Poor James Joyce, who was somebody else who crawled under furniture when it thundered. Poor Beethoven, who never learned to do simple child’s multiplication. Poor Sappho, who leaped from a high cliff, into the Aegean. Poor John Rushkin, who had all those other silly troubles to begin with, of course, but who finally also saw snakes.
—  David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress

     The first page of David Markson’s copy of Turner by John Rothstein and Martin Butlin:

     On which Markson placed his name as an inscription, in addition to the place and year presumably in which the book was purchased:
     “London 1967”


     Wow, I’ve been gone for much longer than anticipated. In the meantime there’s been a crosscountry roadtrip, a break-up, a mugging, and lots and lots of work. I’ve been busy. I’m exhausted.

     But it is time for me to begin again. Exhaustion is no excuse…

     “David Markson’s novels always begin with exhaustion. Why write at all? The weather’s too hot; the narrator is tired, disillusioned, and down-hearted. Any effort being inane, any pursuit downright absurd, in particular the pursuit of meaning, how is one to live one’s life, how may one presume there might still be something worth writing about?”
     Wrote Françoise Palleau-Papin on pg. 3 of her Markson study This Is Not A Tragedy.

I find myself in the same predicament.

     So I begin with exhaustion.

     And with a scan from an art book on Turner.

     And a lovely quote re: Turner from the beginning of Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress:
     “I have always admired Turner as well, however. In fact his own paintings of water may well have been a part of what led to my decision.
     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.
     Actually, the story of Turner being lashed to the mast reminds me of something, even though I cannot remember what it reminds me of.”
     (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, pg. 12)

The curator’s job—to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order and so communicate meaning—is marvelously synechdochic of the life of the solipsist, of the survival strategies apposite one’s existence as monad in a world of diffracted fact.

Except a big question is: whence facts, if the world is “empty”?

—  David Foster Wallace on David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Was it really some other person I was so anxious to discover, when I did all of that looking, or was it only my own solitude I could not abide?
—  David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress

David Markson, The Last Novel

The fourth and final book, after Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, and Vanishing Point, in Markson’s last four books of “nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like” anti-novels.

Markson’s composition method was to gather bits of trivia and stories, scribble notes on 3x5 index cards, and put them in shoebox lids. When a couple of shoebox lids were full, he’d assemble a book out of them.

As Lawrence Weiner put it, “Bits & Pieces Put Together To Present A Semblance Of A Whole.”

It makes you want to break the whole back into bits and see if you can reassemble your own whole, which, when you think about it, is what reading is.

For example, here’s my own little go at it, using highlighted passages from throughout the book:

The greatest kindness we can show some of the authors of our youth is not to reread them.
Said François Mauriac.

Because bookshops are among the very few places where one can spend time without spending any money, George Orwell noted, any number of practically certifiable lunatics are guaranteed to be regularly found in most of them.

The imagination will not perform until it has been flooded by a vast torrent of reading.
Announced Petronius.

You have to read fifteen hundred books in order to write one.
Flaubert put it.

Thinking with someone else’s brain.
Schopenhauer called reading.

The word plagiarism—from the Latin for kidnapping.
To kidnap another writer’s brains, Martial had it.

Not a composer. A kleptomaniac.
Stravinsky called Benjamin Britten.

Victor Hugo constantly made notes about everything—and would turn aside in the middle of a conversation to scribble down something he himself had just said that he realized he might possibly later be able to use.

The name Copperfield came from a sign Dickens had noticed on a shop in a London slum.
Chuzzlewit likewise.

What would non-creative writing be?
George Steiner once casually wondered.

Looking is not as simple as it looks.
Said Ad Reinhardt.

The nature of genius is to provide idiots with ideas twenty years later.
Said Louis Aragon.

The avant-garde. A kind of research and development arm of the culture industry, the critic Thomas Crowe called it.

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.
Said Wayne Gretzky.

Ancora imparo, said Michelangelo at eighty-seven.
Still, I’m learning.

If you value my work, please, do not knock. Requested a notice on Herman Hesse’s door in Ticino.

I would rather have a drop of luck that a barrel of brains.
Allegedly said Diogenes.

He who writes for fools will always find a large audience.
Said Schopenhauer.

What I get, reading all four of these books, is a sense of how bone-crushing the lives of many artists were, how cruel and stupid many of them were, how cruel and stupid life was to many of them, but also just the endless number of ways of going about being an artist, how every position, every way of being, has an opposite, a counterpoint, and the only certainty, as Markson points out time and time again, is death.

(It’s more cheerful than it sounds?)

Filed under: David Markson

Actually I did read, at times, over the years. Especially when I was mad, I read a good deal.

One winter, I read almost all of the ancient Greek plays. As a matter of fact I read them out loud. And throughout, finishing the reverse side of each page would tear it from the book and drop it into my fire.

Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, I turned into smoke.

In a manner of speaking, one might think of it that way.

In a different manner of speaking, one might declare it was Helen and Clytemnestra and Electra, whom I did that with.

For the life of me I have no idea why I did that.

If I had understood why I was doing that, doubtless I would not have been mad.

Had I not been mad, doubtless I would not have done it at all.

I am less than positive that those last two sentences make any particular sense.

In either case neither do I remember where it was, exactly, that I read the plays and burned the pages.

Possibly it had been after I had gone to ancient Troy, which may have been what put me in mind of the plays to begin with.

Or would reading the plays have been what put me in mind of going to ancient Troy?

It did run on, that madness.

—  David Markson — from Wittgenstein’s Mistress

William Gaddis and David Markson, New York, 1964. According to a 1989 interview, Markson was directly responsible for the first reissue of Gaddis’s The Recognitions.

I was living in Mexico, and someone—well, old Aiken, in fact—gave my address to Aaron Asher, who was editor of Meridian Books at the time. I picked him and his wife Linda up at their hotel and brought them out to where Elaine and I were living—outside Mexico City—for dinner. And then spent approximately three solid hours talking nonstop about Gaddis. Finally Aaron threw up his hands in despair, telling me, “Please, please, I promise I’ll read the darned thing as soon as I get home! But now tell us something about where to go and what to see in Mexico, for heaven’s sake!”

(Image via)

     Pg. 75 of David Markson’s copy of The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

     On which Markson underlined a passage in red:
     “And in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”


     The term “dark night of the soul” dates back to the 16th century, from a poem entitled “Dark Night of the Soul” by Saint John of the Cross.

     St. John of the Cross.
     Who was, unsurprisingly, mentioned multiple times in Markson’s oeuvre.

     Kate, in Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, writes of the saint a few times, but there is one particular exchange I love:
     “Though as a matter of fact there are also certain things that one remembers while one is writing that one did not remember one remembered but does not happen to put down, either.
     For instance when I was writing about the fact that Rembrandt and Spinoza had lived in Amsterdam at the same time, which I had learned from a footnote, I suddenly remembered from a different footnote entirely that when El Greco had lived in Toledo such people as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross had lived there, too.
     Even though I remembered that, however, I did not put it down.
     Basically my reason for not doing so may have been because I do not know one solitary thing about either St. Teresa or St. John of the Cross.
     Except obviously that they were both in Toledo when El Greco was in Toledo.” (Pgs. 156-157).

     Though Kate may not know anything of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross except that they lived in Toledo in the time of El Greco, Markson surely knows much more than that.

     In The Last Novel, Markson writes of:
     “The unimaginably cramped cell in which St. John of the Cross was once imprisoned for months, beaten repeatedly and virtually starved, but where he nonetheless managed to compose some of his finest verses.” (Pg. 2).   

     “Saint John of the Cross was short and slight.”
     We learn on pg. 56 of Vanishing Point.
     And then are told:
     “Half a friar, Saint Teresa of Ávila playfully spoke of him as.”

     Markson also clearly knows of the St. John of the Cross term: “dark night of the soul.”
     Which has become a recurring metaphor for the trying times of a spiritual journey.
     And which Markson used in one of his early detective novels:
     “He digs his doom better in the depths. He communes with the dark night of his soul.”
     From Epitaph for a Dead Beat (on pg. 242 of the combined: Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat).

     In Markson’s analysis of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth Symbol Meaning), he also uses the term, when he explains:
     “The Consul has just now endured the latter illusion; and since it will be death at the hands of a pistol that ends his larger ‘dark night of the soul,’ also to be noted is a pistol once described here as ‘a bright jewel.’” (Pg. 197).

     Other scholars have discussed Lowry’s masterpiece, and especially his personal experience in writing it, in the terms of “a dark night of the soul”:
     As we learn from Sherrill Grace’s Regression and Apocalypse: Studies in North American Literary Expressionism:
     “Malcolm Lowry (1909-57) began Under the Volcano shortly after arriving in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with his first wife, Jan Gabrial, in 1936. Before he left Mexico in July 1938 he had separated from Jan, failed to drink himself into total oblivion, generally experienced every horror associated with the dark night of the soul, and completed a first draft (there would be three more, and even then he was not satisfied) of the Volcano.” (Pg. 164).
     Barry Wood mentions in his Malcolm Lowry: The Writer & His Critics:
     “According to his letters—to John Davenport, Conrad Aiken, James Stern (SL, pp. 11-13, 15, 27-30)—the next few weeks were a truly dark night of the soul, full of hallucinations, suspicions, horrible dangers, ‘an absolutely fantastic tragedy’ of isolation (SL, p. 11).” (Pg. 256).

     Lowry saw the book in terms of “a dark night of the soul”—obviously knowing the St. John of the Cross origin of the term, but not realizing Fitzgerald had also used the term in Crack-Up until years later, as he relays in a letter to Robert Giroux (from his Selected Letters on pg. 303):
     “What remains of this moral obligation I now apply to yourself, to think of at 4 o’clock in the morning, which I had not known Fitzgerald had advanced as the real dark night of the soul when I wrote the Volcano, and it may be that it is 3 o’clock or even 5 o’clock.”

     He digs his doom better in the depths. He communes with the dark night of his soul.

     And in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.