David Markson: This Is Not A Novel

The tributes that followed the recent death of David Markson inspired me to pick up one of his novels, something I’d been hesitant about before. Cursory flicks in the book stores had shown that those available were little more than page after page of collected quotes, statements, and musings. There couldn’t possibly be a story in there. But then, literature is replete with unconventionalists – e.g. Borges, Calvino, Joyce – and sometimes you’ve got to trust their experiments to delivering on whatever they set out to achieve. To this end, I settled on This Is Not A Novel (2001), published with an unassuming cover by CB Editions, and trusted Markson to deliver.

Any initial reservations with the concept of the book were quickly allayed with the opening sentences, two distinct lines that set up the premise for the book and introduces Writer, assumed to be Markson himself, as he expresses his thoughts on the creation of fiction and its many components:

Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.

Lord Byron died of either rheumatic fever, or typhus, or uremia, or malaria. Or was inadvertently murdered by his doctors, who had bled him incessantly.

Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis in 1900. Granted an ordinary modern life span, he would have lived well into World War II.

This morning I walked to the place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish. My God, it was beautiful. Says a van Gogh letter.

Writer is equally tired of inventing characters.

In his tiredness, the characters — if we label Byron, Crane and van Gogh so — that inhabit the book are drawn this way, in only a brief line letting slip a fact or two, and seemingly unrelated to what has gone before. The breadth of names is impressive as Markson gives us details of writers, poets, singers, architects, jazz musicians, composers, and painters running the gamut of history. The common thread running through much of these references is that of death and what these artists died from, and so we learn of Thomas Mann’s death by phlebitis, Wyatt Earp’s by chronic cystitis, and of Frank Lloyd Wright’s heart attack — a few plucked from a catalogue of hundreds.

The obsession with death has purpose, and as Writer finds himself nearing the end of his life, his thoughts are on his legacy as an artist. While not explicit, the connections between the disparate facts shed their subtlety and we begin to see how people can survive beyond their lifetime, be it their works, their unsolved mysteries, or in tribute:

Among Dickens’ children: Alfred Tennyson Dickens. Henry Fielding Dickens. Edward Bulwer-Lytton Dickens. Walter Landor Dickens. Sudney Smith Dickens.

Among Walt Whitman’s brothers: George Washington Whitman. Andrew Jackson Whitman. Thomas Jefferson Whitman.

The links between the statements are wide ranging with respect to the artist and we touch on Writer’s preoccupation with madness, influences, relationships, other artistic flourishes, and what defines the longevity of an artist —

The peculiar immortality of Sulpicia. Six love poems, totaling only forty lines, and customarily tacked onto the collected works of Tibullus. For two full thousand years.

— which is no mean feat for a piece of fiction that aims to have “no intimation of story whatsoever”.

Part of the pleasure in the novel is being able to draw the imaginary lines between the proffered facts and to build up the story of Writer who, no matter how tempted he may be to quit writing, is an artist first and foremost and will write regardless. A writer, once an idea sinks its hooks into them, will wrestle with that idea to produce their art and in This Is Not A Novel Writer’s desire to produce something different (“Plotless. Characterless.”) pushes him on through more cleverly executed demonstrations of free association, his personality beginning to shine more despite the unrelated lines:

Ultimately, a work of art without even a subject, Writer wants.

There is no work of art without a subject, said Ortega.

A novel tells a story, said E.M. Forster.

If you can do it, it ain’t bragging, said Dizzy Dean.

With all the death and other assorted miseries, there’s still a streak of humour that runs through the book, which is perhaps not unexpected in such a playful piece. At one point Writer muses on Harold Bloom’s preposterous claim to the New York Times that he could read at a rate of five hundred pages per hour:

Writer’s arse.

Spectacular exhibition! Right this way, ladies and gentlemen! See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!

To most readers, if not all, This Is Not A Novel will contain anecdotes about some people known to them and many more that aren’t. It’s tempting to enjoy the act of looking up Markson’s references as they appear on the page to get a complete sense of who he’s bringing in to Writer’s thoughts, and from which books quotes are drawn. But to do so would break away from the ultimate goal of a book that revels in having no action “yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.”

Recalling the Dizzy Dean quote, there’s sly references to what’s been involved in producing the book —

If you find this work difficult, and wearisome to follow, take pity on me, for I have repeated these calculations seventy times. Wrote Johannes Kepler.

— and a sense of hope for its future, the fate of which, is at the mercy of posterity:

My work is not a prize composition done to be heard for the moment, but was designed to last forever. Said Thucydides.

As to what Writer is writing, that’s up to him. At various interjections he suggests what it may be, “if Writer says so”: an autobiography? An Egyptian Book of the Dead? So, if Markson decides that this is not a novel, who are we to argue with the artist? But while it’s a novel that purports not to be a novel, there’s one thing for certain — it is novel.

June 22, 2010

9 responses to David Markson: This Is Not A Novel

  1. Stujallen said:

    this looks great stewart ,not familar with the name ,but seems very quirky style ,all the best stu

  2. Tom C said:

    A very useful review Stewart. I enjoy reading difficult books, but this one sounds rather arcane – the writer is new to me. It sounds a little like a cryptic crossword puzzle – you have to have quite a broad knowledge of literature in order to be able to spot the allusions.

  3. Stewart said:

    …you have to have quite a broad knowledge of literature in order to be able to spot the allusions.

    Perhaps you do, Tom. I actually started reading it with frequent visits to Wikipedia to find out who such and such was. While it may broaden your own horizons, I don’t think it adds much to the experience because, after all, Markson is just revealing small anecdotes about them, usually how they died, and so getting between the lines is more important. That said, there are unattributed quotes. I remember looking up one and it turned out to be from Melville’s Moby Dick.

    As for difficulty, I don’t think it’s all that difficult if you persevere with it. Initially you may find yourself wondering what’s going on with these disembodied passages, and feeling short changed, but it comes good – becomes a page turner! – as the references pile up.

  4. steffee said:

    You can actually die from cystitis? Wow.

  5. Paolo said:

    This sounds really rather interesting! I love authors who experiment with the narrative, other than the ones you mentioned WG Sebald did some fascinating stuff both by mixing text with images produced by a photographer friend of his but also with the more basic narrative techniques. I will have to look out for this one. Great blog by the way!

  6. Stewart said:

    Thank you, Paolo. I’ve not read Sebald — yet! — but I do have Austerlitz on my shelves.

    Regarding the blend of text with photographs, Timothy O’Grady’s I Could Read The Sky, which comes with photographs by Steve Pyke.

  7. vivek tejuja said:

    Cannot wait to read this one after your review…

  8. Love the idea of this book, and heard a fleeting comment about it in the media recently, so was glad to learn more about it – already on order!

  9. Stewart said:

    Hope you like it, John.

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