Pg. xviii of David Markson’s copy of A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers by Hugh Kenner:
On which Markson wrote a line in the margin next to the following paragraph from the introduction (which explains his choices for who he includes in his study of American Modernist writers):
”It is neither a survey nor an honor roll. There are distinguished bodies of achievement—Robert Lowell’s, Robert Frost’s—through which the vectors it traces do not pass. There are representative careers—Hart Crane’s, Thomas Wolfe’s—that point capital morals but have less pertinence than the oft-told Fitzgerald story. And Cummings, the supremely experimental, trifler with the sacred upper-case font, dissociator of Aesop’s very grasshoppers into the hopping letters of its busy name? Yes, the book’s theme is tanegntial to what interested Cummings, but does not encompass him because Cummings finally altered no verbal environment except his own. What the book leaves out should help underline the pertinence of what it includes. Permit that principle, and we shall get on very well.”
What interests me so much about the fact that Markson marked this paragraph is that it feels like a point of entry into his own Notecard Quartet, his final four novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel).
”What the book leaves out should help underline the pertinence of what it includes.”
A line that could describe Markson’s final four novels quite well.
Though it could appear to those unfamiliar with Markson’s world that the various little nuggets of information on writers and artists that fill the pages of those final four novels could just be thrown together haphazardly, there is a definite method to Markson’s madness.
In his Conjunctions interview, Markson explained:
”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.’”
Of course, what David Markson had done was meticulously compile the book through working and reworking various tidbits on notecards.
His process is perhaps best explained in the following KCRW interview excerpt:
”I’ll tell you something. It’s difficult. I dig out these bits and pieces of intellectual trivia. But they’re hard to come by. I go to a certain bookstore here in New York—The Strand—frequently. I’ve been going there all my adult life. And a few of the managers or other people suddenly will hand me a book they think I can use. Sometimes they are collections of anecdotes or quotes and I’ll go through the entire collection—a book of 500 pages—and maybe once in a while I’ll find something I’ve already used, but I’ll find one or two things. And one or two of these people have looked at me in astonishment. One of them looked at me and said, ‘Boy, you certainly only take the crème de la crème.’ And I guess that’s it, I must be gifted with an eye or an ear to spot the right quote. In fact, when I make these, I make notes of these things on index cards. And then I rewrite the index cards and rewrite the index cards—except for direct quotes. But I would say, as they’re pilling up, one behind the other—I use the tops of shoeboxes—but every third one, every second one, that I have managed to let myself select, every second one of those has a question mark down in the corner: ‘Is this really good, do I really want it?’”
So in summary of this and other comments he’s made:
Markson is very selective in his first round of the process (in what he tidbits he makes marks next to his his books).
And then he gets even more selective of what makes it from the margins of books to notecards in the second round of the process.
And then in the third round of the process he weeds out every other notecard.
So it is important to know that those four final novels of Markson’s aren’t filled with just scattershot tidbits, but were painstakingly crafted through constant emendations.
What the books leave out should help underline the pertinence of what they include.
(And evaluating what these novels leave out and what they include is a big part of why I created this blog in the first place.)
David Markson’s copy of A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers by Hugh Kenner is owned by John Harrison. The above scan is used with his permission. Copyright © John Harrison.