon a reader (which the conventions only exist, really, to produce) — the rise and fall of emotion, the continual rise, release, and re-rise of tension, moments sped up or sped past and moments where the reader stops to consider the relationship of what she’s just read to her own experience. These are novels in no easily definable sense except that they’re experienced as if they are, they linger in your imagination as if they are, and they reveal a deep resonance, as all good novels do, between the lives explored on the page and our own.


[1]  The wonderful website Reading Markson Reading — which popularized the term “Notecard Quartet,” sparing us the alien-sounding tetralogy — has set itself a mission of finding, scanning, and sharing annotated pages from Markson’s sold-off book collection, and offering insightful commentary along the way. Well worth your time.

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