Sunday, November 11, 2018

Discovering David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress and "The Notecard Quartet"

Somebody is living on this beach.
- Wittgenstein's Mistress, p. 240

Quelqu'un vit sur cette plage.
[Somebody is living on this beach, French]

Alguien vive en este playa.
[Somebody is living on this beach, Spanish]
- Reader's Block, p. 178


My reading recently has quickly ricochet'd through the later works of author David Markson, catapulting from Reader's Block (1996) through This Is Not a Novel (2001) into Vanishing Point (2004) on the way to The Last Novel (2007). My binge through this tetrad of experimental novels known as "The Notecard Quartet," styled as meandering strands of loosely linked bits of art historical data written as terse one or two line paragraphs (and originally composed by Markson on index cards), this began on the strength of persistent hints from my Santa Cruz pals Charlie and Luke to read Markson's postmodern masterpiece Wittgenstein's Mistress. My copy of that novel was acquired in Austin a couple years back when I happened to be at a bookstore with Charlie and Luke and they both suggested I'd dig it. They were on point. During a recent trip to Santa Cruz and the San Fran area I finally cracked open Wittgenstein's Mistress and zipped thru it enthralled. The impact of jutting single line paragraphs presenting one mental nugget after another over and over becomes a compulsive reading experience, oddly addictive. Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt compared it to a nutritional snack food for the mind.

To compose an impactful page turner out of a staccato of epigrams and ephemera with no chapters or conventional story elements was Markson's stated goal and manifested gift, repeatedly achieved over the latter stage of his career. After starting out publishing a handful of pulp western and noir novels in the 1960s including The Ballad of Dingus Magee which became a film starring Frank Sinatra, David Markson eventually began to move toward more experimental and original uses of the written word. In the mid-1980s he wrote Wittgenstein's Mistress, a story consisting of the interlinked mental fragments of a narrator known as Kate who seems to be the last person alive on earth. Persevering through 54 (!!!) rejections from publishers who found it either too unconventional or unfit to sell, Markson finally got Wittgenstein's Mistress published in 1988 by Dalkey Archive Press, thanks to the brilliant Steven Moore. The book garnered some laudatory reviews, most notably from David Foster Wallace who described it as "pretty much the high point of experimental literature in this country."



Markson's novel presents the ostensible sole post-apocalyptic survivor Kate, writing on a typewriter, detailing her experiences across the globe in famous spots that have become ghost towns, trying to keep an inventory of the vast heap of knowledge and memories she's collected over the course of her life, to preserve whatever she can through writing this unbroken stream-of-consciousness journal. One gets the sense that her mind is fading, she admits having gone thru a period of madness, and thus we can't fully trust her as a narrator as she skips along through memories and misremembered or half-remembered minutia and facts about art and philosophy and literature and history.

She's living in an abandoned house on a beach, leaving signs and messages nearby to alert any other souls to her presence. She comes across as a resilient post-apocalyptic survivor who's been through a lot while also taking advantage of her situation, spending time living in famous museums around the world, even placing her own paintings alongside Renaissance masterworks. From what we can gather about her background, she was a painter who lived in SoHo, was friendly with other artists and authors of the mid-20th century Manhattan art scene, hence her wide range of allusions to art history. She also had a child who died. The story uniquely captures the feeling of loneliness, with the humanities shown to be an effective companion.

Her thought stream is delivered by Markson in indented paragraphs of single sentences, no breaks in the text, no chapters, simply sparse sentences in succession skipping along memories and facts like stepping stones. Patterns of repeated motifs or poignant poetic lines she loves begin to emerge, sometimes warped by memory's imperfections. She tests herself a lot, including trying to recall the names of famous baseball players. "Campy" (Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella) recurs often as does "Stan Usual" (Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial) and Casey Stengel. She repeats this beautiful image about snowfall so often it begins to feel trite: "Still, on that morning after it fell, the trees were writing a strange calligraphy against the whiteness." (p. 233)

The approach of depicting a story through continuous conversational tone with no real narration or break in the text, ingeniously rendering and fleshing out character through a woman's picking through her pile of memories, facts, quotes, names, etc often felt like reading the work of William Gaddis (namely, the only two Gaddis books I've read, A Frolic of His Own and Agapē Agape). Sure enough, Kate remembers and misremembers things about Gaddis' novel The Recognitions and even repeatedly recalls interactions with Gaddis at her SoHo apartment. This lends to the interpretation that Wittgenstein's Mistress is autobiographical, as Markson was friendly with Gaddis and was embedded in the SoHo literati of the 50s and 60s although not a well-known author at the time. From reading Markson's interviews, one gathers that he was a huge fan of and proselytizer for The Recognitions as one of the greatest 20th century novels (even dismissing Pynchon with bitterness over all the attention Gravity's Rainbow received as opposed to The Recognitions).

Much as I enjoyed the unique reading experience of Wittgenstein's Mistress, it was the post-reading digestive phase that sprung my synapses into growth, contemplating the novel's themes and ideas. The distorting effects of memory. The unreliability of history. History as the distorted memory of the species. Kate the painter/author and last person alive on earth preserving, in her mortal and fading memory, the history of her family and of world culture. As she writes on pg. 227:
But then what is there that is not in my head?
So that it is like a bloody museum, sometimes.
Or as if I have been appointed the curator of the world.
This book, with its poignant conclusion, stays with you for a while. I kept thinking about the potential autobiographical thread running through it---Markson himself feeling aged and alone, rummaging through his mental inventory of Greek antiquity, modern art, famous authors and philosophers and baseball players. Leaving his messages (his novels) for any other souls out there who might encounter them.

What happens, when we are gone, to all of the knowledge and facts we've passionately compiled? A funny and oft-quoted passage from Joyce's Finnegans Wake, key book of the Markson canon, catalogues the many items hoarded by Shem the Penman in his "Haunted Inkbottle" house, a list running a page-and-a-half long concludes by describing Shem as "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture." (FW p. 184) The furniture are the items we compile throughout our lives, artifacts of our personal histories that linger after we're dead, fragments shored against our ruins.

After David Markson died in 2010 at the age of 82, his collection of thousands of books, all with his personal notations, was donated to The Strand bookstore in Manhattan, his personal treasures tossed back into the sea from which they'd been obtained. Markson had been a regular at The Strand and acquired many of his books, the essential building blocks for his heavily allusive works, from there during his weekly visits. For the author of Wittgenstein's Mistress, whose lonely protagonist leaves messages on the beach, it is perhaps perfectly fitting that his books, their pages inscribed with his handwritten note messages, are now scattered among the miles of books in a bookshop called "The Strand" for readers to search for like seashells on a beach.


*   *   *


"Thumbed pages: read and read. Who has passed here before me?"
- Reader's Block, p. 10

"First and foremost, I think of myself as a reader."
- Borges
(from opening epigraph of Reader's Block)

Markson's next novel, Reader's Block, was published eight years after Wittgenstein's Mistress and in many ways it feels like a sequel. There's a sad, lonely main character living in a house by the beach, taking stock of his life and sifting through the "transitory disarray" of assembled knowledge. This character, alternately called "Reader" or "Protagonist" feels definitively autobiographical (and adds further credence to the autobiographical reading of Wittgenstein's Mistress). Although now the actual narrative plays a much smaller role in the novel, while the string of art historical facts and quotes has completely taken over.

Reader's Block represents the first book of a tetralogy known as "The Notecard Quartet" where Markson invented and perfected a style all his own: brief aphoristic factoids or quotes or names or book titles, historic anomalies or coincidences, often conveying the adversities of the artistic vocation. With Reader's Block and to a larger extent in its follow-up This Is Not a Novel, Markson also provides a sort of almanac of how history's notable humans died. A cemetery appropriately graces the cover of the Dalkey Archive paperback of Reader's Block. (An omnibus edition published by Counterpoint gathers together the final three books of the quartet, inexplicably excluding Reader's Block. Page references to the other three books noted here will be from the omnibus edition.)

The combined effect of so many death notices casts a dark pall over the reader of Reader's Block. While I enjoyed the book immensely and it may even be one of my favorite books of all time, it left me contemplating the inescapability of death, both my own inevitable demise and that of everyone I know and love, to a degree I've never considered before. A wake-up call, perhaps. In Vanishing Point, a line reads simply "Alle Menschen müssen sterben" (p. 168) or "All humans must die," taken apparently from a Bach chorus. The preoccupation with death in these novels could be part of why Finnegans Wake is such a recurring topic---the first two books of the Notecard Quartet amount to odes to Finnegans Wake, Joyce's own Book of the Dead.

In the rare moments where "narrative" interrupts the strings of allusion and history, the author speculates on the nature of the work itself, and many times in Reader's Block and This Is Not a Novel there are comparisons made to Finnegans Wake. For instance, on page 145 of This Is Not a Novel the author describes the book as "his synthetic personal Finnegans Wake." Joyce's Wake is a Book of the Dead for a number of reasons: it envisions the journey of one night's sleep as akin to traveling through the Egyptian underworld after death, it contains the voices of virtually all of history's dead presently commingling, and it is a gigantic garbage heap of history's detritus, a midden pile of history's dead artifacts. This is what Markson is invoking in the opening epigraph for Reader's Block taken from the "museyroom" scene of Finnegans Wake: "This way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in!" Markson's novels are guided tours through curated collections of data piles in the junkyards of history, just as in the Wake we are given a docent tour through the remains of history's endless wars in the "museyroom" scene.

Finnegans Wake is, in its own words, "A middenhide hoard of objects!" (FW p. 19)  and "the whole treasure of the pyre" (p. 24). Whereas Reader's Block describes itself this way:

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. 
Or of no describable genre? 
A seminonfictional semifiction? Cubist? 
Also in part a distant cousin innumerable times removed of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake
- Reader's Block, p. 140

Also in part a distant cousin innumerable times removed of the Tibetan Book of the Dead
- ibid, p. 166

Subsequently This Is Not a Novel mentions:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead. From papyri and pyramid inscriptions dated as early as 1580 B.C. 
Or a contemporary variant on the latter, if Writer says so. 
Writer incidentally doing his best here---insofar as his memory allows---not to repeat things he has included in his earlier work. 
Meaning in this instance the four hundred and fifty or more deaths that were mentioned in his last book also. 
- This Is Not a Novel, p. 116
Along with his cataloguing of the dead, the "Reader" or "Protagonist" or "Writer" is pensively apprehensive about his own mortality, an aging man wondering when death may come for him. "I am growing older. I have been in hospitals. Do I wish to put certain things down?" he considers in Reader's Block (p. 10). Opposing the inescapable phantom of death is the life-sustaining force of art. Art against Death being Markson's ultimate affirmation, as expressed in these lines from the ending of This Is Not a Novel (p. 147):
When the city I extol shall have perished, when the men to whom I sing shall have faded into oblivion, my words shall remain.
Said Pindar.  
Non omnis moriar. I shall not wholly die.
Said Horace. 
Per saecula omnia vivam. I shall live forever.
Said Ovid. 
A microcosmic embodiment of the Art against Death theme is the Quartet's repeated depictions of the collision of Nazism against the art world. In addition to the all-consuming beast of death chewing through history's famous humans, there are frequent allusions to the anti-Semitism-fueled destruction carried out by the Nazi death machine. Markson exposes artists who were "inextricably bedfellowed with the Nazis" or sympathetic to other fascist regimes and provides many gruesome or sad stories involving Nazi death camps. For instance: "Four of Freud's five sisters were incinerated by the Germans in 1944. Four." (Reader's Block, p. 187) There are also some accounts of resistance like these about Joyce and Picasso:
Joyce was influential enough to be able to aid at least a dozen Jews in escaping from Nazi Germany. Hermann Broch among them.   
- Reader's Block, p. 150
A Wehrmacht officer in Picasso's studio during the occupation of Paris, re a photograph of Guernica: Did you do this?
To which Picasso: No, you did.   
- ibid, p. 185

Despite the bleakness of death and decomposition, the calamities and misfortunes endured by artists and philosophers throughout history, the Protagonist/Reader/Writer of the Notecard Quartet still finds much to celebrate in the things he loves. I was very pleased to discover that among the most prevalent sources of celebration are a love for Joyce and especially Finnegans Wake and a passionate obsession with the beauty and minutiae of Baseball. The combined presence of these two in the recurring motifs of his work solidified my newfound love for Markson and the Quartet. When I started reading these books I had just written a piece on the connections between two of my greatest loves in life, Baseball and Finnegans Wake. Now I was reading Markson recall Negro League Baseball stars like Leroy "Satchel" Paige, Josh Gibson and James "Cool Papa" Bell playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic in 1937 then on the same page speculating on his own book's heritage as "in part a distant cousin innumerable times removed of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake." (p. 140) Or declaring on page 182 that "Ninety feet between bases is the greatest invention of Western man" and on the adjacent page alluding to the title of the 1929 Finnegans Wake proto-guide authored by Samuel Beckett & co, "Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress."

A steady dose of Baseball is sprinkled in the gristmill of the Quartet, it becomes a part of Markson's humor and colors his references to history. Thus, in This Is Not a Novel he recalls an anecdote of Ezra Pound being permitted outside his steel cage prison in Pisa during the war for exercise and swinging a broomstick like a baseball bat, then cheekily prods him: "Who do you make believe is pitching to you, Uncle Ez? Can't you see Dizzy Dean out there, soldier?" (p. 107) He quotes Casey Stengel or ponders the game's perfections and oddities and shares random facts like this one that cracked me up:

Samuel Beckett once sat through a New York vs. Houston doubleheader at Shea Stadium. 
- This Is Not a Novel, p 116

Or the simple joy inherent in noting the full name of old-time Cubs pitching star "Three-Finger" Brown:
Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown. 
- ibid, p. 195

Occasionally, Markson brings in Baseball stories to interlink with or counterbalance other threads of his style, often with amusing affect. On page 223 of Vanishing Point, for example, following a note on the established custom of audiences standing for the Hallelujah Chorus that began when George II was spontaneously moved to do so at a performance in 1743, Markson recalls the attendees at Fenway Park already being on their feet when the Hallelujah Chorus was played by the Fenway organist right after Carlton Fisk's home run in the 1975 World Series.

Along with the occasional authorial interruptions to contemplate the nature and style of the book he's composing ("A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel," Vanishing Point, p. 162), the author is also not shy when it comes to expressing his grand intentions, hinted at first and foremost in This Is Not a Novel's opening epigraph from Swift who set out "to write upon nothing" in the vein of George Costanza from Seinfeld. Markson adds:

Plotless. Characterless.  
Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.  
- This Is Not a Novel, p. 14  

Ultimately, a work of art without even a subject, Writer wants.  
There is no work of art without a subject, said Ortega.  
A novel tells a story, said E.M. Forester.  
If you can do it, it ain't bragging, said Dizzy Dean.  
- ibid, p. 19
  
The words of legendary Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean become a repeated mantra for Markson who proudly accomplishes his goal of inventing an entirely unique new style, spare yet absorbing. The plot is indeed minimal, perhaps nonexistent. There are no conventional story elements. Although the more I read the Quartet, the more I discern that there actually is a subject here, a character we might consider to be the collective species of artists of all stripes and their struggles with time, their attempts to conquer mortality through their work, and the inescapable maladies they suffered.

Among the hardships dealt with are the boneheaded opinions of critics throughout history and Markson spews quite a bit of bile against them. The hostility against critics seems excessive at times, although for an author whose breakthrough masterpiece was rejected an astounding 54 times on account of its experimental style, his bitterness is perhaps warranted. Regardless, the unique style, the devotion to the resilient spirit of art in the face of death and destruction, and the persistently expressed love for James Joyce and Baseball have launched David Markson's experimental page-turners into the upper ranks of my favorite books.

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