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.