Friday, September 17, 2010

Some Remarks On David Markson

Tillalala Chronicles (henceforth TC) was not familiar with David Markson until June, 2010, when Steve Fama (The Glade Of Theoric Ornithic Hermetica) mentioned his passing in an email, after reading news of Markson’s passing at Silliman’s blog.

TC grew immediately intrigued when it was mentioned that Markson’s novels were based on collage, a non-linear assembly of anecdotes and facts.

TC has a preference for writing that is peripatetic, untied, nomadic, wandering, meandering, all-inclusive.

Drifting, journeying, itinerant, rambling.

Oscillating, pulsing, reaching, eccentric.

TC enjoys facts. Factoids.

For example, the clarinet has five sections: the mouthpiece, the tuning barrel, the upper middle joint, the lower middle joint, and the bell. It is the youngest member of the woodwind instruments and is the most elusive in its origins. It is a notoriously difficult instrument to play, its large number of perforations necessitated by its tendency to overblow, i.e. to pass into its second mode of vibration at the interval of a twelfth above the fundamental sounds, rather than at the octave. Semitones are needed in the primary scale without recourse to fork-fingering, and to link, chromatically, the top of the primary scale with the twelfth.

If David Markson were a musical instrument, he would be a clarinet.

The clarinet was Mozart’s favorite instrument. TC imagines he loved it for its dreaminess, and the infinite range of its compass.

TC wonders if the quality of dreaminess might conflict with the use of collage, since by nature collage is fragmentary, and dreams are sequential, however crazy and eccentric the sequence happens to be.

TC just answered his own question.

Digressive, errant, disconnected, random.

In 1844, a patent was granted for a clarinette à anneaux mobiles. Thus was born the Boehm System clarinet, the preferred instrument of most clarinet players.

The clarinet has many accidentals, notes whose pitch is outside the mode indicated by the key signature.

Deviant, anomalistic, unusual, offbeat.

Everything a mainstream book editor would hate.

To date, TC has read two Markson novels: This Is Not A Novel and The Last Novel.

In This Is Not A Novel, TC noted that a preponderate number of facts had to do with a writer’s or artist’s death, the date they died, and the cause of their death. This left an overwhelming impression of mortality and gave rise to thoughts of a somewhat morbid nature, mainly that the knowledge that we will one day die is the central sad fact of the human condition, and that many writers die as a result of poverty, neglect, and suicide.

In The Last Novel, TC noted that the issue of poverty was emphasized in its litany of facts pertaining to writers living in extremities of financial need, the author’s own in some instances, presented with a certain baldness, no trace of self-pity at all, simply a recognition that this is what is to be expected if one so chooses to be a writer, and write as one’s genius encourages one to write, not as the market dictates.

TC read both books while lying on the couch. This is TC’s chief mode of literary delectation. With the weight off one’s body, and the sense of repose augmented by a supine position, one’s mind is best able to absorb vagaries of thought and nuances of insight.

Reading anything for a duration on an electronic screen is impossible, which makes TC wonder about the merit of keeping a blog.

TC found it difficult to stop reading both Markson novels, for reasons that cannot be explained, since there is no plot, no character development, nothing to induce one to keep turning pages, except for the grace of many of the sentences, the quirkiness of many others, and the fascinating facts pertaining to the creative life.

TC loves to see blocks of prose. Beckett’s How It Is, nearly all of Paul Metcalf’s writing, Cioran’s De l’inconvénient d’être né, and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons are further examples. Blocks of prose elevate a sense of materiality, make language look like something you can pick up, like a glass or vase, and turn it around, and examine it while feeling it with one’s hands. It is an illusion, but a very compelling one.

TC found it droll the way Markson chose to begin certain paragraphs or sentences with the name of a city, country, date, or circumstance, and end it with a preposition. It sounded clunky, deliberately so, as if there were something to be said for clunkiness in writing, in the same way dissonant notes sound so alluring in jazz and rock n’roll.

One of Markson’s earlier novels is called The Ballad Of Dingus Magee, and was made into a movie, Dirty Dingus Magee, starring Frank Sinatra. TC will keep an eye out for a DVD and watch it one day. TC doubts that he will enjoy a more conventional approach to writing by the same author, but is hopeful of being surprised, and proved wrong.

Frank Sinatra!

TC notes that the sentence Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke. appears several times in The Last Novel. But isn’t each word considered a sentence? What makes a sentence, a sentence?

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

That sums it up.

The measure of a man’s greatness would be in terms of what his work cost him.
Wittgenstein once told someone.

The above is a quote from page 147 of The Last Novel. It is pertinent to mention that Wittgenstein was born into wealth, and gave away nearly his whole fortune to his brothers and sisters. TC surmises that it is doubtful that Wittgenstein’s use of the word ‘cost’ has anything at all to do with money, though money would be part of the picture.

TC wonders how Markson knew The Last Novel would be his last novel. Was it the severity of his illness? Did Markson set out to write this work until he died, knowing that his death was inevitable, and imminent? Is that what happened? It is said his two children found his body lying in bed in his Greenwich Village apartment. That must have been sad, and grim, and upsetting, for all involved.

Though perhaps not for Markson. Unless ghosts exist. And Markson's ghost was hanging around his apartment when his children stopped by. Rather than heading straight to heaven, or whatever might constitute an afterlife, assuming one's personality remains intact, and is able to hear and see and maintain a conversation, or make sounds, like the howling in castles late at night, and the jangle of chains.

Why chains?

TC would not rule out feelings of relief, either, for all involved, in matters of death, and the death in particular, of a loved one, someone with whom you have spent a good portion of your life, or shared deep and intimate feelings.

TC speculates whether it might be a little gauche, or insensitive, to speculate on the feelings of other people, complete strangers. TC is drawing from his own experience and extrapolating on the feelings of others, adding to his supposition memories of people he has seen in grief and mourning, or eating and laughing at funerals. He has seen people laugh and be grief-stricken at the same time.

TC has known people who loved their parents deeply, people who grew irreparably distant from their parents, and people who despised their parents.

There is no regularity in human life.

There is no consistency in human life.

No absolutes. No universal truths. Nothing static. Nothing pre-determined.

Everything in TC’s life has been surprising, unpredictable, shocking, appalling, nerve-wracking, exciting, disturbing, thrilling, painful, joyful, and often just plain weird.

TC hates doing book reviews, but becomes instantly conflicted, convoluted, contradictory and confusing when trying to explain why he occasionally assents to do them, or does so, as now, completely on his own, with no one tugging at his sleeve, except his own inclinations, many of which make no sense, or provide any rational motivation, at least none that can be explained without, at some level, bringing in a paradoxical elasticity, like the elliptical orbit of planets, which also makes no sense.

This review is fun to write because it is not a review.

The numerous references to alcohol in The Last Novel are frequently funny, reminding TC of what fun it used to be to drink, until TC lost the ability to stop drinking, and so had to stop drinking permanently.

Does this make sense?

TC often notes, with a sense of oppressive futility and profound discouragement, at how few people read anymore.

TC often notes, with a sense of oppressive futility and profound discouragement, the utter lack of curiosity he frequently encounters among people.

TC often notes, with a sense of oppressive futility and profound discouragement, how obedient people have become lately. Taking their shoes off at the airport, submitting their bodies to X-ray scans, taking jobs for absurdly low amounts of pay, sheepishly avoiding talks of unionizing, earnestly avoiding talk about the obvious controlled demolition of the world trade towers and building number seven on September 11th, 2001, after passenger jets, ostensibly flown by Islamic terrorists, slammed into them.

But not building number seven. Which came down hours afterward. At around five in the afternoon. And had simply caught fire.

TC wishes he could have met David Markson, and perhaps corresponded.

TC is enormously happy to have discovered the work of David Markson.

The writing is remarksonable.

TC likes the jingle of nails in a paper sack freshly purchased from a hardware store, and finds an immediate analogue in writers such as David Markson, or Clark Coolidge, or Gertrude Stein.

That is to say: sentences built with words.

Like nails.

Pounded into wood.

Pine. Oak. Mahogany. Maple.

Birch. Cedar. Buttonwood. Fir.


Mickey O'Connor said...

Glad to hear it John. As you know , I'm a big fan of Markson's later works. Reader's Block is I think my favorite. Of the later works. Reader's Block, This is Not a Novel, The Last Novel & another title which eludes me now tho it consists of one word, I believe. Maybe I enjoy Reader's Block since it was the first one I read. I enjoy each of them, tho the last one made disparaging cracks at Muslims which I found irksome.It's funny you mention 9-11 in your review because I think that's why Markson took potshots at Muslims, since Markson lived in Lower Manhattan & apparently believed the fairy tale official story of that day. Oh well , a minor quibble. The books are terrific reading & highly enjoyable.

John Olson said...

Thanks, Mickey. Yes, I had some very few disagreements, too, with some of the remarks /observations/ anecdotes/ quotes. Few, but acute. 9-11 is a big one. How anyone can view footage of the buildings instantaneously turn to powder and collapse so neatly into their foundations at free-fall speed and not realize that what they are seeing is a controlled demolition is in heavy, heavy denial, possibly as a result of shock. There are other highly intelligent writers and bloggers such as James Kunstler and Noam Chomsky who also poo-poo arguments contrary to the official story. I find it perplexing in the extreme.

Remarks slanted against ethnic or religious groups always make me wince. Especially now with Muslims. I have a conflicted view toward all religions. History demonstrates that all religions backfire; rather than peace and tolerance, the fanatics bring us famine and war.

But I don't know.... is that true of Zen?

Is Zen a religion? Or a practice?

It is distressing when an author of high caliber targets a group. One way or another, all religions are fucked up. And if you read Derek Jensen, he will convince you that all civilization is fucked up.

All civilization.

On balance, it is my enjoyment of Markson's liberating approach to the novel that I find so worthy of celebrating, and his point by point demonstration of the extreme difficulties of trying to survive in the world as an artist is a tonic for my self-esteem.

I cringe with embarrassment if, at a social function, anyone introduces me as a poet.

I loved that quote about how the profession of writing is the only one where not making money isn't considered ridiculous.

It is interesting how slyly tendentious one can be in a mode such as Markson's. You don't see it until you've read a bunch, and a pattern emerges.

Another pattern in The Last Novel: the ongoing wrongheadedness of everyone.


Steven Fama said...

Dear Mickey O'Connor,

What did Markson write that you consider "disparaging cracks" or "potshots" at Muslims? You may be right, please understand, but I'd like to consider the specifics.

And John, we disagree about 9/11, as you know. While you say that those who accept what you term "the official story" are possibly in shock, there are others who believe that there are emotional and psychological reasons that some reject it.

And maybe those who say that all civilization is fucked up are right. So? Then what? I've said it before, Rexroth pegged this all decades ago, and as he acknowledged, he was only relaying what great writers have put into books for ages.

Here's Ken Knabb, explaining, and largely quoting from, Rexroth:

The “message” of Homer, as Rexroth approvingly paraphrases it, is that the universe has no inherent meaning, everything is ephemeral, the only values are those that people create in relation with each other. “The thing that endures, that gives value to life, is comradeship, loyalty, bravery, magnanimity, love, the relations of men in direct communication with each other. From this comes the beauty of life, its tragedy and its meaning, and from nowhere else.”

John Olson said...

I totally agree with Rexroth. Could not have put it better. Thank you for that quote.

How do we disagree about 9/11? How can anyone disagree with what is obviously a controlled demolition? I have no theories about it. I have questions, and suspicions, but no theories.

Derek Jensen's point is not that civilization is fucked up, I misstated him, but that it is inherently toxic, inherently destructive. And it is killing the planet. Civilization, in order to maintain the livelihood of its citizens, exceeds its own resources and takes them from other, weaker civilizations, destroys ecologies, and when it exhausts one area beyond its capacity for regrowth, goes on to the next, until the inevitable collapse of the entire aggregate. He recommends small communities, ones, particularly, that "give value to life."

Mickey O'Connor said...

Steven- i could look through the book which I read cover to cover a few years ago & find the instances of potshots towards Muslims or maybe it was towards Arabs, I simply don't recall the lines at this moment. Tho at the time of reading I had the impression that was the case. As far as 9-1`1 , yes John those buildings were clearly blown & the pentagon was clearly hit by a missile, not a 767 jumbo jet as there is a 16 foot round hole in the wall & no wreckage on the lawn of the pentagon. & people like Chomsky & Alex Cockburn & others refusal to see what's in front of their eyes is yes, distressing.

Mickey O'Connor said...

also- yes John I felt invigorated reading these books by Markson. Being a poet myself who has gone in & out of poverty, I found company across arcs of time in Markson's book, poets, painters existing only to create to make their works.