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This is Not a Novel

David Markson

  David Markson

  This is Not a Novel


  For Toby and Duncan Freeman and Sydney Markson

  I am now trying an Experiment

  very frequent among Modern Authors;

  which is, to write upon Nothing.


  Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

  Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.

  Lord Byron died of either rheumatic fever, or typhus, or uremia, or malaria.

  Or was inadvertently murdered by his doctors, who had bled him incessantly.

  Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis in 1900. Granted an ordinary modern life span, he would have lived well into World Warn.

  This morning I walked to the place where the street-cleaners dump the rubbish. My God, it was beautiful. Says a van Gogh letter.

  Writer is equally tired of inventing characters.

  Bertolt Brecht died of a stroke. Terrified of being buried alive, he had pleaded that a stiletto be driven through his heart once he was declared legally dead. An attending physician did so.

  Mr. Coleridge, do not cry. If opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do you not go and get it? Asked Wilkie Collins’ mother.

  William Blake lived and dressed in inconceivable filth, and virtually never bathed.

  Mr. Blake’s skin don’t dirt, his wife Catherine contributed.

  When I was their age I could draw like Raphael. But it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like they do. Said Picasso at an exhibition of children’s art.

  A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive.

  And with no characters. None.

  The Globe Theatre burned to the ground on June 29, 1613. Did any new play of Shakespeare’s, not yet in quarto publication, perhaps burn with it?

  Albert Camus, on the one occasion when he was introduced to William Faulkner:

  The man did not say three words to me.

  Nietzsche died after a sequence of strokes. But his final illness, and his madness, were almost surely the result of syphilis.

  W. H. Auden was once arrested for urinating in a public park in Barcelona.

  Frans Hals was once arrested for beating his wife.

  Plotless. Characterless.

  Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.

  No one was injured in the Globe Theatre calamity. One man’s breeches were set on fire, but it is on record that the flames were quenched with a tankard of ale.

  When Dickens shocked Victorian London by separating from his wife, it was Thackeray who let slip that it was over an actress. Dickens did not speak to him for years.

  Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon.

  George Santayana, reading Moby Dick: In spite of much skipping, I have got stuck in the middle.

  Thales of Miletus died at his seat while watching an athletic contest.

  But I knew that Monsieur Beyle quite well, and you will never convince me that a trifler like him could have written masterpieces. Said Sainte-Beuve.

  Actionless, Writer wants it.

  Which is to say, with no sequence of events.

  Which is to say, with no indicated passage of time.

  Then again, getting somewhere in spite of this.

  The old wives’ tale, repeated by Socrates, that Thales was also frequently so preoccupied with gazing up at the stars that he once tumbled into a well.

  And was even laughed at by washerwomen.

  Jack Donne, the young John Donne was commonly called.

  Oedipus gouges out his eyes, Jocasta hangs herself, both guiltless; the play has come to a harmonious conclusion. Wrote Schiller.

  Verdi died of a stroke.

  Puccini died of throat cancer.

  Indeed, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  Even with a note of sadness at the end.

  What porridge had John Keats? Asked Browning.

  What is the use of being kind to a poor man? Asked Cicero.

  Bertrand Russell was so inept, physically, that he could never learn to make a pot of tea.

  Immanuel Kant could not manage to sharpen a quill pen with a penknife.

  John Stuart Mill could barely tie a simple knot.

  The sixth-century legend that St. Luke was a painter. And did a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

  Tartini’s violin.

  Which shattered in its case at his death.

  Insistently, Brahms wore his pants too short. Sometimes actually taking a scissors to the bottoms.

  A novel with no setting.

  With no so-called furniture.

  Ergo meaning finally without descriptions.

  Andre Gide died of a disease of the lungs. Rereading the Aeneid on his deathbed.

  It was while they were making copies of the Masaccio frescoes in the Santa Maria del Carmine as young apprentices that Michelangelo criticized the draftsmanship of Pietro Torrigiano: Bone and cartilage went down like biscuit, Torrigiano would later tell Benvenuto Cellini. Re Michelangelo’s nose.

  The greatest genius of our century, Goethe called Byron.

  The greatest genius of our century, Byron called Goethe.

  Ivan Turgenev, at nineteen, during a shipboard fire: Save me! I am my mother’s only son!

  Catullus, who loved a woman he called Lesbia, but whose real name may have been Clodia.

  Propertius, who loved a woman he called Cynthia, but whose real name may have been Hostia.

  Both, two full thousand years ago.

  Gustav Mahler died of endocarditis.

  Louis-Ferdinand Celine died of a brain aneurysm.

  A novel with no overriding central motivations, Writer wants.

  Hence with no conflicts and /or confrontations, similarly.

  Rudolph Kreutzer never performed the Kreutzer sonata.

  One of the ennobling delights of Paradise, as promised by Thomas Aquinas:

  Viewing the condemned as they are tortured and broiled below.

  The friendship of Samuel Beckett and Alberto Gia-cometti.

  Richard Strauss: Why do you have to write this way? You have talent.

  Paul Hindemith: Herr Professor, you make your music and I’ll make mine.

  Porto d’Ercole. Where Caravaggio died.

  Most probably of malaria.

  In a tavern.

  Georgia O’Keeffe died blind.

  I saw Hamlet, Prince of Denmark played, but now the old plays begin to disgust this refined age. Says John Evelyn’s Diary for November 26,1661.

  With no social themes, i.e., no picture of society.

  No depiction of contemporary manners and/or morals.

  Categorically, with no politics.

  Vulgar and dull, Ruskin dismissed Rembrandt as. Brother to Dostoievsky, Malraux called him.

  For whatever reason, Jean Sibelius did not write a note in the last thirty years of his life.

  Kierkegaard died of a lung infection. Or a disease of the spine.

  Karl Barth’s surmise:

  That while the angels may play only Bach in praising God, among themselves they play Mozart.

  Theophrastus pronounced that flute music could cure sciatica.

  Not to mention epilepsy.

  Alexander Pope died of dropsy.

  John Milton died of gout.

  Theophrastus said flute music would have cured that, also.

  No one ever painted a woman’s backside better than Boucher, said Renoir.

  A novel entirely without symbols.

  Robert of Naples: Giotto, if I were you, in this hot weather I would leave off painting for a while. Giotto: So would I, assuredly—if I were you.

  Matthew Arnold died of a heart attack while
running for a streetcar in Liverpool.

  Among Dickens’ children:

  Alfred Tennyson Dickens. Henry Fielding Dickens. Edward Bulwer-Lytton Dickens. Walter Landor Dickens. Sydney Smith Dickens.

  Among Walt Whitman’s brothers: George Washington Whitman. Andrew Jackson Whitman. Thomas Jefferson Whitman.

  Elizabeth I, visiting Cambridge University, delivered a lecture in Greek.

  And then chatted less formally with students in Latin.

  Thomas Mann died of phlebitis.

  The likelihood that Anne Hathaway could not read.

  Anne Hathaway.

  The perhaps less than idle speculation that Columbus was a Jew.

  Space is blue and birds fly through it. Said Werner Heisenberg.

  Ultimately, a work of art without even a subject, Writer wants.

  There is no work of art without a subject, said Ortega.

  A novel tells a story, said E. M. Forster.

  If you can do it, it ain’t bragging, said Dizzy Dean.

  Xenocrates died after stumbling against a brass pot in the dark and cracking his skull.

  Brunelleschi had a temporary restaurant and wine shop constructed in the highest reaches of the Florence cathedral while building his great cupola—so his workmen did not have to negotiate all that distance for lunch.

  Maxim Gorky died of tuberculosis. Or was he ordered murdered by Stalin?

  Baudelaire died after being paralyzed and deprived of speech by syphilis.

  I was tired and ill. I stood looking out across the fjord. The sun was setting. The clouds were colored red. Like blood. I felt as though a scream went through nature. Said Edvard Munch.

  Can only have been painted by a madman. Said Munch of the same canvas.

  Pico della Mirandola, not yet thirty-one, died of an unidentified fever.

  William Butler Yeats died of heart failure. The day of his death was a dark cold day.

  Leigh Hunt once saw Charles Lamb kiss Chapman’s Homer.

  Henry Crabb Robinson once saw Coleridge kiss a Spinoza.

  Lamb was in fact known to pretend surprise that people did not say grace before reading.

  Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, Ambrose Bierce was born in.

  Giorgione probably died of plague.

  Ninon de Lenclos.

  The solitary, melancholy life of Matthias Griinewald. Was he wholly sane?

  Is Writer, thinking he can bring off what he has in mind?

  And anticipating that he will have any readers?

  There is only one person who has the right to criticize me, do you understand? And that is Picasso. Said Matisse late in life.

  Arthur Koestler was an enemy alien in solitary confinement in a London prison at the beginning of World War II when Darkness at Noon was published.

  Pope Joan, a.k.a. John VII, 855-858. Who died when taken by childbirth during a papal procession between St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran.

  There is no mention of writing in the Iliad. Any and all messages are passed along verbally.

  Indicating incidentally that not one of the Greek warriors, during ten years at Troy, has ever sent a letter home.

  Is John 8:6-8 the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is seen writing anything, if only marking on the ground with a finger?

  The Salon des Refuses.

  Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

  Joseph Conrad died of a heart seizure.

  Does Writer even exist?

  In a book without characters?

  —And who are you? said he.—Don’t puzzle me; said I. Says Tristram Shandy VII 33.

  Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue, said Flaubert.

  Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—

  As a sort of mantra, Kant would sometimes recite a list of people who had lived long lives, hoping to match them. He reached eighty.

  Gluck’s face was pitted from smallpox.

  Haydn’s face was pitted from smallpox.

  Mozart’s face was pitted from smallpox.

  Ludwig Wittgenstein died of prostate cancer.

  My mind and fingers have worked like the damned. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, I devour them with fury. Wrote Liszt at twenty.

  Obviously Writer exists.

  Not being a character but the author, here.

  Writer is writing, for heaven’s sake.

  Landscape of the Urinating Multitudes, Lorca called one of his New York poems.

  Unmarried women should not bathe, said St. Jerome. Ever. And should embrace the most deliberate squalor. The less to breed temptation in the world.

  Sappho was small and dark. Though is made blond and fleshy by Raphael in his Parnassus at the Vatican.

  Horace was short and fat. Admitting this himself in the Satires.

  On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.

  Paul Celan’s body was not found for eleven days after he stepped off the Pont Mirabeau. Nelly Sachs died on the day of his funeral.

  Only when Euripides was being performed would Socrates go to the theater.

  Rossini, on the Symphony Fantastique: What a good thing it isn’t music.

  The Sabine farm.

  Which is to say that Writer can even have headaches, then?

  Writer can have headaches.

  Walter Scott frequently manufactured chapter epigraphs out of whole cloth, saying what he wished said, and then wrote in either Old Play or Anon, as the alleged source.

  Paul Robeson died of pneumonia and kidney failure.

  The King James Bible, the First Folio—both during James I.

  Who on the other hand did not pay Chapman the royal stipend due on his translations.

  According to Plutarch, Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times at his death.

  Dvorak, to Sibelius: I have composed too much. Brahms, to Dvorak: You do write a bit hastily.

  Norman Mailer’s sixth wife was the same age as his oldest daughter.

  O, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

  Writer does have headaches.

  In fact so did Virgil.

  And Wordsworth.

  Robert Lowell was in and out of mental institutions repeatedly.

  Theodore Roethke was in and out of mental institutions repeatedly.

  Roethke at least once taken in in handcuffs.

  Madame Butterfly is set in Nagasaki.

  And they so eagerly pressed towards the body, and so many daggers were hacking together, that they cut one another; Brutus, particularly, received a wound in his hand, and all of them were besmeared with blood.

  Anna Akhmatova died after a series of heart attacks.

  A grace to say before reading the Oiesteia? Before Kafka?

  Wee Willie Keeler was five feet four and a half inches tall.

  Balzac was five feet two.

  Schubert was five one and a half.

  Keats was less than five one.

  A hyena that writes poetry on tombs, Nietzsche called Dante.

  Martin Luther’s own words, re the origin at Wittenberg Monastery of the key principles of the Protestant Reformation: This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.

  Anne Bradstreet died of what was then called consumption.

  Sabrina fair,

  Listen where thou art sitting

  Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave.

  Domenico Scarlatti was known to cross himself in veneration when taking about Handel’s skill at the organ.

  This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.

  Said Robert Rauschenberg in a telegram to a Paris art gallery.

  Piero di Cosimo was found dead at the foot of a flight of stairs.

  Hagia Sophia.

  A woman named Mrs. Simon: Who watched an elderly man on a train put his head out a window during an unrelenting November thunderstorm and hold it there for fully ten minutes.

  And a year later at the Royal Academy came upon Turner
’s Rain, Steam, and Speed on exhibition.

  Chi son? Chi son? Son un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.

  Lavoisier was guillotined in the Reign of Terror.

  The holy curiosity of enquiry, Einstein spoke of.

  Paul Gauguin apparently died of a heart attack.

  I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;

  I am not well: send the deed after me,

  And I will sign it.

  When I saw a performance of this play at Drury Lane, a beautiful pale-faced Englishwoman stood behind me in the box and wept profusely at the end of the fourth act, and called out repeatedly: The poor man is wronged. Wrote Heinrich Heine.

  The assumption that Shylock is the merchant meant by the title.

  James Joyce and Isaac Babel were once guests at the same dinner party.

  E come vivo? Vivo.

  This is a novel if Writer or Robert Rauschenberg says so.

  Golder’s Green, Sigmund Freud’s ashes were buried at. In the Jewish cemetery where Conchita Supervia is also buried.

  Before the Normans brought despair, the Anglo-Saxon word was wanhope.

  Edmund Wilson once punched Mary McCarthy in the face.

  The frequent stags and deer in Lucas Cranach. Dogs barked when they saw them, someone said. As birds flying into the cathedral at Seville were said to peck at the fruit in Murillo’s St. Anthony of Padua. Or other birds in an identical story about grapes in a panel by Zeuxis two millennia earlier.

  Greater than any of us, Yeats called Rabindranath Tagore.

  Descartes had an illegitimate daughter, named Francine, whom he loved dearly. And who died at five.


  Joan Sutherland’s mezzo, Marilyn Home was sometimes mindlessly pigeonholed as, early on.

  Wagner insisted that Christ was not a Jew. Though that Brahms was.

  Murillo died after a fall from a scaffold.

  Rudyard Kipling and Angela Thirkell were cousins.

  I am going to drink myself dead, Modigliani made it known.

  But died of tubercular meningitis.

  Numerus clausus.

  Ludwig Geyer.

  And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it.

  Gladstone read the Iliad thirty times.

  Defoe, of the same opus:

  A Ballad-Singer’s Fable to get a Penny. All for the Rescue of a Whore.