Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Maximal Minimalism

David Markson, Vanishing Point

I came late to the books of David Markson. It was David Foster Wallace's admiration for Wittgenstein's Mistress that piqued my curiosity in the work of this strange and haunting writer/collageist--yes, it feels at times as if Markson, like Joseph Cornell or Arthur Dove ("The Intellectual"), is patching his prose works (hardly novels in any conventional sense) together out of bits and pieces of intellectual history, biographical facts shorn of any context, and surreal meditations on isolation, alienation, and art.  One doesn't "read through" Wittgenstein's Mistress or, my favorite of his books, Vanishing Point, so much as think about the aphoristic sentences that constitute his  disconnected litanies of prose--'litany' seems right, as his books are evocations of something deeper that are created through a form of what feels like prayer or chant, in a language which can be as opaque as Latin or Greek is to the cathechumen.  Just as one might carry Wittgenstein's Tractatus about in a backpack on a tour of Europe, pausing in a cafe or train station for a bit of intellectual refreshment, one does well to tote Markson to the subway or the bus stop, or, as I prefer, to meetings at work where the need for distraction is most deeply felt.  I admit that like some of Wittgenstein and much of Nietzsche (like the aphorisms from Twilight of the Idols), sections of Markson strike me as non sequiturs--thoughts that lead no where, that don't have the power of philosophy or the beauty of literature, and that force me to shake my head in wonder that someone like Markson could be published in the first place.  But that's a rare feeling, and not altogether a bad one.  One can always "curl up with a good book;" what one wants, often, is to be discomfited by a difficult one.

The "plot" of Vanishing Point is simple: a character named simply "Author" sets out to write a novel by adjusting shoe boxes full of notes in some arbitrary fashion (the logic of composition is implicit in the text of the novel and cannot readily be described: it makes itself manifest).  As with Markson's other works--Reader's Block and especially This is Not a Novel--much of the wonder and beauty of the writing emerges from the reader's personal and idiosyncratic interpretation of the possibility that some logic binds the isolated sentences of the book together.  Markson requires his readers to locate the thematic links, or rather challenges his readers to build the novel out of Bruchstücke, rubble.

"The reading or non-reading of a book--will never keep down a single petticoat.  Said Byron.

"Stevie Smith's cheerfully gruesome voice, Robert Lowell called it.

"There are no English critics of weight or judgment who consider Mr. Joyce an author of importance.
Said Edmund Gosse, two years after the publication of Ulysses."

One thing you do when you read Vanishing Point is check out a lot of odd-ball quotations and assertions (yes, Gosse did make that absurd pronouncement).  You learn a good bit of literary history, and you work--hard--to push the tiny, at times indistinguishable pieces into a full puzzle, an image that is recognizable.  I have to admit that I knew what Wittgenstein's Mistress was about from Wallace's description; I had a sense of what the puzzle was to look like once it had been gerryrigged into shape by Markson, but even knowing the "story" of WM, I couldn't see it.  Vanishing Point, because it is about the process of making a book out of fragments--which is what one always does with Markson--is easier going.  Indeed, it is rather fun in parts: "Marianne Moore wore a Nixon campaign button."

Could a poet who drank (?) tea with Langston Hughes (what is the meaning of that face?) have come around to Nixon? Markson plagues you with bits of trivia like this, though most of the time getting to the truth doesn't seem trivial at all.  "Your eyes/flowers of ice"--could the poet who wrote this line really have admired Herbert Hoover?  I've read half-a-dozen articles on Moore's politics in JSTOR over the past several days and find that though a radical in poetics, Miss Moore was no radical.  But a Nixon button?

This porcupine-quilled,
   complicated starkness—
this is beauty—“a certain
   proportion in the skeleton
   which gives the best results.”
One is at a loss, however, to know
   why it should be here,
in this morose part of the earth—
to account for its origin at all;
but we prove, we do not explain
   our birth.

This is what Markson does to you, especially if you feel certain that literature must be more than just a passing fancy.  Like Ed McMahon, he feeds you a line and leaves you to make sense of it, or to get the joke: "What Giotto would make of a Gerhard Richter canvas."  A quasi-question like this one can't be ignored.  What would Giotto have said to this?

 I checked with Vasari an hour ago to find out what I could about Giotto's aesthetic vision: I hadn't read this bit of Vasari in thirty years.  I'm guessing Giotto would have admired Richter's energy but not his choice of subject matter.  And now I'm into Richter, an artist about whom I know next to nothing.  You see?  Markson may not take you on a journey with clear signposts, rounded characters, rising and falling action, and a fearful denouement, but he does force you to work with him, to construct the novel yourself.  In fact, by the end of Vanishing Point, you get the joke--you are the Author.  And what is the novel the Author has made?  Any novel he or she would like.

Here's a picture of Markson (on the left) with one of the other great, under-appreciated writers of the fifties and sixties, Frederick Exley.

I have Vanishing Point in a nice edition from Shoemaker and Hoard of Washington, DC but the good folks at Dalkey Archive, who never answer my emails, also publish most of his books.

George Ovitt (12/10/13)

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