A few years ago, when I was in New York to give a reading, I called David Markson, cold. (His number was listed in the phone book.)
Someone picked up. “Hello?”
“Are you David Markson?” I asked.
“Yes…” the man replied, at once exceedingly wary.
“Please don’t hang up!” I pleaded. “I’m your biggest fan!”
He didn’t hang up. He also didn’t come to the reading (he told me he’d “just gotten Subway for dinner”). But he did invite me to swing by his apartment the following day, to possibly come up and chat.
And so I arrived exactly on time the next morning, and called him back.
Of course he didn’t invite me in. (He said he wasn’t feeling up to it.) But we did talk for a couple of hours, while I stood outside his place, pacing back and forth along the sidewalk. (I kept trying to figure out which windows were his.)
Toward the end of our conversation, he congratulated my attempt, commending me for participating in “a fine tradition”—the same way he’d once gone and pestered Malcolm Lowry. (Well, he got a lot further with Malcolm Lowry—probably pestered him a lot less, too.)
When I returned to Chicago, I sent him one of my stories, a piece about Bonnie Raitt. True to form, he replied within one week, with one of his famous typewritten letters. “I think that it reads well,” is what he wrote, “but of course the pop culture reference is lost on me.”
There’s David Markson for you: He didn’t know who Bonnie Raitt was.
But he knew everything else—everything worth knowing. And more importantly, he knew how everything worth knowing can be forgotten. And how it is always being forgotten, not only by others, but by oneself.
That tragedy—and how a writer responds to it—forms, for me, the center of his genius.
I wasn’t David Markson’s biggest fan; no one could be. I won’t pretend that my heartbreak over his passing is larger or more painful than anyone else’s. Anyone who loves David Markson does so equally fiercely, equally desperately.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, more than any other novel, transformed me. It shattered something deep and private inside me—a shell I didn’t even know at the time I was stuffed inside—and then it helped reshape me, guiding me outward with its greater vision of what a book could be.
It did so generously, lovingly. It taught me how a novel could be both boldly experimental and yet always sharing, always giving.
Not to mention melancholy. And whimsical. And rightly delighted with its own language and imagery.
Romantic. Suspenseful. Playful.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress taught me that a novel could be entirely its own thing, its own invention, and yet remain accessible—could even be immediately familiar. The author could simultaneously invent a new form and perfect it, then teach the reader from the very first paragraph how to read it.
David Markson of course wrote a lot more than Wittgenstein’s Mistress. His earlier books are all fabulous. Going Down is a masterpiece. Springer’s Progress is a masterpiece. Reader’s Block, if not a masterpiece, is still a great novel, too, in its own humble way. (I like to think of it—fondly—as “Outtakes from the Same Studio Session That Produced Wittgenstein’s Mistress.”)
(It helps, though, to read its title literally. Because the same way that Wittgenstein’s Mistress changed me, changes anyone who reads it—it doubtlessly changed David Markson as well. Post-WM, he was suddenly his own reader.)
(And, I mean, how on earth do you follow Wittgenstein’s Mistress? Because Wittgenstein’s Mistress isn’t just a great book—it’s one of the greatest books in the English language!)
Some people like sometimes to complain about the three novels that followed Reader’s Block, but I’ll defend them. Granted, they explore an increasingly shrinking area (and Markson’s pretty up-front about that), but they explore it—and they’re delightful. And giving. And celebratory. And, yes, still overwhelmingly melancholy. David Markson never wrote a bad book.
Of all the novelists writing today, David Markson is the one most worth knowing.
Despite this, like anything else, like anyone else, he will someday be forgotten.
Not soon, I pray.