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On David Markson

Kicking off a weeklong celebration of old content some our favorite staff contributions to the magazine over the years, we revisit Rob Spillman’s slice of David Markson, which originally ran in our 10th Anniversary issue

David Markson is going down fighting, and he’s not giving an inch to convention, zeitgeist, or potential sales. Born in 1927, Markson found success early with a series of genre novels; it helped that he was friends with Malcolm Lowry (about whom he wrote his Columbia dissertation, in 1952), Dylan Thomas, Conrad Aiken, and Jack Kerouac. One of his early novels,  The Ballad of Dingus Magee,  a parody of a Western, was turned into a mostly forgettable movie starring Frank Sinatra. At the time it would have been hard to imagine that his prose style would evolve, à la Mondrian, from crowd-pleasing genre fiction to spare, postmodern blocks of text, first with Springer’s Progress, a nasty little novel about a middle-aged novelist, then to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, an apocalyptic meta-novel featuring one- or two-sentence thought blasts, a book that David Foster Wallace called “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country” and upon which Markson could have built a po-mo empire. Instead, he refined his pointillism into a quartet of “novels,” Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel, which feature a near total abandonment of narrative.

Published in paperback by three small presses (god bless you Counterpoint, Dalkey Archive, and Shoemaker & Hoard), each of these end-game novels is made up of one- or two-sentence blocks regarding various intellectual subjects, including:

•Facts about famous writers and artists—“Berlioz read every Fenimore Cooper novel as quickly as it appeared. And admitted that fully four hours after he finished The Prairie he was weeping over the death of Natty Bumppo.”

•Anti-Semitism—“Knut Hamsun was an anti-Semite. And was so blatantly sympathetic with the Germans in both world wars that thousands of Norwegians mailed him back copies of his novels in contempt.”

•The nature of narrative—“Stories happen only to people who know how to tell them. Said Thucydides.”

•The Classics—“Andromache. Alcestis. Helen. Medea. The Bacchae. Each of which Euripides ends with his chorus speaking an identical verse—to the effect that the ways of the gods are unpredictable.”

•Big ideas, mainly in the form of unattributed quotes, many of which are not in English—“Dormir nonchalamment à l’ombre de ses seins.”

•Morality—“I am become death, the shatterer of worlds. Recited J. Robert Oppenheimer from the Bhagavad-Gita at Alamogordo.”

•And, always, the starving artist and his legacy—“Raphael, Caravaggio, Watteau, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec each died at thirty-seven.”

•With occasional nods to the “author” and “reader”—“Should he give him children, if he is still being autobiographical?”

Reading these novels is like spending hours with a crazy uncle who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every book ever written, every painting ever painted, and every piece of music ever composed. And who disgorges bits of knowledge in an endless, unfathomable pattern. And yet! Yet, somehow, Markson spins this erudition and intelligence into self-conscious webs, narratives without narratives, micro-poems that miraculously accrue and cohere into meditations on the creative life, art, and intellectualism.

What emerges is a portrait of sickly, lonely, deviant genius, with “nothing now, but my books.” These novels are a remarkable achievement, what should be required reading for anyone aspiring to create.

Here is how Reader’s Block ends:

 And Reader? And Reader?

In the end one experiences only one’s self.

Said Nietzsche.

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

Wastebasket.

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