“A Country On The Far Side of Fiction” — Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch

Claude Lorrain’s "Landscape with Samuel Anointing David."

Claude Lorrain’s “Landscape with Samuel Anointing David.”

 

In my last riff on Gerald Murnane, I wrote about his book Inland, and that he wanted to “craft a universally mutable and relational ‘I.'” And I started off with a quote. I’m going to do that now. This is a short passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Notebooks.

The word “I” does not mean the same as “L.W.” even if I am L.W., nor does it mean the same as the expression “the person who is now speaking”. But that doesn’t mean: that “L.W.” and “I” mean different things. All it means is that these words are different instruments in our language.

Think of words as instruments characterized by their use, and then think of the use of a hammer, the use of a chisel, the use of a square, of a glue pot, and of the glue. (Also, all that we say here can be understood only if one understands that a great variety of games is played with the sentences of our language: Giving and obeying orders; asking questions and answering them; describing an event; telling a fictitious story; telling a joke; describing an immediate experience; making conjectures about events in the physical world; making scientific hypotheses and theories; greeting someone, etc., etc.) The mouth which says “I” or the hand which is raised to indicate that it is I who wish to speak, or I who have toothache, does not thereby point to anything. If, on the other hand, I wish to indicate the place of my pain, I point. And here again remember the difference between pointing to the painful spot without being led by the eye and on the other hand pointing to a sac on my body after looking for it. (“That’s where I was vaccinated”.)—The man who cries out with pain, or says that he has pain, doesn’t choose the mouth which says it (67-8).

 

The “I” in Barley Patch, as it is ostensibly used in the literary sense, merely implies the presence of the author. The “I” is as much of a fiction as the collection of words around it. Barley Patch is a strange, strange fiction. I’m honoring the narrator’s/implied author’s/personage’s/ghostly presence’s/reader’s/image-person’s wishes by not calling it a novel, an essay, a memoir, an autobiography. And though Barley Patch is all of these forms, often simultaneously, ultimately it is a “report,” to use the narrator’s term, of how a story becomes removed from itself. Some questions BP asks: How do I know that am I me? Am I the imagined personage of a writer in a “country on the far side of fiction?” How do I know where I am is really where I am?

 

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Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.

I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.

I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).

I Anti-Review Evan Lavender-Smith’s Anti-Novel, From Old Notebooks

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The style of this review is probably a bad idea.

In fact, it’s such a bad idea that it’s probable someone has already done it. Or considered doing it but had the good sense to refrain.

From Old Notebooks as the presentation of a subject through his daily jotting downs.

To clarify: All block quotes—like the one above—belong to Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.

Which I read twice last month.

And am writing about here.

From Old Notebooks: A Novel: An Essay.

From Old Notebooks: An Essay: A Novel.

From Old Notebooks blazons its anxiety of influence: Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Shakespeare.

Joycespeare.

References, critiques, ideas about Joyce, DFW, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche repeatedly evince in From Old Notebooks—and yet David Markson, whose format E L-S so clearly borrows, is evoked only thrice—and not until page 74 (this in a book of 201 pages):

I count David Markson’s literary-anecdote books among the few things I want to read over and over again, yet I have no idea whether they are actually any good. They’re like porn for English majors.

And then again on page 104:

If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a book?

(I should point out that the page numbers I cite are from Dzanc Book’s first edition of From Old Notebooks; Dzanc’s 2012 printing puts the book back in print).

Like Markson’s anti-novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel), E L-S’s F.O.N. is constantly describing itself.

There may be some question as to F.O.N.’s status as fiction, poetry, philosophy, nonfiction, etc., but hopefully there will be no question about its status as a book.

Is E L-S’s book postmodern? Post-postmodern?

Perhaps there is nothing quintessentially postmodern about the self-reflexivity, fragmentation and pastiche of F.O.N., if only because all of it follows from form.

From Old Notebooks as a document constantly performing its self-critique:

If there were a Viking Portable Lavender-Smith containing an abridgment of F.O.N., I would be very interested to read it, because there’s no reason that the total value of the book wouldn’t be gained, through editorial happenstance, with much greater efficiency.

From Old Notebooks as a document of authorial anxiety.

A reader could make a case that there are a number of elided texts within or suggested by From Old Notebooks, including the one that gives the author the authority to write such a book.

F.O.N. is also a generative text, bustling with ideas for short stories, novels, plays, films, pamphlets, somethings—it is E L-S’s notebook after all (maybe). Just one very short example—

Novel about a haunted cryonics storage facility.

F.O.N.’s story ideas reminded me of my favorite Fitzgerald text, his Notebooks.

Reading From Old Notebooks is a pleasurable experience.

Personal anecdote on the reading experience:

Reading the book in my living room, my daughter and wife enter and begin doing some kind of mother-daughter yoga. My wife asks if they are distracting me from reading. I suggest that the book doesn’t work that way. The book performs its own discursions.

I shared the tiniest morsel here of my family; E L-S shares everything about his family in F.O.N.:

I know that the reconciliation of my writing life and my family life is one of the things that F.O.N. is finally about, but I can’t actually see it in the book; I don’t imagine I could point to an entry and say, Here is an example of that.

It would be impossible for me not to relate to the character of the author or novelist or narrator of F.O.N. (let me call him E L-S as a simple placeholder): We’re about the same age, we both have a son and a daughter (again of similar ages); we both teach composition. Similar literary obsessions. Etc. After reading through F.O.N. the first time I realized how weird it was that I didn’t feel contempt and jealousy for what E L-S pulls off in F.O.N.—that I didn’t hate him for it. That I felt proud of him (why?) and liked him.

There are moments where our obsessions diverge; the E L-S of F.O.N. is preoccupied with death to an extent that I simply don’t connect to. He:

1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about death.

I:

1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about sex.

But generally I get and feel and empathize with his descriptions of his son and daughter and wife.

And his work. Big time:

Getting up the motivation to grade student essays is like trying to pass a piece of shit through the eye of a needle.

Or

I have perfected my lecture after giving it for the third time, but my fourth class never gets to realize it because my voice is hoarse and I’m so tired from giving the same lecture four times in one day, so their experience of my perfect lecture at 8-9:40 PM is of approximately equal value to that of my students receiving my imperfect lecture at 8-9:40 AM, as well as my students at 2:30-3:55 and 5:30-7:10—and it all evens out to uniform mediocrity in the end.

The novel is not jaded or cynical or death-obsessed though (except when it is).

What E L-S is trying to do is to remove as much of the barrier between author and reader as possible:

Contemporary authors who construct a thick barrier between themselves and their readers such that authorial vulnerability is revealed negatively, i.e., via the construction of the barrier.

Perhaps my suggestion that E L-S tries to remove the barrier is wrong. Maybe instead: E L-S’s F.O.N. maps the barrier, points to the barrier’s structure, does not try to deny the barrier, but also tries to usher readers over it, under it, through its gaps—-and in this way channels a visceral reality that so much of contemporary fiction fails to achieve.

I really, really liked this book and will read it again.

 

A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus (Book Acquired, 1.14.2013

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This one looks pretty interesting, and the first chapter was intriguing: A Jew Among the Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus. It’s new in hardback from Random House. Their blurb:

From the acclaimed biographer, screenwriter, and novelist Frederic Raphael, here is an audacious history of Josephus (37–c.100), the Jewish general turned Roman historian, whose emblematic betrayal is a touchstone for the Jew alone in the Gentile world.

Joseph ben Mattathias’s transformation into Titus Flavius Josephus, historian to the Roman emperor Vespasian, is a gripping and dramatic story. His life, in the hands of Frederic Raphael, becomes a point of departure for an appraisal of Diasporan Jews seeking a place in the dominant cultures they inhabit. Raphael brings a scholar’s rigor, a historian’s perspective, and a novelist’s imagination to this project. He goes beyond the fascinating details of Josephus’s life and his singular literary achievements to examine how Josephus has been viewed by posterity, finding in him the prototype for the un-Jewish Jew, the assimilated intellectual, and the abiding apostate: the recurrent figures in the long centuries of the Diaspora. Raphael’s insightful portraits of  Yehuda Halevi, Baruch Spinoza, Karl Kraus, Benjamin Disraeli, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Hannah Arendt extend and illuminate the Josephean worldview Raphael so eloquently lays out.

 

Something on David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Shamelessly Plagiarized and Rearranged from One-Star Amazon Reviews

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This is not a review.

This book was recommended to me.

An experimental, philosophical novel.

I really wanted to like this book.

I had read the reviews & after being unable for a few years to buy it secondhand, I bit the bullet & bought it new.

The beginning is intriguing.

The concept of the book is dead simple.

The idea is this: Kate is a painter; she is the last person on earth, maybe; she is alone in a house on the Long Island beach

Markson picks up Kate’s dialogue in media res and trusts the reader enough to piece together what the heck is going on: she is the last person left on earth and is making her way through it as best she can, telling us her story as she goes.

Short declarative sentences loop feverishly around her brain, repeating themselves, correcting themselves, contradicting themselves, and filling in missing information many pages later.

The narrator’s voice rings true.

It is frustrating, repetitive, and does not offer much in the way of style and language.

No chapter breaks, no real paragraphs even.

Read at random.

This book received 54 rejections before finding a publisher. This I can believe.

Her little apercus are all about observation and remembrance, the real and the false, blah, blah.

(Joyce, Baldwin, Pynchon, Cortazar).

The book was meandering, rambling & jumped all over the place.

Not that oddness is bad.

It never centers on anything.

It’s the type of book best discussed in groups, since it does bring up some interesting themes—the fragility of memory and sanity, the ineffectiveness of language, the impact of philosophy and literature.

There’s nothing for the reader to latch onto and follow, other than the voice.

What about the subtext?

Like Wittgenstein said, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”

I am mad. I am crazy. Yesterday I died but returned in time to write this.

A Seven Point Riff on David Foster Wallace’s David Markson Essay

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1. Like many David Foster Wallace fans, I’d already read many of the essays collected in the posthumous Both Flesh and Not. I hadn’t read “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” though, originally published in a 1990 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

I suspect that the Markson essay hasn’t been collected up until now because it is so focused on Wittgenstein’s Mistress—this in contrast to, say “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” (Consider the Lobster) which is nominally about Austin’s autobiography but really about much bigger frying fish, like fan-idol relationships and ghostwriting and genre, or “Greatly Exaggerated,” which, again is nominally a review of Dix’s Morte d’Author: An Autopsy but is really more about postmodernism in general. I can’t recall exactly—maybe in his Charlie Rose interview—but Wallace said that he wanted the pieces in his books to be about more than just the ephemeral surface-level topic at hand; like most writers, he was contending for posterity. Wallace’s Markson essay is about Wittgenstein’s philosophy and the state of postmodern or experimental writing in the late 1980s and certain feminist analytic approaches to literature—but mostly it’s a detailed review of Markson’s novel—and it’s not trying to be anything more—which is actually really nice.

2. I read Wittgenstein’s Mistress on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation (I could add the modifier “like many David Foster Wallace fans” here again, I suspect). (That recommendation– “Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960″—is also reprinted in Flesh (perhaps superfluously)). (While I’m getting all parenthetical: I read all five books Wallace recommended and all were excellent).

Here’s Wallace’s recommendation:

“W’s M” is a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism. A monologue, formally very odd, mostly one-sentence 6s. Tied with “Omensetter’s Luck” for the all-time best U.S. book about human loneliness. These wouldnt constitute ringing endorsements if they didnt happen all to be simultaneously true — i.e., that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.

—This is in some ways a condensation of his essay “The Empty Plenum,” where he writes:

Markson’s is not a pop book, and it’s not decocted philosophy or a docudrama-of-the-week. Rather, for me, the novel does artistic & emotional justice to the politico-ethical implications of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s abstract mathematical metaphysics , makes what is designed to be a mechanism pulse, breathe, suffer, live, etc. In so doing, it pays emotional tribute to a philosopher who by all evidence lived in a personal spiritual torment over the questions too many of his academic followers have made into elaborate empty exercises.

3. After Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Markson wrote four more novels, or anti-novels, if you like, sometimes called the note-card novels, novels “of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel,” as Novelist puts it in The Last Novel. I read these novels after WM: better-if-not-as-precise (in its metaphoricity) verb: I devoured them. Refinement isn’t exactly the right word, but Markson’s last four novels distill the elliptical and monotone style that he began in WM into a kind of word collage, a frieze of loops, motifs, ideas that the reader has the privilege/burden to construct meaning from. At the beginning of his essay on WM, Wallace posits that the novel is an “INTERPRET-ME” novel; the four novels after WM go beyond INTERPRET-ME—they ask the reader to construct-me, build-me, make-me. These late novels cast away the onus of a narrator; they jettison the already-jettisoned figure of Kate, narrator of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the last person on earth. And perhaps because of all this, I’ve come to think that they are in many ways superior to WM (or at least showcase a clear evolution in Markson’s style)—that they more purely enact the canon-making, curatorial process that I take to be the core of Markson’s last five books.

4. Here’s Wallace on Markson’s curatorial curve:

The curator’s job—to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order & so communicate meaning—is marvelously synechdochic of the life of the solipsist, of the survival strategies apposite one’s existence as monad in a world of diffracted fact.

Except a big question is: whence facts, if the world is “empty”?

And then Wallace goes about answering this question w/r/t (am I borrowing too many Wallacian shortcuts here?) Wittgenstein’s philosophy. (And this I will not attempt to summarize here).

5. But I will quote Wallace again:

[Wittgenstein] never actually wrote anything about the exquisite tensions between atomism & attendant solipsism on the one hand & distinctively human values & qualities on the other. But, see, this is exactly what Mr. Markson does in WM; and in this way Markson’s novel succeeds in speaking where Wittgenstein is mute, weaving Kate’s obsession with responsibility (for the world’s emptiness) gorgeously into the character’s mandala of cerebral conundrum & spiritual poverty.

6. The greatest weaknesses of Wallace’s essay:

a). He doesn’t do a great job of explicating specifically how Wittgensteinian philosophy—or even themes—are alluded to by Markson in WM. (Or maybe I’m just a weak reader).

b). He gets bogged down in a long discussion of WM as a male-authored text featuring a female narrator w/r/t passivity vs. agency and object vs. subject and Helen vs. Eve (etc.) that I think is ultimately the kind of business far better sorted out in the novel itself.

7. The greatest strength of Wallace’s essay:

He made me want to reread Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

David Markson: “Originally I Was Calling It Wittgenstein’s Niece”

More from David Markson’s interview at the Dalkey Archive:

DM: Originally I was calling it “Wittgenstein’s Niece.” Never knowing, of course, that Thomas Bernhard would eventually publish something called “Wittgenstein’s Nephew.” But even before I submitted it I knew I’d have enough trouble finding a publisher as was—hardly the amount I did have, but some—and so not wanting to compound the difficulty I changed it to “Keeper of the Ghosts.” Which is something I swiped from Lowry, by the way, from a character named Ghostkeeper. But once the manuscript wound up in the hands of a small press that wasn’t going to be worried about recognition value in Downers Grove, Illinois, or among the knuckleheads at a sales conference, I went back to Wittgenstein. “Mistress” had been on the same scratch sheet with “Niece,” and I decided I liked it better by then.

JT: And meaning basically that your heroine is mistress to Wittgenstein’s thought?

DM: Well, along with several other people’s yes. But as I started to say a few minutes ago, the Wittgenstein is frequently most obvious in the very way she questions so many of her own “propositions,” as it were.