The Ballad of David Markson: A Primer

Epitaph-for-a-trampColin Marshall in The Millions:

I laughed loud and long after coming across a retired schoolteacher’s self-published book of poetry with the wildly unappealing title Meanderings of an Aged Mind. Yet it now occurs to me that the late avant-garde novelist David Markson’s literary output eventually assumed exactly that form. And though he never quite reached the depth of being forced into self-publication, his fame seems to have peaked around 1970. Quasi-praise such as “undeserved obscurity” and “smartest novelist you’ve never heard of” would thereafter accumulate like barnacles on his hull.

Markson wrote two novels that look just about like traditional novels, one that could pass for a traditional novel’s second cousin, and four that invent, develop, and refine the aggressively non-novelistic shape that would become his very own genre. Line them up, and you’ve never seen such clear stylistic progress. Final destination: books made of evenly-spaced, meticulously arranged facts from the lives of notable artists, writers, philosophers, and other intellectuals. No, not historical fiction. Not narratives of any lives in particular. Not tracings of any currents of thought. Just textual accretions, really, but textual accretions of the highest erudition and artistry.

If you’re looking for grand statements about David Markson’s career, you might say the same thing that makes his novels so fascinating — and, to his fans, so endlessly engaging — also makes them so little-known. Not just steeped in but crafted from the West’s achievements in thought and aesthetics, they pay off in excitement to the extent that you know your Yeatses from your Keatses, your Kierkegaards from your Spinozas. Truly meriting the label of sui generis that otherwise gets thrown around so carelessly, his novels are fiendishly tricky to contextualize. What might you have already read that suggests you’ll like David Markson? Tough call, since, for good or ill, nothing’s like David Markson.