Archive for the ‘David Markson’ Category

Reader’s Block

May 11, 2012

Returning to Cesar Aira made me nostalgic for some of the other authors I had discovered last year (during my Year of Reading Dangerously, the real danger being that for every novel I crossed off another two or three blossomed in its place), and coincidentally I spotted David Markson’s Reader’s Block – in a bookshop of all places. Readers’ Block was actually the first of Markson’s ‘collage’ novels (early on he reflects on the style, “Non-linear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?”) and the precursor to this is not a novel. In place of Writer we have Reader and Protagonist, related though not identical, Markson’s focus being the autobiographical novel:

“How much of Reader’s own circumstances or past would he in fact give to Protagonist in such a novel?”

In fact, much of what we ‘learn’ about Protagonist is suspended between autobiography and fiction by a question mark. Markson also draws attention to this borderland by assigning the names of famous literary characters (briefly) to his own, which have (we assume) been drawn from life:

“Has Reader decided if Protagonist will have ever seen Becky Sharp in later life? When did he last see Daisy Buchanan?”

As with this is not a novel, much of the text consists of an endless stream of factual statements, quotations, names and titles – which Markson collated without the aid of a computer. (When Kurt Vonnegut heard this he apparently commented, ‘David, I’m worried about your mental condition.’) Some themes quickly appear: suicides are frequently mentioned, as are anti-Semites. Markson also touches on the Holocaust, from single words (“Kristallnacht”) to the more detailed:

“A roundup of Denmark’s eight thousand Jews was ordered by the Nazis in 1943. The Danes smuggled virtually every one of them to Sweden on fishing boats instead.”

(The above is probably of average length). While the effect of this was not substantially different to that of this is not a novel, I still found it eerily hypnotic and absorbing. Early in the novel Markson mentions “Reader and his mind full of clutter” and he has said that “the intellectual odds and ends are meant to convey a portrait of what’s in his mind.” Certainly they have a cumulative effect, playing off each other and the Reader’s questions about the novel he will create. Their power can be particularly seen when we come to the final few pages: as with this is not a novel, it has emotional impact, while at the same time confirming the novel’s medium as essential to its message.

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

Yes, and all the better for that.

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this is not a novel

August 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – David Markson

This year seemed the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with the experimental American writer, David Markson – or at least with his writing, Markson having died in 2010 (something not entirely irrelevant to this book, deeply concerned as it is with mortality). Everything I had read about him made him sound worth tracking down, from his early parodies of pulp fiction to his later move towards experimentation (in his fifties), as well as the admiration that other American writers such as David Foster Wallace clearly had for him. It was particularly difficult to resist such a provocative title as this is not a novel, originally published in 2001 and reissued last year by CB Editions.

this is not a novel is certainly not a conventional novel. As the Writer (it’s only character) tells us almost immediately:

“Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

He goes on to reveal his ambition to write something that is plotless, characterless and actionless. These aims are scattered among other statements (the Writer’s thoughts?), many of which report the ways in which various writers, artists and composers have died. For example:

“Henry Miller died of cardiovascular failure.

B. Traven died of prostate cancer and sclerosis of the kidneys.”

While these make up the majority of the novel’s pensees, we are also offered non-fatal anecdotes (“Salvador Dali once gave a lecture on London while wearing a diving helmet. And nearly suffocated.”), unattributed quotations (“I gotta use words when I talk to you.”) and comments that one artist has made about another (“Plato talked too much, Diogenes said.”). While the information provided cannot be said to be random – it all connects to the creative life – neither could it be said to present a coherent view of that life, apart from, of course, making the point rather emphatically that all artists must die.

How does this work? Well, there is no doubt it works thematically, directing the reader towards the creative process (the Writer’s musings on what kind of work he is producing) and the creative life, particularly the relationships between artists. The apparently more than five hundred deaths mentioned cannot help but have an emotional resonance, referencing, as they do, both mortality and immortality (the way in which artists live on after death).

The text can also be read, however, as a conventional novel, with the Writer as the character, and the rest of the text his thoughts as he ponders on his own life as an artist. Markson seems to hint at this possible reading when he reveals towards the end:

“Or was it nothing more than a fundamentally recognisable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred.

About an old man’s preoccupations.

Writer’s cancer.”

This has a distinct emotional punch, suggesting that Markson hasn’t quite abandoned the relationship between reader and character. Whatever the case, he has certainly succeeded in producing a novel that achieves his stated aim of:

“…seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.”

Danger rating: certainly not for fans of plot, and unlikely to be adapted into a film, I still found this a book I didn’t want to stop reading.