Sunday, December 9, 2018

More Notes on David Markson's "Notecard Quartet"

To an astronomer, man is but an insignificant dot in an infinite universe---said whoever. Though that insignificant dot is also the astronomer.---said Einstein. 
p. 433, The Last Novel

Before placing David Markson's spellbinding "Notecard Quartet" (namely, these four novels: Reader's Block; This is Not a Novel; Vanishing Point; The Last Novel) back on the shelf, I'd like to share a few more notes from my reading experience. (Page numbers are from the Dalkey Archive edition of Reader's Block and the Counterpoint omnibus edition of This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel.)

1. In one of the many online essays devoted to Markson and his quartet (though I'm currently unable to identify which one), an author suggested that these books, composed almost entirely of an encyclopedic range of historical facts, quotes, and what Finnegans Wake calls "scrips of nutsnolleges" (FW 623.32), are not intended to spring the reader off to Google the history and validity of each item. I mostly adhered to that approach, streaking thru the pages with a growing sense for the vastness of the anomalous, paradoxical, occasionally confounding historical record of artists and thinkers. On the occasions where I was compelled to look stuff up, a vertiginous awe accompanied the realization of just how much color and feeling (love, pain, passion, humor, anger, confusion) can be extracted from any of Markson's terse lines once drilled into.

To select one out of many of these examples, from page 274 of Vanishing Point:

Stop giving instructions to God.
Neils Bohr once told Einstein.


The George Grosz drawing of Jesus, crucified, wearing a gas mask and combat boots, and captioned Shut up and carry out your orders.
Date 1928. 
The Max Ernst painting of the Virgin Mary spanking an infant Jesus.

If anyone pilfer this, may he die the death, be boiled in a cauldron, may epilepsy and fever overtake him, may he be broken on the wheel and hanged. Amen.
Says the Latin inscription on an extant hand-copied twelfth-century church Bible.

The George Grosz note in particular intrigued me because the drawing described sounded like something from contemporary street art or a subversive album cover. Here's the piece, from 1928, with the French caption "Shut up and carry out your orders":

from here.

And another version of same:

from here.

And here is the Max Ernst painting referred to, called The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter from 1926:

from here.

Compare with earlier in Vanishing Point (p. 176), where Markson shares this remarkable conjunction:

The first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species sold out in one day.
Pope Sixtus IV, in the late fifteenth century, was forced to actually issue a bull threatening excommunication for anyone who did not return volumes borrowed from the Vatican library.

2. It was fascinating and somewhat unnerving to observe the growth of political commentary evident throughout the four books. Markson published the first of them, Reader's Block, in 1996 and seemed to indicate that he believed politics should be left out of works of literature entirely, quoting Stendhal on the subject: "Politics in a work of literature is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert." (p. 25) Later adding this derisive quote from Nabokov: "Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent." (p. 173) Even though Reader's Block in its own way amounts to a mini history of anti-Semitism and the atrocities of Nazism, it seemed Markson was taking Stendhal's message to heart with regard to commentary on present-day politics. However, by the time we get to Vanishing Point and The Last Novel, published in 2004 and 2007 respectively, the pages have become strewn with instances of Markson openly condemning the horrifying absurdity of the contemporary political atmosphere of America and offering contextual evidence of her plight. 

This part certainly resonates with today, doesn't it?:
How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?
Asked the principal headline in the London Daily Mirror after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004.
p. 370

History has since repeated itself such that we're living thru confirmation of this line:

The only thing that we learn from history---is that we never learn anything from history.
Hegel said.
p. 277

Some more revelations of Markson's disgust with the toxic political atmosphere we continue to suffer through:
No different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation.
Said someone on radio named Rush Limbaugh about American soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
People having a good time.
p. 349

Remembering that in the Iliad, as rife with detailed violence as any war narrative ever written, not one captured Greek or Trojan is ever tortured.
p. 350

I have never been surprised to find men wicked, but I have often been surprised to find them not ashamed.
Said Swift.
p. 360

Baldur von Schirach, one of the chief Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg, on the origin of his anti-Semitism:
From a book about the Jews by Henry Ford.
p. 360-361

Richard M. Nixon, after the shooting by National Guardsmen of four undergraduates at Kent State University, re college students protesting the Vietnam War:
p. 227

The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government, said Martin Luther King.
In 1967.
p. 396

The fifteen young Muslim girls who were left to burn to death in a school fire in Mecca when vice police drove off those coming to their aid---lest they be seen by men while not wearing their head scarves.
In 2002.
p. 246

A great deal of nuclear waste will still be lethal six times as far into the future as all of recorded history presently goes back into the past.
p. 215

Two more bits that left an imprint on me, both concerning the ugly mindframe of ethnic hatred still plaguing modern society:

An uninteresting, and one may almost say, a justly exterminated race.
The New York Times called the American Indian, in an 1855 review of Hiawatha.
p. 192

A sub-human species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our time.
General George S. Patton compassionately described Jewish concentration-camp survivors as.
p. 355

3. Steven Moore, in his fantastic essay collection, My Back Pages, has a chapter devoted to Markson where he suggests that the overall theme of the "Notecard Quartet" likely sprang from something Markson read from the philosopher Schopenhauer described in his book Parerga and Paralipomena:

I wish someone would one day attempt a tragic history of literature, showing how the various nations which now take their highest pride in the great writers and artists they can show treated them while they were alive. In such a history, the author would bring visibly before us that endless struggle which the good and genuine of all ages and all lands has to endure against the always dominant bad and wrong-headed; depict the martyrdom of almost every genuine enlightener of mankind, almost every great master of every art; show us how, with a few exceptions, they lived tormented lives in poverty and wretchedness, without recognition, without sympathy, without disciples, while fame, honour and riches went to the unworthy...
p. 522, My Back Pages
Indeed, that sums up the overall pattern of Markson's notecard factoids quite well. A tragic history of literature and art. Part of the tragedy is the often numbskulled treatment of innovative artists by the critics of their time. Markson thoroughly documents the poor reception of so many master painters and authors during their lifetimes, not to mention philosophers like Giordano Bruno who was sentenced by the church to death by public burning in the year 1600. As the famous line from Swift goes, "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Melville is one of Markson's exemplary go-to characters throughout---misunderstood and cast aside by contemporary critics, dirt poor in the years following Moby-Dick. Edgar Allen Poe, same. Similarly, Markson piles up the ludicrous reactions to Ulysses from its early reviewers. All true and certainly understandable targets for mockery, yet still it seems at times that Markson's ferocious bile for critics becomes overkill:

Lice, Dickens labeled critics.
Swine, D.H. Lawrence preferred.
p. 44 
Berlioz, on critics:
Where do they come from? At what age are they sent to the slaughterhouse?
p. 53 
The most odious of small creeping things, Landor called critics.
p. 68
A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.
p. 283
Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post what it feels about dogs.
Said John Osborne.
p. 348 

Taking no more account of the wind that comes out of their mouths than that which they expel from their lower parts.
Leonardo described his response to critics as.
p. 421

As mentioned in my last piece, the hatred of critics is understandable to a degree when considering Markson's struggles to find someone to publish his experimental novel Wittgenstein's Mistress, rejected 54 times, and the dimwitted responses from some critics when it was finally published. Yet what strikes me is that the aforementioned Steven Moore, who finally brought Wittgenstein's Mistress into publication thru Dalkey Archive Press, is himself a critic, albeit a damn good one. Some of my favorite authors specialized in literary criticism, like William Gass, Guy Davenport, and Paul West. On some level, I guess what I do on these blogs is a form of criticism. I guess what I'm saying is Markson's diatribes against critics are so overdone that he overlooks or neglects the notion that critics often provide a valuable service. While there are boatloads of moronic critics, there are many who are very good at what they do, in fact many who have a knack for inspiring readers to seek out the David Marksons of the world.

4. Markson's novels are loaded with baseball quotes, reflections, and often amusing minutiae from the greatest game on earth. This is part of what makes these books so damn fun to read. Here are some examples: 

Baseball is what we were, football is what we have become.
Said Mary McGrory.
p. 429 
Dizzy Dean had less than a fourth-grade education.
But a post-doctoral sense of the joys of the game, said Marianne Moore.
p. 68
Moe Berg and Allen Ginsberg were distant cousins.
p. 252 
Unlike most Italians, Joe DiMaggio never reeks of garlic.
Life magazine matter-of-factly took note of in 1939.
p. 379 
How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?
Asked Satchel Paige.
p. 365

Indeed. Old enough in fact to remember when Ted Williams was not the last baseball player to bat .400, but merely the most recent.
For that matter old enough to remember when the last player to bat .400 was Memphis Bill Terry.
p. 281
[^^I've heard my dad make that same comment before.] 
Roger Clemens was discarding that splintered bat.
p. 241 

How many Cy Youngs would Cy Young have won?
p. 269

5. Lastly, if you've enjoyed any of this, then you must go over to The Scofield online literary magazine where they devoted an entire issue to the works of David Markson. Lots of great stuff, including an interview with Steven Moore.

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