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Monday, 20 December 2010

David Markson's Readers Block 2

A blocked pipe, frozen; a bath that wouldn’t drain and then a flood through my kitchen ceiling: nothing to do but call a plumber, mop up, wipe down, sit unbathed and wait for the plumber to arrive, which he does by the day’s end but, before he does, from Amazon, David Markson’s Reader’s Block drops through the letterbox.

I dip it into it.

The dip becomes a dive.

How to describe this novel without it seeming arid and self-conscious, but the excerpt below does it best: a series of indented paragraphs – sometimes no more than a word, a title, a name - in which an author known as Reader attempts to spell out to himself the novel that seems always to be evading him.

The novel’s form is that of a notebook –a writer’s notebook, but almost, too, the kind of commonplace book a reader might keep - and, as Markson’s Reader forages his imagination (or his memory?) to pad out the fugitive work, other facts, anecdotes, quotations rise up:

Boethius was executed by having a thong inexorably tightened about his temples; Anne Sexton drank vodka as she waited for the closed garage to fill up with fumes; Roland Barthes was hit by a laundry truck; Rupert Brooke and Alban Berg died from insect bites.

Knut Hamsun was a horse-car conductor in Chicago; Cervantes was a tax collector; Maugham, Larkin, Virgil and Moses were stutterers; Wallace Stevens could not bear to say out loud the word ‘womb’; Rossini wore a wig and, in chilly weather, he wore two

William Butler Yeats was an anti-Semite; so was Chesterton, Kant, Heidegger and Martin Luther – these accusations come as regular as heartbeats - and, yes, why didn’t Kafka call Joseph K a Jew and ‘be done with it.’

102 boulevard haussmann; 26 Piazza di Spagna; Roslyn Harbor, Long Island

‘But at that moment the door opened and a personage entered who was a stranger to all present’ (Dostoevsky); ‘Our sister, Death’ (Francis of Assisi); ‘But who are you? You are not from the castle, you are not from the village, you aren’t anything.’ (Kafka?); ‘Yesterday at eight o’clock Madame Bérenge, the concierge, died.’ (?); and, decades afterwards, locked indelibly in Reader’s mind, the last two pages of Good Morning, Midnight;

Susan Sontag, writing on Elias Canetti, described the notebook as 'the perfect literary form for an eternal student,’ and every writer is an eternal student, perpetually learning yet again - and as if for the first time - the same set of skills to answer the same problems, the previous solutions no longer available.

Sontag wrote that the notebook holds that the ‘self that one constructs to deal with the world,’ and Markson’s Reader is battling both to deal with and construct a fictional world as well as fending off the troubled facts of what might be his own experience as he imagines:

A character, the Protagonist… a house… a house by a cemetery?... a house in a cemetery… no, a house on a beach!... no, a cemetery. And why is the Protagonist alone? Might there be others? Women? A woman. A wife? If so, are there children? Where are they now?

And as Reader moves these figures and thoughts, teases them from the shadows, reality’s darker backing promises either to peel back or advance even further forward.

David Markson's Reader's Block 1

S A L O N ’ S B O O K S O F T H E Y E A R


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

By David Markson
Dalkey Archive Press, 193 pages

Someone nodded hello to me on the street yesterday.

To me, or to him?

Someone nodded hello to Reader on the street yesterday.

Church bells were already ringing, to announce the Armistice in November 1918, when word reached Wilfred Owen's family that he had been killed in battle one week before.

Picasso made Gertrude Stein sit more than eighty times for her portrait.

And then painted out the head and redid it three months later without having seen her again.

Pablo Casals began each day for more than seventy years by playing Bach.

I have, Reader has?

Reader has come to this place because he had no life back there at all.

Someone nodded hello to him on the street yesterday.

Anna Akhmatova had an affair with Amedeo Modigliani in Paris in 1910 and 1911. Late in life, not having left Russia again in a third of a century, she would be astonished to learn how famous he had become.

In 1579, when Shakespeare was fifteen, the population of Stratford would have been little more than fifteen hundred. Is it a safe assumption that he knew the woman named Katherine Hamlet who fell into the Avon that summer and drowned?

Emily Dickinson became so extravagantly reclusive in the second half of her life that for the last ten years she did not once leave her house.

Even among the most tentative first thoughts about a first draft, why is Reader thinking of his central character as Reader?

Gray's Elegy is 128 lines long. Gray spent seven years writing it.

If forced to choose, Giacometti once said, he would rescue a cat from a burning building before a Rembrandt.

I am growing older. I have been in hospitals. Do I wish to put certain things down?

Granted, Reader is essentially the I in instances such as that. Presumably in most others he will not be the I at all, however.

Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall.

Thumbed pages: read and read. Who has passed here before me?

Saint Thomas Aquinas was an anti-Semite.

Only Bianchon can save me, said Balzac, near death.

Bianchon being a doctor in Le Pere Goriot.

His life evidently static. Alone, seemingly without occupation or achievement, his means meager.


Anthony Trollope said he had read Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie at least three dozen times.


Perhaps someone from a shop Protagonist had stopped in at, a clerk? Or merely someone in a friendly mood in passing?

Severn, lift me up, I am dying.

Don't breathe on me, it comes like ice.

The world is my idea.

Saint Augustine said his first teacher was also the first person he ever saw who could read without moving his lips.

Back to Salon’s Book Awards

Neither Fantasy Nor Realism

This, via this space

Neither fantasy nor realism

Ramona Koval: You say modernists look with horror at the proliferation in modern culture of both fantasy and realism, both Tolkien and Graham Greene, both Philip Pullman and VS Naipaul, out of respect for the world. Tell me what this horror entails. Why?

Gabriel Josipovici: The last part of that phrase is something that I touched upon when I was saying that this is not simply a clever modernist trick that springs from a desire to make the reader see that everything that can be said about the world is still going to leave a lot unsaid which is there in the world. So, in a way, they are trying to make you ... just as much as the lyric poets are trying to make you ... see the world itself as it is out there, and what I was saying there was I think this proliferation of fantasies from Tolkien through to the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman and so on, is a curious sort of indication of the way in which we would rather just turn away from the world and live in pseudo myths and mythologies, and they are pseudo, they're not the real thing as they were in cultures that really had myths and really believed in them. And similarly I think straightforward realism also stops you actually recognising this mysterious thing that our lives are open, are not going to be subsumed in a narrative we can easily tell, but we are constantly going to come up against something which is much more mysterious, much stranger, much more un-inchoate than we imagine.
Part of a transcript from interview on ABC Radio National of Australia about Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?

Cups to Australian talk radio in general and cups to the estimable Josipovici - although it has to be said that Pullman uses fantasy to critique Christian myths in which he thinks we should no longer believe, and that both Rowlings and Pullman write for children and there is no harm and every delight in encouraging a love of fantasy in such readers - is there a modernist book for children? As CS Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism put it:
children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion.

It's adult readers who read such books - and write them - fantasies unengaged by the mind, without considered thought, set in feudal and monarchical worlds, sexist and sexless, and who seem wholly accepting in such fiction that there is a spiritual, political and moral elect (fated to be so by birth), that evil is immediately identifable by black costumery and that twisted visages reliably indicate twisted souls.

And I'm not quite sure I have ever read a 'straightforwardly realist' text. Greene's 'realism' is not Naipaul's; neither writer say everything that can be said about the world, and each of them leave much unsaid and utter only as much as each of them can - which, for both, even when similar (A Burnt-out Case/ A Bend in the River), is also, eerily and necessarily unlike.