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.