Stringing Together Voices: The Narrative of David Markson
The books of this US author are disquieting, defy classification and produce real experiences in readers seduced by them.
How it is possible that since the novel A Void by Georges Perec, for example, or the novels of Carlo Emilio Gadda, or after How I Wrote Certain of My Books, by the indispensable Raymond Roussel, conventional novels continue to appear, such as those by Isabel Allende or Carlos Ruiz Zafón? This is of course a rhetorical question, as we find the answer in the publishing industry: reading 500 “experimental” pages about “nothing,” is nothing more than ideological control over the population; maintaining tastes stable, condescending and easily classifiable on the tables of new titles, and which increasingly remind us of a horse race. However, good books — the kind of books that produce a kind of reader that did not exist until the appearance of said books – are, in general, books that are experienced for a very simple reason: literature is experimental. In other words, litersture is that which takes place thanks to the book, and which occurs to the author and their readers.
One of the best examples of this small definition of the literary is the work of David Markson, who was born in Albany, New York in 1927, and who died in 2010. A writer who is practically unknown outside of the US, he remains excessively literary: he is easy to read and a delight, and he is almost like one of those quotable authors that are usually the opposite of “literary.” And quoting is a process that is much used in the construction of Markson’s narrative: “Mr Coleridge, don’t cry. If opium really does you good, you should consume it. Why don’t you go and get some, Wilkie Collins’ mother asked.” Or: “The writer wants it without action. I mean, without a succession of events. Meaning without indicating the passage of time. But even with all that, we get somewhere.” Or, lastly: “Catullus, who loved a woman whom he called Lesbia but whose real name may have been Clodia. Propertius, who loved a woman whom he called Cynthia, but whose real name may have been Hostia. Both, a full two thousand years ago.”
His “novels” are made up of quotes of this kind, readers’ notes, indirect quotes, and paraphrases that concoct a screen that serves as literary or art criticism, or cultural gossip, possible epigraphs for books that nobody will write, and which can work as a manual for writers, a conversation among the dead, a user’s manual for apocryphal writers, etc. His books defy classification, and the quotes or comments gather in the tired absence of the novelist.
Among many others, he was friends with Malcom Lowry, about whom he wrote a wonderful book, as well as with Conrad Aiken and Jack Kerouac. Or perhaps we should say it the other way around, that they had the good fortune to have a friend like him. David Foster Wallace, an author who will quickly become a pop icon (if he isn’t already with his recent entry into the world of cinema), said that Markson’s work was “the highest point we can find in US experimental fiction.” And together with William Gaddis, he no doubt is. And, fortunately for the Spanish-speaking reader, his work has begun to be translated in Argentina by Laura Wittner, thanks to the editorial eye of Argentine writer Luis Chitarroni, who has unearthed more than one lost treasure or dug out authors such as Markson.
“Now I dedicate myself to a very frequent Experiment among Modern Authors; it consists of writing about nothing.” So runs the quotation from Swift that opens Markson’s This is Not a Novel, published in Argentina by La Bestia Equilátera. His knack for picking the epigraph sums up the literary aim: to write about nothing, and write quoting, a litetary aim that has been in progress for more than a century and, as with its previous shell – the conventional novel – has entered into a phase of entropy, of no return.
Some of his best known books are Going Down (1970) and Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), for which he became best known and which was praised by critics, and the triology comprising Reader’s Block (1996), This is Not a Novel (2001) and The Last Novel (2007). Here, the wink of the last novel can be read as an English-language twin story of Adriana Buenos Aires by the Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández, and which was also referred to as “the last bad novel.” To put aesthetes at ease, that book was followed by The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, by Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández, also known as “the first good novel.” The things one learns when quoting others.
By Sebastián Gómez Matus
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