The poet Laura Sims wrote her first letter to novelist David Markson in 2003: a fan letter expressing her love of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Markson’s reply was collegial enough that she replied again, and the chain continued for years. At one point in their correspondence, Sims prints out some blog entries about his work and mails them to Markson. His response is “HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?” What Markson can’t see is that much of the Internet takes the tone of his letters—informal, often joking, and not written with perpetuity in mind. Markson’s self-deprecating humor shines throughout. He struggles to leave the house—he lives in text.
This new book of letters, Fare Forward, includes 66 letters from Markson (spanning 2003–2010), an interview Sims conducted with Markson for Rain Taxi, Markson’s introductory remarks for an AWP panel organized by Sims, and an Afterword by Ann Beattie. Sims’ side of the correspondence is omitted and she uses footnotes to explain the context of Markson’s replies. This slim volume is welcome now because fans and readers will be grateful for anything that keeps Markson’s voice in print. But it is only a sliver of the letters Markson produced in his lifetime. Where are the decades of correspondence with other writers? Are his letters to Malcolm Lowry, William Gaddis, and other influential writers lost forever? Some of his letters are already in literary archives or scattered across private collections. Markson’s letters to Gilbert Sorrentino went to the University of Delaware. Some of his letters to David Foster Wallace and Steven Moore reside at the Harry Ransom Center, but the immense effort required to track down all of Markson’s letters likely does not figure well in a publisher’s profit and loss statement.
It seems inevitable that many of these letters—and the stories they contain—are lost forever. But, throughout his work, Markson makes it clear that preservation of art does not necessarily correlate to preservation of fame.
The Carmina Burana. Any and all names of the original vagabond thirteenth-century poets long forgotten. [Reader’s Block, 47]
The poems of Catullus were lost for a millennium. Tradition has it that the single manuscript discovered in Verona in the fourteenth century had been used to stop a bunghole. [Reader’s Block, 112]
It is difficult to find those places today, and you would be no better off if you did, because no one lives there.
Said Strabo of the lost past. [This is Not a Novel, 185]
Which stories—or letters—survive into the long future, even electronically, is ultimately more a product of luck and coincidence than any sustained effort of preservation or curation: a letter is sold to The Strand, an email is deleted, and a manuscript page gets recycled. Perhaps Strabo is correct that we would be no better off knowing every detail of the lost past, perhaps it is a fallacy to believe that the stories we lost to paper and time and happenstance are any more meaningful than stories we willfully ignore today. Yet, Markson himself was a stickler for details and exactitude and the deeper our history, the more willing we are to preserve it, the more likely writers like Markson will be appreciated long after they are gone.
In Nicholson Baker’s book-length ode to John Updike, U and I, Baker at first contemplates writing a lengthy appreciation of his recently deceased hero, Donald Barthelme, but arrives at:
“Why bother? Barthelme would never know. . . . He had died somewhat out of fashion, too, and I was curious to watch firsthand the microbiologies of upward revaluation or of progressive obscurity.”
Three and a half years have passed since the Markson died and he seems headed toward the progressive obscurity to which Baker alludes. However, the microbiology of his reputation evolves somewhat with the release of these letters.
Markson’s last four books (Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel) were admittedly not bestsellers aimed at a general audience. They were all narrated by a nameless Author who only occasionally interrupted a stream of literary and art history factoids. And yet they were page turners—the best sorts of novels without feeling like a guilty pleasure. Evan Lavender-Smith called these books “porn for English majors.” So it’s likely that these final four novels of Markson’s will remain cult classics, and his early novels are interesting but not groundbreaking. But, Markson did write one novel that is an unabashed masterpiece: Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
Like Author, Markson was acutely aware of his advanced age and his lack of recognition. It is one thing to be relegated to the dustbin of history, but quite another to be buried alive.
About the 2004 presidential election, Markson writes “I hope neither of you slashed your wrists after the election. I was gonna jump off the roof here, but my sciatica hurt too much for me to get over the railing.”
His last postcard to Sims ends: “Meantime nada here. Everything I can think of would be making me repeat myself—and I almost prefer the silence. (Actually, I hate it.)”
Not all of these books were published in 2013, but most were. I haven’t been great about tracking all the books I’ve read, but these were the most memorable.
1. S. by Doug Dorst (with J.J. Abrams)
I’m a sucker for books about books, and books about fictional reclusive authors, and I’m also a sucker for books with printed ephemera inserted throughout, and books with marginalia all over them and books about the sea. So, this book pushed a lot of buttons for me. If you haven’t read Dorst’s previous books, I highly recommend those as well. “Ship of Theseus”, the Straka novel at the center of S., is a masterpiece in its own right. I look forward to re-reading this book. (And even though Abrams’ name is on the cover of the book, make no mistake, this is a Doug Dorst book.)
2. Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker
Not even going to apologize for my love of all things Nick Baker. I credit him with getting me seriously interested in literature. This one continues the story of Paul Chowder and Baker feels so human to me here because he embraces a contemporary world that looks a lot like my own (i.e. the ubiquity and necessity of iPhones, going to the gym, listening to pop music, etc.).
3. Anti Lebanon by Carl Shuker
If you aren’t familiar with Carl Shuker’s writing, you need to go out and buy The Method Actors. If you are familiar with Shuker, you probably greet a new book from him the way some people treat the release of a new Jay Z album (or equivalent). When this book came out in early 2013, it was a big deal to me. It’s a geographical (and thematic) departure for Shuker, which is exciting, but his mastery of dialogue and sense of a character’s internal philosophy shines throughout. Check out biblioklept’s review of the book as well.
4. The High Life by Jean-Pierre Martinet
This short novella is about a misanthropic narrator in Paris. I was drawn to it because it is so short and looked experimental, and I’d never heard of Martinet. The Introduction in the book explains a lot about his life and career as a writer, which was mostly a failure. None of this sounds like a ringing endorsement, but to me, the book had a purity to it that made Martinet’s alter ego somewhat endearing. It felt like reading a black and white French film.
5. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
This novel was a return-to-form for Homes. It reminded me a lot of Music for Torching, but felt more developed or mature beyond that. I’ll read anything by Homes, but I like her best when she inhabits characters like these and tells a straightforward story.
6. The Afterlife by Donald Antrim
When Antrim was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship this year, I was inspired to go back and read the one book of his I hadn’t yet picked up—his memoir. It’s a dark story about his mother and alcoholism, but there are a lot of layers to the story and I found humor there, too (especially in his quest to find the perfect bed). It’s a brave book.
I picked this up at Comic-con in San Diego and it was the best reading material I had all summer. It’s a dense book full of stories, panels, interviews, and behind-the-scenes stuff that it gave me an entirely new perspective on Clowes.
8. Happy Talk by Richard Melo
One of the gifts of literature is that you get to experience thoughts, ideas, and places in a voice you would not imagine on your own. Richard Melo’s novel Happy Talk continually surprised me because common clichés were absent or interrupted and clear care was taken with each line of dialogue and prose. The end result is not just surprise but delight. Happy Talk is the story of a group of American nurses stationed in Haiti during World War II. But it’s also one of those novels where telling someone what it’s “about” conveys very little of what the experience of reading it is like. Melo is, in part, a painter of images. A few lasting ones: the picture of the nurse rippling a bedsheet over her head and watching it descend slowly, the parachutist dangling from a tree, and the Nation of Islam building a UFO.
9. Mumbai New York Scranton by Tamara Shopsin
This is a memoir by the daughter of famous NY restaurateur Kenny Shopsin. Right away, this sold me on the book because I love Shopsins restaurant (the old location in the Village) and the documentary about Shopsins (I Like Killing Flies). However, Tamara Shopsin proves herself to be a talented writer and artist in her own right. It reminded me of a couple of my favorite recent memoirs: Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Joshua Cody’s [sic].
What the fuck’s happening?
I just accidentally shot Google Reader in the face.
Why the fuck did you do that?
I don’t think I meant to do it. I said it was an accident.
I’ve seen a lot of crazy-ass shit in my time –
– chill out, man, it was an accident, okay? The web hit a monetization bump or somethin’ and the kill switch went off.
The web didn’t hit no motherfuckin’ monetization bump!
Look! I didn’t mean to kill the whole RSS thing, the kill switch just looks at monetization, don’t ask me how!
Look at this mess! We’re surfin’ around on six hundred bookmarks in broad daylight –
– I know, I know, I wasn’t thinkin’ about the aftermath.
Well you better be thinkin’ about it now, motherfucker! We gotta export my content and get set up on some other knockoff site now. Users tend to notice shit like you can’t read posts anymore.
Can’t you just take your data to a friendly place?
This is the wild web, GOOGLE. I don’t got no friendly places in the wild web.
Well, don’t look at me, this is your Data.
[I google a list of Reader replacements.]
Who ya searchin’ for?
A site I heard about on Twitter.
On the useful side of Silicon Valley. If Feedly’s ass ain’t workin’, I don’t know what the fuck we’re gonna do. I ain’t got any other partners in the RSS world.
[creates account on Feedly]
Feedly! How you doin’ man, it’s ME.
Listen up man, me an’ my homeboy Google are in some serious shit. We got 600 RSS feeds we gotta get off Reader, pronto! I need to use your storage for a while.
INT. FEEDLY – MORNING
Both ME and GOOGLE are inside the new interface cleaning up. GOOGLE is in the front seat importing data, while I’m in the backseat, organizing little blog feeds that haven’t been updated in years
I will never forgive your ass for this shit. This is some fucked-up repugnant shit!
Did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits he’s wrong, he’s immediately forgiven for all wrong-doings?
Man, get outta my face with that shit! The motherfucker who said that never had The Old Reader shut down in his face after reorganizing all his feeds on account of your dumb ass.
I got a threshold. I got a threshold for the abuse I’ll take. And you’re crossin’ it. I’m a race car and you got me in the red. I’m not evil! Just know, it’s fuckin’ dangerous to be drivin’ a race car when it’s in the red. It could blow.
You’re gettin’ ready to blow? I’m a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker! Every time my fingers type “Feedly” I’m “SUPERFLY T.N.T,” I’m the “GUNS OF NAVARONE.” I’m what Jimmie Walker used to talk about. In fact, what the fuck am I doin’ in the back organizing feeds? You’re the motherfucker should be on “organizing the world’s information” detail. We’re tradin’. I’m auto-importing and you’re putting everything back in folders.