In 2005, I wrote to David Markson to ask what he thought about maybe doing an interview. His novel Vanishing Point had been published the year before and his second novel, Going Down, a dark, dramatic work that emerges, heavy with symbols, from the long shadows cast by Faulkner and Lowry, was soon to be brought back into print. It seemed like a good time to discuss the entire body of his work, and Markson was game. “Though are you sure,” he asked, “you want to reread all that stuff?” I was sure.
The only trouble was we could never figure out how best to do the interview. Would talking on the phone work? It might, though Markson insisted he must be allowed to edit and revise the transcript, and I said, Of course, of course. Would he rather I just mail him some questions, so he could answer them in writing? At first it seemed the phone held certain advantages, but then Markson decided the other way was better. “I’ve got to do it at the typewriter,” he said. He told me to send my questions, but not to rush. “Revise them 3 times,” he wrote. “Six times. Slowly.”
All writers are perfectionists to some degree, but Markson was more demanding than most. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, his best-known novel, and the increasingly spare books that followed are composed almost entirely of epigrams and epitaphs. The words seem less written than chiseled after much thought onto marble blocks. At the bottom of his letters, Markson sometimes apologized for any cross-outs, not that there were ever many. The one time we met, in 2006, when my wife and I were visiting New York, Markson mentioned a letter from Pascal in which the philosopher apologized to his correspondent. “The present letter,” Pascal wrote, “is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.” Markson liked that, and he thought I should bear it in mind, prone as I sometimes was to rambling notes several pages long. He laughed when he said it, and then he implored my wife to start editing my letters. I began writing him on postcards.
After more back and forth about the interview, Markson changed his mind again. “All the work you are doing, regarding my work—” he wrote, “why not use that, plus your intellect, plus your insight, to write an essay for some periodical or other?” He continued:
I remember once when Dick Poirier, who used to be someone, and whom I knew slightly, interviewed Robert Frost for the Paris Review—and my only thought was, why the hell did he waste his time doing that, major as Frost may have been (rather more major than Markson, I might unnecessarily add)? I don’t know what I felt he should have done instead, but that was my reaction nonetheless.
Markson was, at best, ambivalent about interviews. Even when edited closely, they were off the cuff. He trusted the voice that emerged only after many drafts. “What the hell does an interview add up to anyway?” he asked me. “Obviously an interview is easier. But what credit accrues to Paul Maliszewski as critic/essayist/writer from it?! Truly, when you stop and think?” At the same time, Markson held criticism—real criticism, not book reviews—in high regard. He revised and expanded his master’s thesis at Columbia, the first devoted to Under the Volcano, into a substantial full-length study, Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning. More recently, he was happy that a critical study of his work published in France, in 2007, would appear next year from Dalkey Archive Press.
Markson read widely and deeply. One of his novels begins with an epigraph from Borges: “First and foremost, I think of myself as a reader.” Or, as Samuel Johnson said—and Markson also quoted—“A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Markson worked his way through the stacks more than once, picking a path that traced literature, art, music, biography, and baseball, linear foot by linear foot. Springer’s Progress, published in 1977, is a book about Lucien Springer, a gadabout writer in Greenwich Village who makes halting progress on his novel in between bouts of drinking and sexual adventures. The novel seems constructed almost entirely from allusions, nearly every line resonating like a struck bell, echoing of something else, something older. Allusions here are a way to communicate, from serious author to serious reader as well as from character to character. Culture frames Springer’s very way of seeing. Here he visits a woman’s apartment:
Kitchen’s where he’s led, and anal Loosh’ll confront it instantly askance. Wreck of the Hesperus. Bags, boxes, cartons, crates. Need a manifest, where’s provender end and refuse begin?
Hamburger, she’s been at. Mutilated tomato oozing glop at center table, spillage of sugar beyond. Roaches unintimidated by mortal confluence….
Debris a meter high on two overflowing file cabinets, careless match be spectacular. Wounded couch against one wall, ratty pillows scattered opposite. Books askew and adrift, phonograph records aussi. Abattoir….
Garden of terrestrial delights, Springer’s lucked into. Kettle’s been on, girl’s manufacturing instant coffee. Rip in her shirt, left underarm. Springer’ll fix on that peep of flesh, elsewhere lies madness.
Culture has, in a sense, taught Springer to see, and it hardly seems an exaggeration to say that without Longfellow and Bosch, without Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” he would not note the clutter as he does. Allusions, Markson elsewhere writes, are “the very pulse and continuity of culture”—a way of making sense of the world, lending context, language, and shape to experience.
But then something happened. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, his next book, the allusions break down, their power fails. Kate, a woman who may or may not be the last person on earth, alludes to books and authors, artists and historical figures as much as Springer, but often she remembers the stuff of her allusions only in part, and haltingly. Or she’ll get half of an allusion right and then, pages later, recall the other half, but only after she has forgotten what she was trying to remember in the first place. The allusions too changed. What, in the early novels, seemed like bits of unidentified music, there for the cultured ear to recognize, become, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the later books, to be one- or maybe two-sentence anecdotes about the lives of artists. Vermeer, for instance, couldn’t sell his paintings and died poor. For more than two centuries after his death, his work was ignored, omitted from most histories of art. The details accumulate, creating a sad, slow parade of artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians. Here are their impoverished lives, the disregard and the insults they met with, their all-too-human cruelty, and their ignorant, almost irreconcilable opinions of other art and artists:
Gissing, clenching his teeth in despair at sight of a Tibulus priced at sixpence on a bookstall—sixpence being every cent he owned in the world.
Obscure, muddled, nervous, and confused.
Stated an official Prussian academic assessment of Hegel’s lectures.
Putridity and corruption.
Stated Kierkegaard re their published versions.
For Kate, allusions are the sound of her mind working, mulling, talking to itself. Beginning with Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Markson focused on the consciousness of a single character. After Kate, came Reader, Writer, Author, and, in The Last Novel, published in 2007, Novelist. The earlier books are bustling social novels by comparison. Going Down is set in a village in Mexico populated by expat artists, Mexican laborers, a doctor, and a rich widow. Springer’s Progress bounces and ricochets between Village bars and apartments. But Markson seemed determined to build novels using as little of the traditional narrative materials as he could manage. How many walls does the house really need? How many doors? How thick a foundation, and how great a roof? His later characters, if they even can be called characters, are but occasional presences. They are, of course, always there, in the voice of the book, in how the sentences read and in what those sentences hint of the mind behind them, but the characters only rarely make mention of their lives, their bodies, their health, their surroundings. Markson was like an abstract painter who, determined to chase the ultimate and logical conclusion of what he’d been driving at his whole career, paints less and less, until he’s taking a white canvas and applying to it a single coat of white house paint.
But why then didn’t he continue to write highly literary, allusive novels? I would have liked to have asked. I wonder—and I can only wonder—if Markson thought allusions no longer functioned. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera compares The Man without Qualities to “a castle so big that it can’t all be seen at once” and to a “string quartet that goes on for nine hours.” Certain anthropological limits exist, Kundera argues, and they shouldn’t be exceeded. People, after all, can only remember so much. Perhaps Markson had the sense people weren’t getting his allusions. The world had changed, and the culture with it. Jokes which once worked were bombing. On the other hand, maybe Markson was loath to repeat himself. Or perhaps he just liked the challenge of subtraction. Sculpture, as Michelangelo said and Kate remembers, is the art of taking away superfluous material.
When we visited Markson in New York, The Last Novel, as it would be called and as it would be for him, was nearly complete. Markson indicated some index cards neatly arranged in two shoebox lids. That was the book. He couldn’t tell me the title, for superstitious reasons, but it was, he promised, a good one. I stood up to look at the cards from a respectful distance. Red cards were stuck in between the rest. Bookmarks, I supposed. Maybe for sections he was yet revising. The red cards, Markson said, are when my narrator makes some appearance. I saw very few red cards.
Yesterday or maybe the day before, I was reading through my notes from the interview that never was, when I came across a passage, one of Markson’s captured anecdotes. It was in Reader’s Block, and I had marked it with three asterisks—my highest rating, given to those parts I absolutely needed to ask Markson about. “Petrarch sometimes wrote letters to long-dead authors,” Markson writes. “He was also a dedicated hunter of classic manuscripts. Once, after discovering some previously unknown works of Cicero, he wrote Cicero the news.” Reading that again, I thought that maybe art is, in the end, like so many letters to Cicero, notes addressed to the dead, to one’s ancestors and betters, or simply to those one had in mind while working. I felt sure and I felt glad that authors will now be writing Markson with their news.