David Markson wrote This is Not a Novel, Springer's Progress, and Wittgenstein's Mistress. His final book, The Last Novel, was published in 2007. Markson died in 2010.
"A work of genius . . . an erudite, breathtakingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal and whose voice rivets and whose conclusion defies you not to cry."
"Provocative, learned, wacko, brilliant, and extravagantly comic. This is a nonesuch novel, a formidable work of art by a writer who kicks tradition out the window, then kicks the window out the window, letting a splendid new light into the room."
"In a just world, Wittgenstein's Mistress would be offered notice on the cover of the New York Review of Books. Let good readers therefore come and make up the difference."
"I can't think of the last time I held my breath when I read a book, waiting for the author to make one slip. Markson is as precise and dazzling as Joyce. His wit and awesome power of observation make this fictional world utterly convincing. I couldn't put this book down. I can't forget it. While Markson himself would deplore the use of a cliché, all I can say is that this book is original, beautiful, and an absolute masterpiece. Anyone who reads it can't think about the world the same way."
"Wittgenstein's Mistress is an original and haunting work. David Markson brilliantly demonstrates how art and memory can both heighten and leaven grief."
"Beautifully conceived. An irresistible, captivating book!"
"Beautifully realized. Initially as hypnotically calming as an afternoon snowfall, then, by stages as menacing and yet thrilling as a nocturnal blizzard. This is Markson in the post-Beckett Gaddis country, staking his own claim, in a territory nobody else has the courage or the strength to inhabit and survive in."
One of the most famous Kōans goes something like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Before you get all worked up and run to the Zen section of your newly-purchased IKEA bookshelf (dare I say, that is one handsome bibliopegy!), relax: Bart Simpson has already figured it out. But now dig this: what is the sound of the last human being left on earth, slowly going insane? Or, rather, what do her thoughts sound like in our heads?
David Markson shows us in Wittgenstein’s Mistress in the form of quick, shifting, one-sentence paragraphs, which Kate, our singular, lone remaining animal on this planet, furiously types out in a beach house on Long Island. Kate’s musings are all over the maps of Western history, arts, and the physical world itself. The novel’s inspiration comes from Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus,” a series of short propositions presented in a logical sequence, culminating in the final decree: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”
Pretty heavy, yeah? But don’t despair; Markson gives Kate -- a one-time artist -- this magnificent ability to jumble information about places, people, works of art, into dozens of strange, wonderful, laugh-out-loud amalgams; a brilliant, historical mash-up one almost wishes were visual; worthy of residing eternally within YouTube annals.
For example, there’s the Candid Camera-like story that Rembrandt’s students sheepishly painted images of gold coins on his studio floor, which the Maestro would stoop to pick up no matter how often the trick was repeated. This line of thought continues with Rembrandt’s eventual financial bankruptcy. Kate then riffs off these two anecdotes with the fact that Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam as a contemporary of the philosopher Spinoza, to produce an imagined conversation between the two famous men in a retail establishment: “Oh . . . hi Rembrandt, how’s the bankruptcy going?” “Fine, Spinoza. How’s the excommunication?”
See, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily new; for example, I’ve often imagined a scenario in which Johann Sebastian Bach coincidentally meets up with Sebastian Bach, lead singer of Skid Row, in a roadside diner outside Tucumcari, New Mexico -- both men road tripping through the United States in search of those melancholic times when Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady sped down Route 66, lighting joints and wreaking general havoc.
Only Markson is a brilliant writer who masterfully weaves this barrage of philosophical references and European history into truly funny scenarios, while I . . . have a day job. By the novel’s end, Markson elegantly presents Kate’s immersion in a world that is the embodiment of Wittgenstein’s final proposition.
Reading this novel, you get the feeling this is what Ozzy Osbourne might have documented as “going off the rails in a Crazy Train,” had Sharon advised him to go to University and get an English Literature degree. I know, it’s not fair to the great Oz, but coincidentally he himself is going through his personal version of decay and deterioration. It’s just that his answer involves coloring children’s books whilst mumbling something about a beef burrito at Chipotle.