"Als ick kan. Which Novelist finds himself several times repeating, even while not even sure in what language--is it six-hundred-year-old Flemish? And uncertain as to why he is caught up by van Eyck's use of it. That's it, I can do no more? All I have left? I can go no further? Als ick kan?"--from The Last Novel
I wrote the following brief note for Tuesday's edition of Shelf Awareness: "David Markson, 'a revered postmodern author who rummaged relentlessly and humorously through art, history and reality itself,' died last Friday, the Associated Press reported. He was 82." The AP quote contained key words that showed up in many other obits and tributes this week, like the inevitable "postmodern" tag as well as "revered" or other polite synonyms meaning "largely unread."
I'm sorry I became a devoted Markson reader so late in the game. He is the best author I've "discovered" in the past couple of decades at least. I should have read him earlier and recommended his work throughout my bookselling career rather than during the brief time I had remaining at the bookshop once my addiction was fully formed. He deserves a larger audience, but I found him some readers while I could.
I was introduced to Markson's brilliant and irresistible work about four years ago by a friend. I read Wittgenstein's Mistress first, then quickly devoured Reader's Block, Vanishing Point, This Is Not a Novel and, when it became available, an ARC of The Last Novel. I have others on my shelves now, but I tend to reread rather than move on. There will be time. Once you're hooked, Markson's novels draw you back again.
It was not difficult to handsell Markson, especially Wittgenstein's Mistress. I told potential readers that the protagonist, a woman who believes she is the last person on earth, is so convincing that once you succumb to her voice--an easy task--the possibility that she is not mad at all seems quite likely. I even handsold the novel to a psychotherapist who agreed.
I first met Markson about three years ago at a launch party for a friend's novel. The event was held at an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, and in the crowded space, a few of us who knew one another gathered in a corner to talk, creating one of those social islands that are a survival tool at such functions. This wasn't the sort of venue Markson liked, but he was there and we were introduced.
I was already his reader by then, and one moment from the night stands out. We were all discussing the etymology of a word that can't be repeated here, and after it was clear no one really had an answer, I noticed Markson pull an index card from his shirt pocket and scribble something on it. I was certain he would soon know where that word came from, and the card would join what I imagined must be hundreds of other fragments that had accumulated over the years, destined to be carefully placed somewhere in the precise mosaic of his novels.
I will always read Markson because he observed--or imagined--and recorded, it sometimes seems, everything.
"Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman went to Dodger games at Ebbets Field together."--Reader's Block
I spoke with Markson months later in a small Greenwich Village restaurant, and then one last time during the spring of 2008 on a college campus in Vermont. I recall two things from that final meeting. A New York City guy at heart, he was struck by how green everything was; and at some point in a conversation with several people, he quoted William Gaddis from memory.
Markson is now gone, but his words remain. Do yourself a favor. Read him.
And words again at the end of The Last Novel, only this time as a declarative sentence, a wave goodbye, rather than a question: Als ick kan.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1206.