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
The last novel / David Markson.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.