I have to be honest and admit that I'm not a great fan of what is usually referred to as the "experimental" novel. I did manage to finish Ulysses but gave up on Finnegans Wake . Iíve never managed to complete a Samuel Beckett novel and, despite being interested in the Beats, Iíve always thought a little of William Burroughs goes a long way. I read Naked Lunch when it first appeared, smuggling a banned copy of the Olympia Press edition back from Paris around 1960, and usually took in the bits and pieces he published in little magazines. But as the novels poured out I lost interest and tended to think that the same things were being said too often. I had drinks with B.S. Johnson a few times and liked him but most of his books left me cold. John Barth I tried but couldn't take to, and as for William Gaddis, I sat down one gloomy Christmas a few years ago and forced myself to work through the thousand or so pages of The Recognitions. That word "work" was the operative one, the experience hardly counting as a pleasure. The following Christmas I went back to my annual rereading of New Grub Street
So, I was surprised when I picked up several novels by David Markson and thoroughly enjoyed them. They are firmly in a tradition that derives from James Joyce, with a love of wordplay, puns, asides, literary and other references, and general allusions to a wide range of subjects. Iíll say a few words about each of the books I read in a moment or or two, but it may be useful to first of all give a brief outline of David Marksonís career.
He was born in 1927 in Albany, New York, his father being a newspaper editor and his mother a teacher. Markson worked as a journalist between 1944 and 1950, apart from two years spent in the army, and then had jobs as an editor for pulp paperback publishers like Dell and Lion. He also studied at Columbia University and produced a dissertation on Malcolm Lowry, author of Under The Volcano. Markson then freelanced and spent time in Mexico, Spain, Italy, and England. He wrote several crime novels, the first of which, Epitaph for a Tramp, had a blurb describing him as a "logger, distance runner, book editor, die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, magazine writer, poker player, holder of a Master's degree and observer of the Greenwich Village scene." This book and another, Epitaph for a Dead Beat, exploited a somewhat exaggerated view of Greenwich Village as full of oddballs, con-men, crooks, good-time girls, junkies, jazz musicians, would-be artists, one-time writers, and a few genuine creative types. A third crime novel, Miss Doll Go Home, featured an expatriate community in Mexico and again focused on the failures and misfits. But these books were entertaining, at least, and Markson did aim for a reasonable standard and threw in references to all kinds of writers and painters and musicians, induding Thomas Mann, Wagner, Charlie Parker, Keats, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Charlie Christian, Picasso, Berlioz, and Bach. Even Maxwell Bodenheim, the old Bohemian, was mentioned, as were Sacco and Vanzetti, the two anarchists tried and executed in the Twenties. Iím not making any great claims for these books. They were designed for the paperback market and Markson himself, when listing his publications, described them as "entertainment to distinguish them from his other novels.
His other novels included The Ballad of Dingus Magee, described as an "anecdotal parody" of a western and later made into the film, Dirty Dingus Magee, and Going Down, set In Mexico but taking a more serious look at American expatriates than was evident in Miss Doll, Go Home. But it was the publication of Springer's Progress1977 which perhaps suggested that Markson was formulating a new strategy for the novel, Referred to by Seymour Krim as "the most honest and stunning Greenwich Village novel of my time," the book follows the adventures of Springer, a hard-drinking writer who has run up against a writer's block. As equally fond of women as he is of vodka, Springer fights shy of long-term affairs , preferring instead to move on when things begin to look too serious. That way he can continue to keep his marriage together. It works well until he meets Jessica, who is young, talented, and able to spur him on to new achievements or so he hopes. He pursues Jessica, placates his wife, and mourns an old flame who passes away as the novel progresses. Itís hardly an original story but what holds it together is the sheer drive of the writing. Page after page is full of wordplay, sometimes in the narrative, sometimes in the speech of the protagonists. Springer is a fund of anecdotes about writers and painters, with moments in his life bringing to mind material he has read or seen or heard. As someone once pointed out, all Markson's characters view the world "through the lenses of culture" so that to see castles in La Mancha is to be put in mind of Don Quixote. And the references to authors and artists pour out of Springer's thoughts and words as he reflects on the joys and miseries, especially the miseries, of the creative life: "Mozart was buried in an unmarked grave. ....Maupassant, insane, ate his own excrement..... Rembrandt's possessions were auctioned at bankruptcy...... " and so on.
There's a whole section which simply quotes the opening lines of a variety of novels and stories: "Robert Cohn was once middle-weight boxing champion of Princeton.,...Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and having nothing to do..... The seat on which Dobbs was sitting was a thoroughly bad one." Anyone genuinely interested in literature will delight at these lists, none of which are incongruous or irrelevant, but all of which are entertaining in themselves.
Markson was quoted as saying, "I am more interested in the subtle, the oblique, the allusive. My next novel will contain virtually no action whatsoever," and if the cataloguing of facts and anecdotes was an integral part of Springer's Progress, then in his next book, Wittgenstein's Mistress, it becomes the story itself. This novel is sometimes called Markson's "masterpiece", and it has aroused a great deal of favourable comment over the years. But there's a story behind it which is worth repeating, if only as a lesson to aspiring authors and as a comment on the vagaries of publishing. Markson was asked in an interview about the initial responses when he first tried to interest publishers in the book, and he replied that it may well hold the record for the number of rejections it received, which amounted to fifty-four. He added that being rejected that often was bad enough but that the publishers frequently told him.. that the book was brilliant, years ahead of its time, a work of genius, and so on, but that they'd never get it past the salespeople who now control editorial decisions. The book floated around for a few years and was finally sent to a small press, Dalkey Archive, who took a chance with it and went through two hardback printings and several more in paperback They also sold it for publication in Britain and in translation in Spain and France
It may well be that Wittgenstein's Mistress is a case of ďThese fragments I have shored against my ruins," and if so it's none the worse for it. The "story" is that of a woman, Kate, who believes she is the only person left on earth. We can guess that, from our point of view, she is mad and that may be true but as the book develops it's hard not to sympathise, even empathise, with her. She looks back on the past, reflects on the present and, as it has been described, "unloads the intellectual baggage of a lifetime in a series of irreverent meditations on everything and everybody from Brahms to sex to Heidegger to Helen of Troy," And it's all done with the kind of flair and wit evident in Springer's Progress. It needs to be noted that aithough the novel is packed with references and quotations they are not necessarily always totally accurate, deliberately so. There are reasons for this and I can do no better than quote Steven Moore on the subject:
The third book I want to consider, and the latest by Markson that Iíve read, is Reader's Block. A man is thinking about writing a novel and his mind runs riot with what could be seen as a two hundred page list of notes relating to writers, artists, historical figures and others, with sometimes the notes becoming a kind of commentary on life: 'The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time ," according to Einstein, and "Literate people who can spend hours in one's home without a single glance at the titles on the bookshelves," which isn't credited to anyone and is, presumably a reflection on the part of the author. There are notes that "Yeats could never finish reading UlyssesĒ and that Benjamin Jowett "said he read Pickwick Papers at least twice every year," as well as statements about Kant, "who knew no music. And said that reading novels diluted the mind" and John Berryman, who thought that " Rilke was a Jerk." It's a great temptation to carry on with more selections from Reader's Block ("Botticelli, who never married, once dreamed he had. And walked the streets of Florence until dawn, to keep from dreaming it again.") but Iíll restrain myself. It may be true that the book is another example of shoring fragments against the ruins, though the intention in this case is different than in that of Wittgenstein's Mistress, where the fictional character could get the fragments wrong. Or so I assume. The main point is that when I first came across Reader's Block I thought it one of the most stimulating novels Iíd read in years. But is it a novel? Who cares? It is wonderful to read and much more interesting (a key factor when considering any book, as far as I'm concerned) than most novels, experimental or otherwise.
I think that what Markson's books demonstrate is a belief in the value of culture and the worth of books and painting and music. They expect of the reader a great deal of attention, an awareness of artistic and literary history, and a willingness to go to other books for information if the reader doesn't already have it. They are, in other words, not designed for a dumbed-down age. They require the reader to have a range of references in his or her head that takes in more than the latest game show on TV or the newest media star or the most recent personality hailed by the daily papers. With this in mind you can look at the story of how Wittgenstein's Mistress was rejected fifty-four times in two ways. It either indicates how dumbed-down we are or its success when finally published suggests that there are more people who want more than the TV and newspapers can provide than we think. They just need to be reached, that's all. And I think that Markson's books remind us of the "moral obligation to be intelligent," a phrase Iíve taken from the title of a recent collection of essays by the late Lionel Trilling. It seems to me apt to use it here.
I can understand that objections could be raised about the novels which appear to do little more than assemble a range of facts, anecdotes, and other seeming odds and ends. Some people might say that itís surely the writer's responsibility to shape these materials and incorporate them into an acceptably coherent framework. But Markson has done that, of course, when he chose which facts and anecdotes to use and in which order to arrange them. His system is not simply haphazard. In some ways, and Markson might well disagree on this, I'm reminded of Walter Benjaminís great, if unfinished, Arcades Project, and a recent review of the English translation of this work in The New York Review of Books gave me a couple of useful quotes that could well be applied to Markson. The reviewer, interpreting Benjaminís intentions, said: "If the mosaic of quotations is built up correctly, a pattern should emerge, a pattern that is more than the sum of its parts but cannot exist independently of them." And to emphasise what Benjamin was doing: "The great innovation of the Arcades Project would be its form. It would work on the principal of montage, juxtaposing textual fragments from past and present in the expectation that they would strike sparks from and illuminate each other." I acknowledge that Markson no doubt differed in his intentions, but both comments Iíve quoted appear to me to be relevant in his case, as well as in Benjamin's, especially so with regard to Reader's Block. Iíve tried to give an idea of what I think David Markson is doing in his writing, or at least the three books Iíve looked at in some detail. His work ought to be better known , and not only because of the intelligence it represents and the ambition it aims for. It is, in addition, a sheer pleasure to read, something too often forgotten when writing is discussed.
Springer's Progress (1990), Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), and Readerís Block (1996), were all published by
Dalkey Archive Press and are still available. Springerís Progress was originally published by Holt, Rhinehart, Winston in 1977.
It may be of interest to note that Markson's Collected Poems was also published by Dalkey Archive Press in 1993. A slim volume, it shows him to be a fairly conventional practitioner of what could best be described as light verse. He obviously feels no need to experiment in verse and remarks that he "would appear not to have been paying attention when they abolished iambics."
The review of Walter Benjamin referred to, which is worth reading for its own sake, was by J.M.Coetzee and appeared under the title, The Marvels of Walter Benjamin in The New York Review of Books dated January11th, 2001.