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Instead of Reading This, You Should Be Reading David Markson (Part One)


The novelist David Markson died three years ago, in early June. I got my last postcard from him, after a seven-year correspondence that started with the most fawning fan letter imaginable, in late March of that year. What started as a friendly, teasing exchange between interested parties—I was interested in David because I adored his work; he was interested in me because of that adoration, and also because I’d told him I wanted to write something about his novels—became, through the years, a real friendship, and a treasured one to me. His postcards, letters, phone calls, and our occasional visits punctuated my life and never ceased to thrill me, even as I got to know the flawed, cantankerous, brilliant, reclusive, lovably difficult man behind the masterful books.

Ever since reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a book that changed my notion of what a novel could be, I’d become an ardent, proselytizing fan. I’d rearrange bookstore shelves to showcase his novels; harangue friends and acquaintances until they’d read him, and I finally did get around to writing that long-promised essay, published as “David Markson and the Problem of the Novel” in a 2008 issue of The New England Review. In it I try to pinpoint the reason for my passion by calling David’s work a “remarkable hybrid”—fiction that foregrounds formal experimentation of the highest order while somehow achieving a compulsive readability. My final (formal) act of devotion was chairing a panel celebrating Markson’s work at the 2009 AWP Conference in Chicago. As panelists Brian Evenson, Martha Cooley, Francoise Palleau, Joseph Tabbi, and M.J. Fitzgerald delivered their papers, audience members scribbled notes to David in a book of postcards that I later delivered to him—he cherished them. He also cherished the recording of the event; he listened to it so many times on the mini-recorder I’d lent him that the tape finally gave out.

My small efforts had an unsurprisingly minimal impact on getting David’s work to a larger audience, which was something he longed for and deserved. “Once, I had a dream of fame,” says Kate, at the end of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The longing for fame is one of the recurring motifs in David’s last five novels—but so is reclusiveness. Not that fame is out of reach to the recluse—as J.D. Salinger and others have proven—but David’s reluctance, in later years, to do readings and to stay in touch with “the scene,” may have prevented him from achieving the kind of literary presence he desired. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to know the exact recipe for literary fame.

Death is often one of the key ingredients, though. When David died, I thought surely he’d achieve the kind of posthumous fame that others, like W.G. Sebald, another “difficult” postmodern writer, had achieved. David was certainly celebrated when he died—numerous literary lights, like Ann Beattie, William Kennedy, and Lawrence Weschler, spoke at a special memorial held at NYU. Bloggers posted loving memorials, and there’s now a tumblr called “Reading Markson Reading,” featuring the marginalia found by those lucky Strand customers who plucked his books (which he bequeathed to the store) from the stacks. In 2011, Dalkey Archive Press published the first-ever book-length study of Markson's work: This is Not a Tragedy, by the aforementioned Francoise Palleau. So it’s not as if his work is hopelessly lost, or unappreciated. Still, he hasn’t posthumously won the Nobel. That would have satisfied David, I’m sure. It would have been the perfect entry for one of his books: After decades of relative obscurity, David Markson was awarded the Nobel. In death.

In May of 2010, I was caught up in an unfolding personal drama. I hadn’t heard from David in a month or two, but I’d been too distracted to notice. Then I got a package in the mail from him. It contained the small tape recorder I’d lent him so he could listen to the AWP panel—he’d been promising to send it back for months. There was no note in the package. That seemed strange to me, so I called him right away and left a message. He called me back later, sounding like his jovial self, so I felt reassured. In June, a novelist friend of his wrote to tell me he had died. I was sad about something else at the time, so I piled my sadness about his death on top of that other sadness. I’m not sure I mourned him properly because of that. I’ve wanted to memorialize him in some personal way ever since he died, but haven’t really had the platform to do it—until now. I thought it best to let the man speak for himself, so I’ve chosen to share (in the next post) some excerpts from his postcards and letters sent during our seven-year correspondence that showcase his funny, witty, pensive, outrageously erudite, cranky and good-humored self. David would hate this, by the way—he hated the Internet, as you’ll see in the next post—and he would have required me to submit the excerpts for editing before allowing me to post them, of course. I miss him. I hope this post will lead at least a few more people out there to his transcendentally beautiful and important body of work.

Stay tuned for Markson Memorializing Markson.

Originally Published: April 19th, 2013

Laura Sims is the author of three books of poems: My god is this a man (2014),  Stranger (2009) and Practice, Restraint (winner of the 2005 Alberta Prize), all from Fence Books. She received a Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission in 2006, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since...