(The last page of David Markson’s copy of The Failure of Criticism by Henri Peyre (via) — see the list of rejections of Markson’s own Wittgenstein’s Mistress).
(The last page of David Markson’s copy of The Failure of Criticism by Henri Peyre (via) — see the list of rejections of Markson’s own Wittgenstein’s Mistress).
[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. While I think that Gatsby is probably the most overrated book in the American canon, I do think it’s an important book (overrated ≠ bad). I’ve read it many, many times and used it in the classroom. Some of the selections here are silly, some actually make valid points, all intrigued me. I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling. (More one-star samplers: Orwell’s 1984, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses and Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress)].
Gatsby was obviously drunk, or smoking marijuana when he was writing this book, and must have thougth that this book was pretty clever.
Hey everyone! Lookit me! I’m a rich little snot and I can throw a big party in my mansion!
O.K. the first red flag was that this book isn’t part of any series. In my experience if a book isn’t part of a series it probably didn’t turn out too well and the author probably didn’t really know what he was doing. I’m sorry, but if something’s good people want more, you know? Like Fiddle Faddle (5 Stars!) Or Vicodin.
All the characters did was moan about their lives and do stupid things.
It was too “wordy”.
Lets just say that I created my own “Valley of Ashes”, its called a burnt up copy of The Great Gatzby in my dumpster outside my house.
Gatsby is the miz an and daisy is a sliz to the iz ut. Scott Fitzgerald i wish u were alive so i could kill u.
I hated this book with a passion.
The love story was predictable and the characters were obnoxious.
The Great Gatsby is a soap opera with depth.
There are murders, but not very unique ones.
(Nick Carraway; even his >name< is mediocre)
What’s “great” about this Gabsty fellow exactly? Write something about people who work for a living, not this junk.
As anyone who’s read this book knows, it’s a relatively short book.
The language is vulgar and archaic, with words such as “gay” and “excitement” used completely erroneously.
I don’t understand. This book is called the Great Gatsby, but everyone in the book treats Gatsby like he’s regular size.
Maybe it’s a book for an older crowd, I don’t know, but it was a complete waste of my time.
IT IS VERY COMPLICATED TO UNDERSTAND AND THERE ARE A LOT OF CHARACTERS.
I AM STILL READING THE BOOK SO MAYBE IT WILL GET BETTER.
this booke is very stupid, just like all the other secular writers out in the world.
Gatsby is living a seventeen-year-old’s dream whichwould be fine, if he were seventeen rather than thirty, but is total folly at his age.
The secret is: the author was a drunk.
it was so “boring”, that I failed my test on the computer!
So it’s a great story about the Jazz era. It wasn’t that great an era.
There is also plenty of *PREJUDICE* and *RACISM* in this book.
I think a bunch of divorced intellectuals have perpetuated this book through time and perpetrated it upon young adults.
Walking into a room of pseudo-intellectuals and proclaiming “Gatsby sucks!” isn’t the best idea these days, it seems.
This books its for people who stand 1 ft tall. incredibly small book….it should say so in the title!!!!!!
If I wanted to read about lame, rich, full of themself people going to parties, I’d pick up People magazine.
omg i really had no sympathy for any of the characters, especially Gatsby. honestly, he had it coming. i’m sure a lot of older people will enjoy this book but if your under 21 i’d stay far far away
Mr. Fitzgerald just got lazy and decided to end the book at that.
I’d give it negative infinity stars if i could.
The plot line resembles an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 (namely “Let’s sit around and whine about being rich. Next we’ll get drunk and call each other names, fight, and run each other over!” SHUT UP ALREADY!)
I think I misunderstood the main point of the book. Since i found there to be none.
If you are rich and money if no object to you then you would see it as a non-fiction story. But if you are like the majority of other people around the United States, then it would be fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this “great” novel that everyone proclaims it to be, which by some and sometimes many will tell you the opposite.
Gatsby was a very wealthy man.
Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring! Boring!
but i have to read it for school so what can you do?
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.
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.
Certain novels not only cry out for what we call “critical interpretations” but actually try to help direct them . . . Books I tend to associate with this INTERPRET-ME phenomenon include stuff like Candide, Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’s The Stranger. These five are works of genius of a particular kind: they shout their genius. Mr. Markson, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, tends rather to whisper, but his w.o.g.’s no less successful . . . Clearly the book was/is in some way “about” Wittgenstein, given the title. This is one of the ways an INTERPRET-ME fiction clues the critical reader in about what the book’s to be seen as on a tertiary level “about”: the title: Ulysses’s title, its structure as Odyssean/Telemachean map (succeeds); Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem (really terrible); Cortázar’s Hopscotch (succeeds exactly to the extent that one ignores the invitation to hop around in it); Burroughs’s Queer and Junkie (fail successfully (?)).
From David Foster Wallace’s essay “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” which is collected in Both Flesh and Not.
A riff on Michelangelo from David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress (the ellipses indicate my edit, not Markson’s):
Have I ever mentioned that Michelangelo practically never took a bath in his life, by the way?
And even wore his boots to bed?
On my honor, it is a well known item in the history of art that Michelangelo was not somebody one would particularly wish to sit too close to.
Which on second thought could very well change one’s view as to why all of those Medici kept telling him don’t bother to get up, as a matter of fact.
. . .
I have just wrapped my head into a towel.
Having gone out for some greens, for a wet salad, this would be because of.
And in the meantime the more I have thought about it, the more sorry I have gotten about what I said.
I mean about Michelangelo, not about Herodotus.
Certainly I would have found it more than agreeable to shake Michelangelo’s hand, no matter how the pope or Louis Pasteur might have felt about this.
In fact I would have been excited just to see the hand that had taken away superfluous material in the way that Michelangelo had taken it away.
Actually, I would have been pleased to tell Michelangelo how fond I am of his sentence that I once underlined, too.
Perhaps I have not mentioned having once underlined a sentence by Michelangelo.
I once underlined a sentence by Michelangelo.
This was a sentence that Michelangelo once wrote in a letter, when he had lived almost seventy-five years.
You will say that I am old and mad, was what Michelangelo wrote, but I answer that there is no better way of being sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.
On my honor, Michelangelo once wrote that.
As a matter of fact I am next to positive I would have liked Michelangelo.
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.
David Markson talked with Joseph Tabbi about (among many other things) his friendship with Malcolm Lowry, his love for William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and how James Joyce teaches us to read. Read the entire interview at the Dalkey Archive:
JT: You mention your critical study of “Volcano.” But you did a master’s thesis on it at Columbia much earlier?
DM: While we were in touch, but before I’d actually met him, yes. In 1951.
JT: Which means it was only four years after the novel had been published. Isn’t that rare, an academic paper on an entirely “new” writer with no body of criticism to verify his status?
DM: As a matter of fact I had to wander around the English department knocking on doors looking for someone to approve the project. I remember Lionel Trilling’s dismissal in particular: “What is all this drunkenness all about?” My whole object was to explain just that, obviously, but I decided to find less of a current to buck. Finally William York Tindall gave me a go-ahead.
JT: That brings up a question of a different sort, however. “Volcano” is scarcely your everyday traditional novel. What sort of training or background did you have that let you feel able to confront the challenge of interpreting something that difficult?
DM: To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I had any real idea what I was getting into, or if any of us do, the first time we’re seduced by a book of that sort. Though Joyce certainly teaches us, for starters. By which I mean that we all learn quickly with “Ulysses” that we cannot simply read the novel itself but have to lean on some of the critical crutches.
JT: But you had no crutches at all?
DM: Oh, well, but there are always clues in the text itself—this reference to that which leads to patterns you begin to trace out. On one level I impressed the hell out of myself, surprised at what I did know. And evidently I impressed a few other creatures as well, since I kept hearing that the thesis was being stolen from by students all over the place. The again when I sat down years later to turn that early stuff into a full length book I was almost embarrassed at how little I’d seen after all.
JT: Not long after that original Lowry thesis you were proselytizing fairly extensively for “The Recognitions” too?
DM: I suppose you become addicted to a certain kind of writing. There’s little enough of it extant, God knows. I’m not sure how much actual “proselytizing” I did for Gaddis, however. Except of course for practically button-holing friends on street corners.
JT: But I understand you were very directly responsible for the first reissue of the book, also?
DM: Evidently I was. It’s a funny story, actually. I was living in Mexico, and someone—well, old Aiken, in fact—gave my address to Aaron Asher, who was the editor of Meridian Books at the time. I picked him and his wife Linda up at their hotel and brought them out to where Elaine and I were living—outside Mexico City—for dinner and then spent approximately three solid hours talking nonstop about Gaddis. Finally Aaron threw up his hands in despair, telling me, “Please, please, I promise I’ll read the darned thing as soon as I get home! But now tell us something about where to go and what to see in Mexico, for heaven’s sake!”
JT: And then he did publish it. Did Gaddis himself know about the impetus?
DM: That’s fairly funny too, as it happens. “The Recognitions” came out in 1955. I’d read it twice when it did, and then wrote Gaddis a letter. It’s perhaps the only other letter I’ve written to an author I didn’t know, but it was completely different from the one I wrote to Lowry. In this case I’d just been infuriated by the rotten reviews and simply wanted to tell the man the hell with them all, that there were some few of us out there who did see what he’s accomplished. I didn’t get an answer, though I eventually heard secondhand that Gaddis had been too depressed at the time to send one. Or that he’d ultimately decided it was too late. But then sometime in 1961, not long after the Asher incident, I did hear. Six years after the fact, this was, a long letter beginning with something like, “Dear David Markson, if I can presume to answer yours of June whatever, 1955!” Which went on to say that Asher was in fact about to do a first reprint.
Let me get this out of my system:
In no particular order a list of stuff I wished I’d written about in 2011:
1. Renata Adler’s amazing novel-in-vignettes Speedboat.
2. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. End of the world cultural riffage. No raffage.
3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake: soul-crashing sad. [Not a typo].
4. Season two of Boardwalk Empire: The Oedipal complex as a plot arc hasn’t been done so well since The Sopranos. Most HBO shows seem to be about capitalism and law (see also: Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos).
5. That first episode of Luck. I love David Milch. Michael Mann seems imminently capable of filming things (although I think Heat is overrated, even though it has Val Kilmer, and he’s radness in the form of a lion in the form of a sea lion). The opening episode was dry like vermouth. But I will watch, because of Deadwood.
6. Hung. My wife and I are the only two people in America who liked Hung. Then it got canceled.
7. Captain America: All of the shots + set design in this film seem to have been straight up stolen from the Star Wars films—except the shots that were stolen from the Indiana Jones films. It’s funny in a way because Lucas (and Spielberg) were stealing from old serial films that were contemporaneous with the age that Captain America is meant to be set in. (And, oh, yeah, the movie was contrived bullshit).
8. I wish I’d reviewed How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Chris Boucher. It was new and fresh and strange and deserved a good review from this blog, but it was very difficult to write about. I tried. It’s simultaneously sad, funny, too-experimental, but also rich and rewarding. An excellent flawed début.
9. The Trip: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a trip through Northern England, eating at Michelin starred inns, creeping on the wild misty moors, referencing plenty of Romantic lit, and riffing—and backbiting—a lot. Comedy + tragedy done right. Lovely.
10. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension: Okay, frankly, I was ashamed to admit that I hadn’t seen it until this summer. Batshit insane interstellar hi-jinks. Rasta aliens. Buckaroo and his men are in a band! The ending credits sequence is the second best I’ve ever seen (after Lynch’s closing credits for INLAND EMPIRE).
11. The last Harry Potter movie. It was good. I’m glad they’re over though.
12. Baudolino by Umberto Eco, which I listened to on mp3 while refinishing a room in my new house. The first half was great—silly, bawdy, funny—but it unraveled into a sloppy mess by the end.
13. The Hunger Games by whoever wrote The Hunger Games, I think her name is Suzanne Collins, but Christ I’m not gonna waste any time checking: I listened to this audiobook working on the same room project that I worked on while listening to Baudolino. Look, I get that these books are for kids, and that they’re probably a sight better than Twilight, but sheesh, exposition exposition exposition. There’s nothing wrong with letting readers fill in the gaps (especially when your book is ripping off The Running Man + a dozen other books). Also, there’s a character in this book who I think is named after pita bread.
14. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. Another audiobook that I listened to working on the aforementioned project—only this book is pure excellence, a post-apocalyptic examination of faith and meaning set against Big Nothing. The first third recalled Blood Meridian to me, although McCarthy’s book must have been composed 25 years after Miller’s.
15. I finally watched Party Down after all of my friends kept telling me, “You gotta watch Party Down!” Have you seen Party Down? You gotta watch Party Down!
16. Various short stories by Melville and Hawthorne: I read a lot of short pieces from these guys, mostly obscure, often half-baked stories that were still better than 99.9% of the contemporary stuff American writers are doing.
17. Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith is a hero: Ubuweb is magic. But a lot of Uncreative Writing just felt like an excuse for Goldsmith to share his favorite riffs on avant gardism from the classroom. And I know he’s probably a great and inspiring teacher, and I’m sure his Uncreative Writing class was gangbusters and meaningful for his students. Maybe it’s because I teach at a community college; maybe I’m conservative—I’m a fan of Dada; I get Walter Benjamin, blah blah blah. I just think we should cite sources still. Originality may be a fiction, but synthesis isn’t. Research and documentation are meaningful. Still, an entertaining book.
18. Music. Although most writing about music sucks.
19. Probably several dozen other books, movies, TV shows, etc. But there’s always 2012 to become overwhelmed by!
Happy New Year!
Eleven Encyclopedic Books, Overstuffed with References, That Compel Compulsive Reading
4. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Georges Perec
5. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
6. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
9. The Recognitions, William Gaddis
11. The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, Donald Harrington