Book Shelves #16, 4.15.2012

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Book shelves series #16, sixteenth Sunday of 2012.

It’s hard to photograph books, and using an iPhone 3gs probably doesn’t help. Lots of glare. Anyway: This shelf houses mostly Melville, with some Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman, as well as some critical works on the American Renaissance movement. (Henry James and F.O. Matthiessen). I have other versions of a lot of these books, including a fraternal twin in my office, a bit bulkier (Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau, etc.), although these days I’m apt to go to the Kindle for American Renaissance stuff. Here’s a better angle, perhaps:

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The version of Typee is bizarre: no colophon, no publisher info, just text. I love these midcentury Rinehart Editions of Hathorne and Melville stuff:

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A Review of David Markson’s The Last Novel (Composed Mostly in Citations from Said Novel)

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Unsure of how to “review” David Marson’s last novel The Last Novel, I here provide a series of citations from said novel with my own brief comments. The citations are organized not by theme or idea, but rather simply by the order in which they appear in the book, from first to last. My intention is to provide a clear picture of Markson’s method with some brief commentary on his themes.

By way of recommendation: The Last Novel engrossed and obsessed me, commanding most of my attention for four days, during which time I read it twice and then picked at again and again, as one might return to the generous leftovers of a Thanksgiving meal.

I hope I have not strained the limits of copyright law with my citations of Markson’s citations. To wit, from the colophon:

Copyright © 2007 by David Markson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Markson, David.

The last novel / David Markson.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-1-59376-143-1

ISBN-10: 1-59376-143-0

1. Novelists—Fiction. 2. Fiction—Authorship—Fiction.

3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

Is The Last Novel fiction? Does this question matter? “Fiction–Authorship–Fiction” — this seems like a fair descriptor.

Our author, by way of summary, announces his themes, his name, and his prophetic conclusion:

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write.

And now his method, followed by two examples of said method:

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel.

Said Ivy Compton-Burnett.

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.

Said Joyce.

And a comment on that method, and Novelist’s textual place in it:

A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.

And thus in which Novelist will say more about himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so, but rarely otherwise.

On the first theme announced, “Old”:

Rereading a Raymond Chandler novel in which Philip Marlowe stops in for a ten-cent cup of coffee.

Old enough to remember when the coffee would have cost half that.

A citation that seems to hold all the themes, but especially “Sick” and “Broke”—-and then a Renard citation that fits Markson (or “Novelist,” if you prefer) into a grand tradition of starving artists:

The bleak image Novelist is granted of himself as he asks a question of a local pharmacist — and becomes aware of the woman contemplating the conspicuously threadbare and even ragged ends of his coat sleeves.

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.

Said Jules Renard.

On aging:

Moments in which Novelist does something like leaving his desk to retrieve a book from across the room — and finding himself staring vacantly into the refrigerator.

Or tossing his keys into a drawer — without having opened the drawer

Markson instructs us how to read his work, and at the same time makes a grand grab at glory; he then moves to reflect on death, and perhaps a fear of going unread, before pointing out the sublime powers of art :

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

Wondering why one is surprised to realize that Thoreau was dead at forty-five.

A lament of Schopenhauer’s:

Over how frequently the mere purchase of a book is mistaken for the appropriation of its contents.

Two pages of The Mill on the Floss are enough to start me crying.

Said Proust.

The intersection of commerce and art and madness (or, really, I just like this citation):

Because bookshops are among the very few places where one can spend time without spending any money, George Orwell noted, any number of practically certifiable lunatics are guaranteed to be regularly found in most of them.

My least favorite reading experience of all time is Clarissa:

The endless commentary, and analysis, and even retelling, in Clarissa. Anyone reading it just for the story would hang himself, Johnson said.

A good definition, but also a sideways description of entering The Last Novel:

Thinking with someone else’s brain.

Schopenhauer called reading.

Markson is fond of the dependent clause as a stand-alone thought. He often lets the reader complete the sentence, or, as below, responds perhaps obliquely with another citation—his synthesis is subtle but always in play:

Reviewers who have accused Novelist of inventing some of his anecdotes and/or quotations — without the elemental responsibility to do the checking that would verify every one of them.

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.

Said John Osborne.

The Last Novel is in part a work of canon-formation, one that situates Markson’s place in arts and letters; it is often angry or bitter, as he tries to situate being “Alone” and “Broke” into a historical tradition of suffering writers:

Another of Novelist’s economic-status epiphanies:

Walking four or five blocks out of his way, and back, to save little more than nickels on some common household item.

While needing to stop to rest at least two or three times en route.

Writers are the beggars of Western society.

Said Octavio Paz.

There is no way of being a creative writer in America without being a loser.

Said Nelson Algren.

Markson repeatedly reveals his anxiety of influence: Where and how will he be remembered when he dies?:

Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing.

Occasionally in The Last Novel, because he doesn’t always attribute his citations, it’s unclear to me if a string of sentences are original to Markson or not. Markson describes his method again:

A seminonfictional semifiction.

And with its interspersed unattributed quotations at roughest count adding up to a hundred or more.

A note on book theft, germane to (the original mission of) this website:

Please return this book. I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers.

Read Walter Scott’s bookplate.

A dependent clause:

Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.

Again, the intersection of economics, art, and how we honor and remember genius (with the implicit underlying anxiety over Markson’s own fate):

Before the Euro, the portrait of Yeats on Ireland’s twenty-pound note.

America’s Whitman twenty-dollar bill, when?

The Melville ten?

I think the Melville ten is a grand idea. I’d put Hawthorne on the twenty and Emerson on the penny.

On death-dialing:

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.

The voice of an agitated colleague? Friend? Student? Is the quote a composite of complaints? Is it verbatim?:

Listen, I bought your latest book. But I quit after about six pages. That’s all there is, those little things?

Many of us have wondered:

Why did Harper Lee never write another novel?

It is possible she never wrote that first one.

Again, money and writers:

America’s Emily Dickinson dime?

We could put Thoreau on the nickel and Poe on the fifty.

Conclusions as a kind of interception; the author offstage, off scene, ob skena — obscene:

Novelist’s personal genre. In which part of the experiment is to continue keeping him offstage to the greatest extent possible — while compelling the attentive reader to perhaps catch his breath when things achieve an ending nonetheless.

Conclusions are the weak point of most authors.

George Eliot said.

If you know what you’re doing, you don’t get intercepted.

Said Johnny Unitas.

I feel like I’ve skated over the book, failed to plumb it at all: But I also protest that the book is a work of autocriticism, a work that decenters its themes, bats them around, analyzes them, tosses them back to the reader, sometimes bitter, sometimes melancholy, always erudite and engaging.

I cite from the end now. Can the end be spoiled? Markson tells us this is his last, that he will die (“Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.”). He dies a few years after the publication of The Last Novel. (He dies on the day my son is born, or, rather, his body is found on the day my son is born. He is very much alone. The New York Times publishes his obituary on my birthday). The novel ends with a series of citations that mull on death:

Dispraised, infirm, unfriended age.

Sophocles calls it.

Unregarded age in corners thrown.

Shakespeare echoes.

And what it means to be an artist, a writer, a critic, to write in and on and through others’ books:

The worn copy of Donne’s verses, inked throughout with notes in Coleridge’s handwriting. And at the rear:

I shall die soon, my dear Charles Lamb, and then you will not be sorry that I bescribbled your book.

Life as pain, death as transcendence:

Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty,Youth’s a stuff will not endure. Be patient now, my soul, thou hast endured worse than this.

Odysseus once says.

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? Is it true then, what they say — that we become stars in the sky when we die?

Asks someone in Aristophanes.

Banal signage or access to ascension?:

Access to Roof for Emergency Only.

Alarm Will Sound if Door Opened.

To reiterate and move on:

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

The old man who will not laugh is a fool.

Als ick kan.

“I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids” — Herman Melville Writes to Nathaniel Hawthorne

From Herman Melville’s June 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne (read the whole letter here)—

But I was talking about the “Whale” [“Moby-Dick”]. As the fishermen say, “he’s in his flurry” when I left him some three weeks ago. I’m going to take him by his jaw, however, before long, and finish him up in some fashion or other. What’s the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter. — I talk all about myself, and this is selfishness and egotism. Granted. But how help it? I am writing to you; I know little about you, but something about myself so I write about myself, — at least, to you. Don’t trouble yourself, though, about writing; and don’t trouble yourself about visiting; and when you do visit, don’t trouble yourself about talking. I will do all the writing and visiting and talking myself — By the way, in the last “Dollar Magazine” I read “The Unpardonable Sin.” He was a sad fellow, that Ethan Brand. I have no doubt you are by this time responsible for many a shake and tremor of the tribe of “general readers.” It is a frightful poetical creed that the cultivation of the brain eats out the heart. But it’s myprose opinion that in most cases, in those men who have fine brains and work them well, the heart extends down to hams. And though you smoke them with the fire of tribulation, yet, like veritable hams, the head only gives the richer and the better flavor. I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head! I had rather be a fool with a heart, than Jupiter Olympus with his head. The reason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust His heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch. (You perceive I employ a capital initial in the pronoun referring to the Deity; don’t you think there is a slight dash of flunkeyism in that usage?) Another thing. I was in New York for four-and-twenty hours the other day, and saw a portrait of N.H. And I have seen and heard many flattering (in a publisher’s point of view) allusions to the “Seven Gables.” And I have seen “Tales,” and “A New Volume” announced, by N.H. So upon the whole, I say to myself, this N.H. is in the ascendant. My dear Sir, they begin to patronize. All Fame is patronage. Let me be infamous: there is no patronage in that. What “reputation” H.M. has is horrible. Think of it ! To go down to posterity is bad enough, any way; but to go down as a “man who lived among the cannibals”! When I speak of posterity, in reference to myself, I only mean the babies who will probably be born in the moment immediately ensuing upon my giving up the ghost. I shall go down to some of them, in all likelihood. Typee will be given to them, perhaps, with their gingerbread. I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of all vanities. I read Solomon more and more, and every time see deeper and deeper and unspeakable meanings in him. I did not think of Fame, a year ago, as I do now. My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould. It seems to be now that Solomon was the truest man who ever spoke, and yet that he a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism; or else there have been many corruptions and interpolations of the text. — In reading some of Goethe’s sayings, so worshipped by his votaries, I came across this, “Live in the all.” That is to say, your separate identity is but a wretched one, — good; but get out of yourself, spread and expand yourself, and bring to yourself the tinglings of life that are felt in the flowers and the woods, that are felt in the planets Saturn and Venus, and the Fixed Stars. What nonsense! Here is a fellow with a raging toothache. “My dear boy,” Goethe says to him, “you are sorely afflicted with that tooth; but you must live in the all, and then you will be happy!” As with all great genius, there is an immense deal of flummery in Goethe, and in proportion to my own contact with him, a monstrous deal of it in me.

H. Melville.

P.S. “Amen!” saith Hawthorne.

N.B. This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

P.S. You must not fail to admire my discretion in paying the postage on this letter.