As promised, my interview with Laura Sims re: her book of Markson letters FARE FORWARD:
The poet Laura Sims is writing a piece about Markson and asked me to send a short blurb about my Markson Treasure Hunt: how I first heard about it, how I found all the books I did, what made me start posting scans, etc. I found it hard to be brief, so I ended up sending her this, which is certainly not a “short blurb,” but it was the best I could do. She’ll probably use a quote or two from it. I decided to post the entirety here…
Like you, I had written to David. Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Joyce’s Ulysses were—and still are—my two pinnacles of literature. Since Markson had the benefit of still being alive, whereas Joyce had long passed, I gave a shot to writing to him. He responded to both letters, rather quickly, but also succinctly (on those infamous plain white unlined postcards of his). I’ll always regret not writing more than those two to him. I wish I had struck up a more lengthy correspondence, as you did, but I was too worried about bugging him. When I read about the fact that his books were at the Strand (from a piece in the London Review of Books, I think), I quite literally jumped out of bed and ran down to see what I could find. I knew that others had already been searching before me, that I was late to the party, so I imagined that a number of the big authors would be picked over (the Lowrys, the Gaddises, the Joyces, etc.), though I still looked, of course. I decided I had to be clever and come up with lesser known writers that I knew influenced him. I went to Conrad Aiken (who had been mentor to Lowry, who in turn had been mentor to Markson)—found Markson’s copy of his Collected Novels, his Collected Short Stories, and Ushant. Two of those I think were signed from Aiken to Markson. And then also, of course, had Markson’s own name inscribed on the first page, as with all the books he owned. I checked out Gertrude Stein, and found nothing. But then had the foresight to look under Toklas, and was excited to see that The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas had been misfiled under her name. So I have his copy of that. What luck! I thank the god I don’t believe in for the incompetence of whichever bookseller was tasked with filing that book away. Joyce’s section in Fiction, of course, had already been checked—I have no clue if anyone found his copies of Ulysses, Portrait, or Dubliners—but I looked for Joyce in the Drama section and found Markson’s copy of Joyce’s Exiles. Even though that one contains no marginalia, it remains one of my prized possessions because it is one of my two favorite authors’ copy of one of the other of my favorite authors’ books. I found a couple of Markson’s Wittgenstein books as well (also, obviously, prized possessions).
This was all in that first hunt, I think. I was running around like a madman from section to section, trying to think of the pecking order of Markson influences. But then I had to get to work. At the time, I was working at Barnes & Noble and all this treasure hunting for Markson books had made me late for work at that lesser bookstore. I remember my managers being really upset with me when I strolled into Barnes & Noble, late for work, and with two huge bags from the Strand under my arms. You’re not supposed to promote great used bookstores at the chain stores; it makes them feel inferior. I had broken a cardinal rule. They were more mad about that than the fact that I was late. My phenomenal excuse didn’t carry any weight with them either because, sadly, no one who worked at that Barnes & Noble had ever read or even heard of David Markson. Immediately when I got off work, I went back to buy more that evening. And then every day for weeks. I went through every single book in the Strand, which most people find unbelievable. But I did, it’s true, all 18 miles or however many miles they say. And not only did I go through them once, but twice. The entire store TWICE. The reason being that they didn’t put out all his books in one go, they kept putting out new ones, so in order to be thorough you had to keep combing through the sections. So months after everyone had already known about it and thought it was over, I still found his copies of DeLillo and Vonnegut and others. He’s such an asshole to DeLillo in the margins of his copy of Mao II, and I fucking love it. “What an awful couple of pages!” appears on pg. 224. “Bullshit” appears in the margins of many of the pages of Mao II.
I searched every section they had, even the ones that seemed unlikely to contain Markson books. The Fiction section I combed through hundreds of times, obviously, but even the Sports section, the Philosophy section, the Arts section, any place I could think of that might contain hidden treasure. I honestly felt like Mel Fisher. This was my Atocha. But even more so than treasure of monetary value, each new book of his I found in the stacks felt like another letter sent to my address, with personal notes, and jokes, and insights. Finally, maybe four months later, maybe longer, the well had dried up, and I stopped finding them. I ended up with hundreds. I loved those months of searching, and was sad when there were no more books to be found. The whole Markson Treasure Hunt remains one of the highlights of my thirty years of existence. I met people, fellow mad Marksonites. I helped them find Markson books as well. Some became close friends. I would have felt bad about ending up with as many as I did if I hadn’t started the blog. It sounds lame, and maybe self-righteous, but I really felt like I was hoarding them just so I could give them to the world. I wanted to preserve these important artifacts. Maybe one day they’ll end up in a library somewhere? Who knows? But for now, I’m keeping them safe, and trying to share some scans from them with the world. It’s been a while since my last post, but I was updating it every day for over a year, and then continued to update it regularly for another year or two after that. I posted something like 450 scans, if I’m not mistaken. Surprisingly, some of my best scans I still never shared though. There is just too much to share. I’d love to collect the best scans—some of which I’ve posted, some of which I haven’t—into some sort of book, and I am looking for a way to do so, but we’ll see what comes of it…
Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson is out today from powerHouse. Pick up a copy if you have any interest in the best writer of the last 50 years. (Bonus: This blog and myself are both mentioned on pg. 77)
Also, be on the lookout for my interview with poet Laura Sims (the one to whom all the letters in this book were written). It should be going up on Full Stop sometime soon.
For now, here’s a mini excerpt from our interview:
One thing I always wanted to chat with another Markson-obsessed person about was what to call those final novels when grouped together? On Reading Markson Reading, I’ve been calling them The Notecard Quartet, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on whether they should even be grouped together and, if so, what they should be called?
That’s a really nice name for them, I like that. The Notecard Quartet. And yes, I really do think they belong together. It’s undeniable that their shared form and concerns connect them—they’re like one big book he was working out over time. I always think of them as a “tetralogy,” but I like your name for them much better.
The words “Fare Forward” are from a T. S. Eliot line which Markson quoted as a kind of “bon voyage” to you when you moved from New York to Wisconsin. Can you tell me why and how that title was chosen?
Originally I came up with five possible titles:
Don’t Leave Flowers, Telephone: Letters from David Markson
I’ll Tell You the Truth: Letters from David Markson
The Sound of My Own Voice: Letters from David Markson
I Almost Prefer the Silence: Letters from David Markson
Fare Forward, Voyagers: Letters from David Markson
Wes (of powerHouse) made the very good point that we didn’t want to choose a title that, like the first four on the list, emphasized Markson as a hermetically sealed literary figure. If the book were to introduce new readers to his work, as we hoped it would, we would have to choose something more open-ended and optimistic. We both liked the last one for that reason, and then Wes thought it would be better without the “Voyagers.” I think he was right.
I like that the title is positive, forward-looking, and optimistic in a way, because I think that there’s actually an optimism in his writing that is often buried, but is sort of always there, a strange optimism that I can’t quite describe.
It is. It’s what keeps the books from being completely bleak and depressing. They’re really not. I know that some people find them so, but I don’t think of them that way. There is a thread of hope running through them that keeps them buoyant, joyful even.
It’s been a while since my last post. I still have so much more marginalia to share, but having three jobs in addition to trying to finish my novel is not conducive to incessant Markson posting. That said, I’ve started looking into the possibility of making a sort of coffee table book of various scans and commentary on each scan. About half of the scans in the book would be the best of the scans I’ve already posted here, and the other half would be entirely new stuff that I never got around to posting.
If anyone has any interest in helping in this project, definitely contact me. I’m looking for potential publishing companies with any interest. I also may go the kickstarter route and self-publish the thing (if no publishers are willing to take a chance on the book). There’s lots to be worked out, but I’ve definitely started moving towards finally doing something beyond the blog with the hundreds of Markson books I was able to find with a little luck and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Going through every book in the Strand’s supposed “18 miles of books” is still one of the best experiences of my life, and I will always look back on those treasure hunting days with an intense fondness. So if you have any ideas about publishing, feel free to drop me a line. Or if you just want to say: “I’d buy one if you made ‘em!” That’s always nice to hear too.
Also, side note, there’s a new book of Markson’s letters to the poet Laura Sims which will be coming out in April. This tumblr is mentioned in one of her footnotes. I’ll be interviewing Laura soon about her friendship with Markson and the book and what not. When that interview is published in April, I’ll post it here as well.
Als ick kan,
The last page of David Markson’s copy of The Complete Greek Drama: Volume Two by Various (Ed. Whitney J. Oates & Eugene O’Neill, Jr.):
On which Markson wrote at the bottom of the page:
“LO, I HAVE SEEN THE OPEN HAND OF GOD
AND IN IT NOTHING, NOTHING, SAVE THE ROD
OF MINE AFFLICTION……
—THE TROJAN WOMEN”
“Lo, I have seen the open hand of God;
And in it nothing, nothing, save the rod
Of mine affliction…”
Words spoken by Hecuba in The Trojan Women by Euripides.
Hecuba, to whom Markson makes mention on pgs. 93-94 of his masterpiece Wittgenstein’s Mistress:
“But what I am actually now thinking about, for some reason, is the scene in The Trojan Women where the Greek soldiers throw Hector’s poor baby boy over the city’s walls, so that he will not grow up to take revenge for his father or for Troy.
God, the thing men used to do.
Irene Papas was an effective Helen in the film of The Trojan Women, however.
Katharine Hepburn was an effective Hecuba, as well.
Hecuba was Hector’s mother. Well, which is to say she was the baby boy’s grandmother also, of course.
Just imagine how Katharine Hepburn must have felt.”
Nothing, nothing, save the rod of mine affliction……
The first page of David Markson’s copy of Tevye’s Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem by Sholom Aleichem:
On which Markson wrote, as an inscription:
Good thing this is the first page and not the thirteenth.
“Sholom Aleichem never submitted a manuscript containing a page numbered thirteen.”
- Markson, Reader’s Block, pg. 43.
A postcard sent to Charles J. Shields from David Markson re: the biography of Kurt Vonnegut that Shields has written.
On which Markson wrote:
“Dear Charles— 11/15/07
I’ve a list—everybody’s birthdays—kids, grandchildren, miscl. chums—and at the start of every new yr. I copy them into the new calendar—to remember to send cards, etc. Ergo, when was it?—exactly 4 days ago—what did I see scribbled in at the bottom of 11/11?—“KV B’day.” Meaning, as in recent yrs., I’d have called him in the a.m., just to wish him well. Alas.
(Though 10 days earlier I was still able to phone Knox Burger. You do know the lovely dedication in Monkey House?)
Stay well. My best again—-
Over this Veterans Day holiday weekend was the late, great Kurt Vonnegut’s bday.
The above is a postcard that David Markson sent to Vonnegut’s biographer Charles J. Shields a few days after Vonnegut’s birthday in 2007.
That was his first birthday after Vonnegut’s death earlier that year in April.
If Vonnegut had been alive, Markson’d “have called him in the a.m., just to wish him well.”
Instead, the classic Marksonian refrain:
“Nobody comes. Nobody calls.”
“Novelist naturally does receive some few phone calls after all.
All too often in these years with news of someone’s death however.”
- David Markson, The Last Novel, pg. 63.
One call between Markson and Vonnegut that took place in the 90s was discussed by Markson in his Conjunctions interview:
“It’s funny. When Reader’s Block came out, Kurt Vonnegut called me, two-thirds of the way through, and said, ‘David, what kind of computer did you use to juggle this stuff?’ I told him what I’d done, and he called me when he finished it and said, ‘David, I’m worried about your mental condition.’”
And other more melancholy calls made my by Markson:
“He explains that his friends die one after the other, and that he calls their telephone numbers to hear their voices on their answering machines one last time, like voices from the great beyond.”
Wrote Françoise Palleau-Papin on pg. 258 of her book on Markson and his writing: This Is Not A Tragedy.
“A quirky new impulse of Novelist’s, at news of several recent deaths—
Dialing the deceased, in the likelihood that no one would have yet disconnected their answering machines—and contemplating their voices one eerie final time.”
- David Markson, The Last Novel, pg. 139.
Reading Markson’s postcards.
Like a voice from the great beyond.
Contemplating that voice one eerie final time.
This postcard is owned by Charles J. Shields. The above scan is used with his permission. Copyright © Charles J. Shields.
Pg. 135 of David Markson’s copy of A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke by Donald Prater:
On which David Markson put a check next to a mention of Gwendolen John:
“Augustus John’s sister Gwen, who had often posed for Rodin.”
“Fleeing the start of World War II, Gwen John collapsed and died on a street in Dieppe.”
From pg. 173 of Reader’s Block.
David Markson’s copy of A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke by Donald Prater is owned by John Harrison. The above scan is used with his permission. Copyright © John Harrison.
Pg. 175 of David Markson’s copy of Joyce: The Man, the Work, the Reputation by Marvin Magalaner & Richard M. Kain:
On which Markson placed an x and a check in the margins next to the following Joyce anecdote re: something he said to Al Laney (whose name Markson has also underlined):
“An acquaintance of Joyce in Paris during the early twenties has recalled to the author of the present study an unpublished anecdote, in which Joyce used a similar figure to describe his view of religion. Men, he said to Al Laney, then a correspondent for the Paris Herald, are like deep-sea fish, swimming in water that is mysteriously irradiated with light from above the surface but unable to rise to the surface to see—a characteristic figure in its grotesquerie and its relevance to Joyce’s own limited sight.”
Swimming in water that is mysteriously irradiated with light from above the surface…
“A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles, and is there one who understands me?”
From Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
From Markson’s The Last Novel. (Pg. 187)
Unable to rise to the surface to see…
“Joyce had twenty-five operations on his eyes.”
According to Markson on pg. 67 of Reader’s Block.
Its relevance to Joyce’s own limited sight…
The first page of David Markson’s copy of Michelangelo by Ludwig Goldscheider:
On which Markson wrote as an inscription:
As any reader of Markson’s late novels knows, they are filled with what he told Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm were “incidental odds and ends, intellectual snippets—whatever you might call them—about literary people, about artists, about composers, about even sometimes sports figures.”
And Markson always threw in these little “incidental odds and ends,” even in his early books, even though they have more of a narrative.
Going all the way back to his early detective novels you can already see his interests and obsessions with intellectual trivia forming.
Though all Markson’s books are filled with these little bits of information, he rarely repeated the same tidbit twice.
Also in the Silverblatt interview, Markson said:
“I try not to repeat anecdotes.”
And when further talking with Silverblatt about why he doesn’t put the same anecdotes in different books:
“I don’t want people to be stumbling over the same story.”
True, a handful reoccur in a couple books, but for the most part, each little nugget is entirely unique in every new book.
One of the few tidbits used more than twice though is one about Michelangelo—specifically about him never taking off his boots, even to bed.
Some iteration of this information appears in four of Markson’s books (only one of these appearances is in his final tetralogy The Notecard Quartet though).
The first mention of this story of Michelangelo and his boots is all the way back in Markson’s 1970 novel Going Down.
On pg. 187:
“And yet all I remember half the time are things like Michelangelo wearing his boots to bed.”
This factoid is mentioned again on pg. 7 of Markson’s next novel Springer’s Progress:
“Dana get authentically grieved at him, find himself pondering that Michelangelo wore his boots to bed.”
And on pg. 185 of Wittgenstein’s Mistress:
“Have I ever mentioned that Michelangelo practically never took a bath in his life, by the way?
And even wore his boots to bed?
On my honor, it is a well known item in the history of art that Michelangelo was not somebody one would particularly wish to sit too close to.
Which on second thought could very well change one’s view as to why all of those Medici kept telling him don’t bother to get up, as a matter of fact.”
Lastly, in The Notecard Quartet, on pg. 23 of Vanishing Point, Michelangelo and his boots reappear:
“At certain seasons he kept those boots on for such a length of time that when he drew them off, the skin came away altogether with the leather.
Said Ascanio Condivi, a friend of Michelangelo’s.”