Good-bye, David Markson

I am heartbroken to learn of the death of the great David Markson. Like many before me, I was drawn to Markson through a strange attraction exerted by a pile of austere paperbacks on the edge of a table at the Strand.  I bought the mysterious book and, transported and enchanted, I contrived to meet its visibly local author, a bemused, unobtrusive fellow accustomed to occasional encounters with dazzled acolytes—and long silences in between. I startled him by living in the house (now the home of Little Star) of Village eccentrics Rose and David Slivka, who, I learned, used to invite Dylan Thomas over from the White Horse to dry out.

I had been scheming to drag Markson around on a Little Star-podcast interview-tour of literary-libertine Greenwich Village, in the certain knowledge that he would be too accommodating to refuse, when he died; I had begged him when starting Little Star to send us something and he insisted, somewhat implausibly, that he had nothing left.  It seems impossible that David, who was a kind of repository for everything that sparkled and fascinated in our lapsing civilization, can have run out of material. His beautiful books, which were often characterized, when they were noticed at all, as “experimental,” hoarded remnants of our culture like a preserving balm.  Indeed, the consciousness that governed his books was broken, and events were refracted through such a torrent of thoughts that they were only dimly visible, but to me his stories had their own powerful arc of feeling, in which speakers’ self-knowledge turned in larger and larger circles around the twisting nexus of their thoughts, churning fragments of civilization against the absurdity of everyday life and the yearning for connection and transcendence.  To read his books was to experience the elation of knowing and the perils of knowledge.  Here, remembering him with gratitude, a few pages from the book in which, for me, it all came together most powerfully, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, told in the voice of a woman who believes herself to be a painter and the last person on earth. It is precisely Markson’s greatness that we do not care whether we know these things to be true. These passages are perhaps uncharacteristically lacking in cultural referent, but their transparency reveals something of the deep human sympathies that shape Markson’s intricate work.

The reason for one of my bicycles being at the gas station is that I sometimes decide to walk home, after having ridden somewhere.

Although what I really decided that day was to bring back kerosene, which was difficult to ride with.

Buy Wittgenstein’s Mistress

Buy David Markson’s other books

Read Bruce Weber’s New York Times obituary

Interviews with Michael Silverblatt, Dalkey Archive

I say was difficult, instead of is difficult, since I no longer carry kerosene, no longer making use of those lamps.

When I stopped making use of them was after I knocked over the one that set fire to the other house, although doubtless I have mentioned this.

One moment I was adjusting the wick, and a moment after that the entire bedroom was ablaze.

These beach houses are all wood, of course. All I could do was sit at the dunes and watch it burn.

For most of the night the entire sky was Homeric.

It was on that same night that my rowboat disappeared, as it happened, although that is perhaps beside the point.

One hardly pays attention to a missing rowboat when one’s house is burning to the ground.

Still, there it was, no longer on the beach.

Sometimes I like to believe that it has been carried all of the way across the ocean by now, to tell the truth.

As far as to the island of Lesbos, say. Or to Ithaca, even.

Frequently, certain objects wash up onto the shore here that could well have been carried just as far in the opposite direction, as a matter of fact.

Such as my stick, for instance, which I sometimes take with me when I walk.

Doubtless the stick served some other purpose than simply being taken along on walks, at one time. One can no longer guess at what other purpose, however, because of the way it has been worn smooth by waves.

Now and again I have also made use of the stick to write in the sand with, actually.

In fact I have even written in Greek.

Well, or in what looked like Greek, although I was actually only inventing that.

What I would write were messages, to tell the truth, like the ones I sometimes used to write in the street.

Somebody is living on this beach, the messages would say.

Obviously it did not matter by then that the messages were only in an invented writing that nobody could read.

Actually, nothing that I wrote was ever still there when I went back in any case, always being washed away.

Still, if I have concluded that there is nothing in the painting except shapes, am I also concluding that there was not even invented writing in the sand, but only grooves from my stick?

Doubtless the stick was originally nothing more interesting than the handle of a carpet sweeper.

Once, when I had set it aside to drag a piece of driftwood along the beach, I worried that I might have lost it.

When I looked back it was standing upright, however, where I had had the foresight to place it without really paying attention.

Then again it is quite possible that the question of loss had not entered my mind until I was already in the process of looking back, which is to say that the stick was already not lost before I had worried that it might be…

Read more in Wittgenstein’s Mistress

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