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David Markson

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."

– David Foster Wallace

"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."

– William Kennedy

"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."

– Gordon Lish

"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."

– Ann Beattie

"Wittgenstein's Mistress is an original and haunting work. David Markson brilliantly demonstrates how art and memory can both heighten and leaven grief."

– Hilma Wolitzer

"Beautifully conceived. An irresistible, captivating book!"

– Walter Abish

"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."

– James McCourt

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Wittgenstein's Mistress

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.


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.

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  1. brian warfield said on 10/08/11 at 8:14 pm Reply

    i am kind of curious as to how well markson holds up over time. because reading a little of it is like “yeah this is awesome!” and then reading more of it is like “postmodern and i can dig it,” but reading a lot of it gets to be “is anything true or relevant, are our stories not actual narratives but merely chunks of info that gloss themselves over into a porridge of malaise.” which itself can be kind of cool and important. it’s not the destination it’s the journey kind of thing. but when you want to read an actual book, it’s not the thing.


    ydde said on 10/08/11 at 10:41 pm

    Man, love that last sentence there, Brian.

    –But when you want to read an actual book, it’s not the thing.–

    Something about that’s going to stick in my head all day. And I know exactly what you mean but I think many of my favorite books fall into that category. Narrative never seems as important to me as everything else, I guess. The books that stick with me most aren’t about getting Character A to Point X but are more a quagmire of thoughts, impressions, times, consciousnesses, lives, personalities, philosophies, and so on. That kind of all encompassing literature, where life, in all its strangeness, is recreated on the page. But not life in the Death of a Salesman way, but in a To the Lighthouse kind of way, if that makes sense, and maybe it doesn’t, and those are likely bad examples to set as poles of sorts. But I very much love those novels that really push what we think a novel can be or should be.

  2. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 10/09/11 at 5:47 am Reply

    It’s hard to say if Markson “holds up” for anybody else, but me (he does…FOR ME). There’s no way I can answer for personal preferences or how one might perceive a piece of art after some time passes. Hemingway, for example, doesn’t hold at all for me…yet when I was 15 and first read him, he was the saviour of the world. Fitzgerald, however, holds stronger than ever for me, now at age 42. I think as far as personal stories being relevant as narratives or just chunks of info: same thing. What does one do with experience? In this particular case, the narrator is slowly going insane, and so it’s become a mash up of information…but it’s working on Wittgenstein’s model, and Kate’s life–as it deteriorates before our eyes–becomes in the end that which Wittgenstein proposes in Tractatus. For me it’s hard to say at any particular point what I want a novel to do for me–I require different things at different times, and that’s the beauty of the gargantuan choice we have nowadays…and even the choice in medium–how do we want to ‘read’ this novel? Paper? Electronic form? Audiobook? At times, during long trips in the car, my wife even reads to me herself–an old-fashioned way, but definitely something more gets transmitted to me in her reading than an actor on an audiobook. But the more interesting issue is: what will cultural anthropologists do with all the information/personal narrative data we are currently leaving behind in the form of electronic information? (Facebook, Twitter, G+, Posterous, Tumblr, blogs, and whatever other platform will be developed in the future) Will it all be classified as just data/information? Or will someone put pieces together and catch a glimpse of…humanity at the turn of the 21st century?


    Brian Warfield said on 10/09/11 at 11:57 am

    i love the fact that there is more than one way to tell a story. and i think you’re right, alex, that form and content are perfectly married in this book. my first markson book was This is Not a Novel, and i absolutely ate it up. but the more books of his i read in which it seemed,to me, he was doing the same sort of thing, i kind of lost the twinkle.
    i also wonder what kind of book could be written ala markson in the future using the electronic resources you mentioned.

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