Saying Farewell to a Writer and Friend: David Markson
June 5, 2010 :: elegy in essay form
I found out this morning via Jim Behrle's facebook and then his twitter that David Markson has passed away. "David Markson has died." Behrle doesn't blither. Quick search on the web, and I've got nothing, but this makes sense to me. Markson, a giant of postmodernism-- if you're true to the word-- maintained closer friendships than he courted publicity. His life and work are intertwined, and his memory will live on in those he touched as well as in his works of art.
Perhaps I find my method of discovery at his passing ironic considering Markson himself would have never found out about anything the way I did. He would tell me, visiting the poetry and literary non-fiction stacks of Strand Bookstore, how he still used a typewriter to write, wrote things down on notecards when planning his novels, only took calls on his landline and didn't feel he had any need for a cell phone or computer. It wasn't that he was against technology, though. I told him he could probably find a piece of information that he was looking for (whether a dedication in a Les Murray book was something Murray did for all or just some of his poetry books) online. He said he wouldn't know where to start but would consider having someone else look it up for him. He liked to tell a story of a French woman he was acquainted with who was surprised he still used a "typing machine". He loved anecdotes that played with language.
Markson had an intense interest in anecdotes in general, especially of great writers, musicians, artists, philosophers, etcetera. This becomes apparent in his later novels, especially in The Last Novel (2007) and also in what I consider his masterpiece, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988). This novel, so ahead of its times in the 80's and--to this day--unique, is strong because it balances the truth of a variety of anecdotes, thoroughly researched by Markson in an unscrupulous manner, with the growing madness of the last woman on Earth. The collage nature of his anecdotes and plot are postmodernism at is core. The gimmick of the unreliable woman as narrator is barely ever as agile and un-gimmicky as Markson's in this book.
But as mentioned, he was more than a writer, but an acquaintance, an inspiration and a master storyteller. He came through Strand Books on various occasions, stopping and talking to many employees there, some he'd known for ages, others he'd recently began speaking to, wearing a path though the stacks, not once bragging about the table there displaying his novels. Markson warned me of habits of booklovers after I noted how working at Strand had made me into a different kind of bibliophile than I could have imagined being. When he was younger, he said he would keep money in books. One book for each of his children. Money that wasn't theirs now, but for them in the future. Books as little banks. I remember him saying he kept one of his daughters' money in a James Joyce book. I remember him saying that one day he realized what a mistake this was, keeping money in books. As a frequent buyer and seller of books at the Strand, imagine if one day he decided to sell his book to the store before removing the money. He noted that it was entirely possible that a book he's sold to us had a few dollars in it or something else of value. I find myself stashing checks and tips in books to this day, and smiling thinking of his story (and hoping I don't lose these things! So far so good. I think.) I also find myself searching in used books for "treasure", even now that I no longer work at a bookstore.
Nana, my grandmother on my mother's side, would always ask about him. When David told his stories, sometimes I would tell stories of her growing up in Queens that often had similar elements, and I would tell her that I was talking to a gifted New York author about her. Because she would always inquire about him, I bought her a book for Christmas that I had him sign for her. He helped me pick out which one (one of his first novels, The Ballad of Dingus Magee,) and was modest as ever when signing it. Nana was pleased with the gift. I also received a signed copy of a Markson book as a gift, a first edition copy of Springer's Progess (which Markson said was not one of his favorites that he'd written, but I digress), inscribed to me from Markson. I valued this before, but now even more.
Markson was friends with another customer with whom I became acquainted, Stewart, who works for Barnes and Noble and planned (or plans) on publishing a collected volume of Markson's poetry, (which I imagine should come out soon.) He and Stewart were always pulling books off of the shelf for me that were mis-shelved. I was sure to tell them both that they shared this endearing quality, and I myself continue this tradition when I visit bookstores. They both, later, told me that they ran into each other and laughed about how I had mentioned this to both of them. They must not have known that they shared this characteristic, and I was glad to have brought it to their attention. Lovers of books flock together, it seems.
Once, in the literary non-fiction section where I shelved, we found a copy of his very first book, a critical study of Malcolm Lowry. The author picture had a much younger David holding a cigar or a cigarette. We photocopied the picture and taped it up around the store. He feigned embarrassment and told us, "oh, take that down." But we could tell he got a kick out of it, despite his modesty. He found a new picture for us, instead. A picture of him and Jack Kerouac on a couch. Kerouac is passed out drunk. Markson is giving the thumbs up, grinning wickedly at the camera. Classic.
He recommended to me that I read Celine and also Under the Volcano, his favorite book. I bought some Celine as well as the Lowry, but I have yet to read either. I will read the Lowry soon, in his honor.
I will remember him best coming into the store and asking, "anything new?" He would tease himself for coming in again and again, searching the same shelves, looking over the same books. Yet he came because he was a lover of books and a friend to all who shared his love. He was glad to support me when I told him about the literary-arts journal I planned to start, and he was impressed with the first issue of Gigantic Sequins. He told me again and again how proud he was and how professional our magazine looked. He also chuckled at our inclusion of "Editors Bios" in the back of our first issue. He said he'd never seen a magazine that included them, but he thought that they were clever and unique addition to the magazine. Even after I moved from New York, a coworker told me that David would still ask about me and my magazine. I had planned to send him our latest issue before I heard the news of his passing.
The Wikipedia page on David still tells me that he was born in 1927 and is living in the West Village. David Markson will certainly be missed by those of us who had the privilege (and I would like to emphasize this word) of knowing him as well as the scholars and fans of his work who know him through the words he wrote and the stories he tells in his books. If you have yet to hear any of his stories, please pick up a copy of one of his novels at your library or local book store and read it this summer. He will be greatly, greatly missed as a friend, but he will always live through his books. Rest in Peace, David.
edit: someone's updated the wiki page now (Sunday, June 6th), and I've poked around this piece and made some edits. As I did for Salinger, I will have a post soon of things about him to glance thru. Keep an eye out this week.