Pg. 173 of David Markson’s copy of A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke by Donald Prater:
On which David Markson wrote “oh bullshit” in the margins in response to a comment by Prater comparing the difficulties of reading Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge to those of reading Joyce’s Ulysses:
“With Malte Laurids Brigge, in the form he had chosen of heterogeneous and disconnected passages in a notebook, he had gone to another extreme, with an esoteric composition as difficult for the reader to follow in its allusiveness as that of Joyce would be—an anti-novel before its time.”
Ulysses, to Markson, was something special. It’s not that books like Malte Laurids Brigge weren’t novels worthy of praise, but more that, to him, nothing seemed comparable to Joyce’s masterpiece, which he maintained was the only fiction book that in his old age he felt compelled to continue to re-read.
As Markson explained in a 1996 interview with Alexander Laurence:
“I don’t read fiction anymore because it bores me. It’s like that line in Paul Valery that’s quoted in Reader’s Block: ‘He couldn’t write a novel because he couldn’t put down ‘The Marquis went out at five.” The minute I read ‘Joe walked across the street to say hello to Charlie’ I’m bored. Books that I loved, I can’t get into again. Sometimes it’s 30 or 40 years later. So I said let me see with Ulysses, it’s about time. Then I read it once and cursed about how much I didn’t get, or didn’t understand, and had to look up words, and then I read it a second time and felt I had mastered it. I was exchanging letters with Gilbert Sorrentino and we were asking each other ‘I wonder what Joyce meant by this’ or ‘I can’t solve this.’ I have a shelf and a half of Joyce scholarship, and I read most of it over the years, and the stuff that Sorrentino and I were asking each other weren’t solved there either. I have to say that Ulysses holds up: it’s a great book. Joyce does everything. I love the complexities. I don’t want to make a bad joke but anyone can write Crime and Punishment.”
Ulysses, to Markson, was the book that earned its re-readings by continually rewarding the re-reader by re-puzzling him, by making him look at things in a new light, by always offering some new view or some new mystery—by allowing language to be something magical, something more. In Ulysses, Joyce is not so much a writer, more an acrobat, performing difficult tricks in language, and somehow pulling each off brilliantly.
What Markson seemed to love about Ulysses is that it is “alive with the pleasures of language.”
(A line Jonathan Yardley actually wrote of Markson’s Springer’s Progress.)
It’s not that Markson doesn’t respect Malte Laurids Brigge when he writes “oh bullshit” in the margins, but that, to him, saying that Rilke’s book is “as difficult for the reader to follow in its allusiveness as that of Joyce would be” warrants some major marginal skepticism.
“I can always reread Ulysses. In fact I went through it twice, consecutively, just a few years ago. But hell, that’s not like reading a novel, it’s more like reading the King James Bible. Or Shakespeare. You’re at it for the language.”
(From his Bookslut interview.)
Alive with the pleasures of language.
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.