David Markson: An Introduction

(also see the Bibliography)

“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’s Key to Finnegans Wake?
Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax in any case.”

Reader’s Block, p.140

David Markson’s novels are an erudite labyrinth of intertextuality, filled with allusions and references to literature, art history, philosophy, and the creators thereof. As his novels progress, they explore the theme of artistic (literary) creation and the isolation of the artist, through an increasingly abstract interior monologue. Having produced six novels in the past 35 years, Markson is by no means a prolific novelist, but he more than makes up for quantity with quality.

Direct biographical information on Markson is scarce. He was born David Merrill Markson on December 20, 1927 in Albany, NY. Son of a newspaper editor and a school teacher, one gets the idea that he was exposed to a lot of reading when young. He spent two years in the U.S. army and earned a B.A. from Union College in Schenectady, NY in 1950. He has taught at a number of schools, including Columbia University, and, except for some time spent in Mexico and Spain, has lived most of his life in New York.

While working for his Master’s degree at Columbia University in 1952, Markson wrote his thesis on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the first major study of the novel. He began corresponding with Lowry while working on the thesis (which was later expanded and published as Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning in 1978), and they continued their friendship until Lowry’s death (a testament to their close friendship: Markson gave his daughter the middle name Lowry). Markson’s other literary acquaintances included Conrad Aiken, Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas, all of whom have appeared in subsequent poems, essays, or novels.

Through the late 50’s and early 60’s Markson wrote, to support himself, three novels that he calls “entertainments.” All three (Epitaph for a Tramp (1959), Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961), and Miss Doll, Go Home (1965)) are genre fictions concerning a detective in a New York’s artist community. He first had success with The Ballad of Dingus Magee (1966), a parodic western that was later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra (Dirty Dingus Magee (1970)).

The success of Dingus Magee (the money from the movie), helped Markson afford to rewrite a novel on which he had been working for many years. Published in 1970, Going Down began exploring the themes he would return to in subsequent works: artistic creation, and its despair, isolation, and anguish. A gothic mystery set in a village in Mexico (Markson lived in Mexico for a time), the plot revolves around an American painter, Fern Winters (a name that later appears in Reader’s Block as a former love interest of the narrator), and her lover, a non-writing poet, Steve Chance (who is named after a baseball player, true to Markson’s love of the game). Very much a novel of darkness and despair, it was called “pretentious” by many critics for its use of different narrative modes and styles (showing the influence of Joyce and Faulkner). Reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said of it: “…a novelist, with nothing to say, trying to tell a story he doesn’t believe for a minute.” (Markson’s poem, “Daily Reviewer-Haupt,” (see below) seems to have been written in rebuke.) Lowry’s influence is immediately obvious to a reader of both Under the Volcano and Going Down. Though the books are quite different, comparisons are unavoidable.

“There’s Springer, sauntering though the wilderness of the world.

Lurking anent the maidens’ shittery, more the truth of it. Eye out for this wench, who’s just ducked inside, this clodhopper Jessica Cornford.”

Springer’s Progress, p.3

Markson’s follow up novel is Springer’s Progress (1977) a rampant, bawdy, playfully funny novel about a middle-aged, unproductive writer, Lucien Springer (Lucien appears again in Wittgenstein’s Mistress as a former love interest of the narrator), his extramarital affair with a much younger aspiring novelist, Jessica Cornford, and his subsequent return to novel writing. Stylistically, Springer’s Progress is written in short choppy paragraphs (a style that was further refined by Markson is his later works) that express Springer’s thoughts, fantasies, and peculiar mental ticks (such as his habit of recalling art historical facts when nervous, “Michelangelo slept in his boots.”) The novel is filled with literary and art historical allusions (as mentioned) as well as puns, wordplay (Springer engages in a whole page of acrostics, spelling out J-E-S-S-I-C-A with the names of novelists and artists), and a prodigious vocabulary that will cause even the most well read to have a dictionary at hand. As Springer begins to write again, the novel he writes becomes the novel that is being read, creating an overlapping circularity that can only end one way…

“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm.

Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm.

One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.”

Wittgenstein’s Mistress, p.12

Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) is Markson’s most critically acclaimed and well-known novel. Taking the style of Springer’s Progress even further, this novel is made of the one or two sentence paragraph thoughts of Kate (whose name also appears later in Reader’s Block), a painter who is, or believes herself to be, the last woman (or man, or animal) on earth. Amongst recollections of her travels (in search of any other people) and her life in a beach house, Kate struggles with the concept of language and how it can adequately represent our thoughts. The novel is brimming with references to art historical figures (more about the artists themselves, than their work), Greek drama, philosophers, writers, and the connections between (some real, some made up by the narrator), as Kate recalls things she has read or learned, sometimes inaccurately (though she does not always realize this). Throughout, an element of despair and loneliness pervades the text. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel unlike any other, vast in its erudition and touching in its sadness.

“Daily Reviewer-Haupt”
(from the Collected Poems)

What bile must rise within his throat
O’er all those books, not one he wrote!
Ah, let the wretch our spawn berate:
The bold make love; some masturbate.

In 1993, Markson’s Collected Poems was released. It spans a long period of time, and addresses some familiar themes: art history, literary lives (particularly Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, and Jack Kerouac), love and sex (among them, two poems that originally appeared in Springer’s Progress), as well as more personal issues. In his introduction, Markson writes them off as less than serious and berates his own love of rhyme and out of style rhythm, but the poems work well, on the whole, containing a certain sense of anachronism in their forms and styles.

“Reader and his mind full of clutter.
What is a novel in any case?
Or is he in some peculiar way thinking of an autobiography?”

Reader’s Block, p. 13

Markson’s most recent three novels: Reader’s Block (1996), This is Not a Novel (2001), and Vanishing Point (2004) can be considered a kind of trilogy. They share the same “discontinuous, nonlinear, collage-like” form. Each even repeats in some form the quotes that begin and end this introduction. The skeletal narrative that runs through each progresses from the “Reader” in RB, to “Writer” in TiNaN, to “Author” in VP.

Like Wittgenstein’s Mistress they consist of short, one or two sentence paragraphs narrated with an interior monologue that is constantly mulling over bits of information (mostly artistic/literary) but take the idea even further from a conventional narrative. The books contain three main foci: pieces of information about artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers (which in the different volumes revolve around a changing set of foci: suicides, anti-semitics, sexual oddities, insanities, deaths, quotes, responses to criticism, and other often depressing or tragic features of the artistic life); unattributed quotations; and the more direct voice of the protagonist (Reader, Writer, Author) as he struggles both with his writing and life.

Reader’s Block, the one that contains the most of what could more conventionally be considered a narrative, that of Reader trying to construct his novel about “Protagonist”, ends with the phrase “Wastebasket.” Giving up on this narrative construction, the latter two novels are even more sparse in their narrative structure. This “trilogy” creates meaning like a collage through juxtaposition and the rhythm that comes with the short passages rather than through the coherence of any set of characters, settings, or plot. Regardless of these conventional lacks, all three works are highly readable (the rhythmic aspect gives the books a pleasant pace) and emotionally powerful (particularly by the time one reaches the end of Vanishing Point. In these works Markson has created his own unique form of the novel.

The novels of David Markson, at least the serious ones, form a consistent oeuvre. Like many authors, Markson struggles with the same themes in his works, returning to them anew with each novel. The progress of his distinctive style is also very much in evidence from Going Down through to Vanishing Point. Reveling in the connections of life, art, and thought, Markson’s novels also connect with each other.

Markson has been, for the most part, ignored in literary circles. One can find few to no articles about his work, except for reviews and an excellent issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol. X, Number 2, 1990, a split issue on Markson and John Barth) that contains articles on his work previous to Reader’s Block. One hopes that with time his work will be appreciated for what it has to say.

“A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel?”

[Quoted from Reader’s Block. Also appearing in Vanishing Point with a period instead of a question mark.]

(Not updated for quite awhile. -Derik. 4/20/07)

(David Markson died on June 5(?), 2010. Haven’t seen an obituary yet, so I’m not sure of the date. R.I.P. -Derik 6/7/10)