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Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson

David Markson


  Letters from David Markson


  Laura Sims


  Ann Beattie

  powerHouse Books Brooklyn, NY

  For David Markson, of course,

  and his devoted readers




  David Markson and the Problem of the Novel, AN ESSAY



  “In Celebration of David Markson,” A PANEL




  I first wrote to David Markson in February of 2003. In my impassioned fan letter I said:

  Reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress was revelatory to me—it rejuvenated my faith in the possibilities of literature. It served as solid proof (ironically enough) that there was a living soul out there—someone who was not only trying to “make it new,” but who was succeeding wholeheartedly in the endeavor…your work astounds me for the perfect balance it strikes between innovation/art and compulsive readability. In fact, “perfect” is the one word I would choose to describe your work as a whole. Of all the books I’ve read in the past five to ten years, your latest three novels (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, and This Is Not a Novel) have been the most important and influential to me personally.

  I cringe now at the grandeur of my pronouncement—but David wrote me back. He sent me a polite handwritten note the very next day, expressing his “deep thanks” for what I’d written. I was surprised, and consistently thrilled, when we carried on from there—exchanging postcards and letters more and more frequently, warming toward each other, and toward a genuine correspondence, with each one.

  When I wrote to David, I would stew over the words and lines as if each note were a crucially worded poem. I even obsessed over which postcards to use—which image would prove how erudite, how cosmopolitan I was? Which image would mark me as the philistine I feared myself to be (at least in comparison with the man who had written Wittgenstein’s Mistress)? David always sent plain white post office-issue postcards, but I chose ones from an eclectic collection I’d begun to gather expressly for our correspondence; now those cards are accumulating dust in a storage drawer. Sometimes I browse through them and see images I chose with David in mind—Caspar David Friedrich’s “Sunset (Brothers),” or an early photograph of Gertrude Stein—and I wish I could still send them to a certain address on West 10th Street.

  Our correspondence and friendship spanned the years from 2003 to his death in 2010. It grew through the years, deepening with each letter and card but also, eventually, with several visits and increasingly frequent phone calls. It was an unequal relationship in many regards. David had an illustrious, if underappreciated, writing career behind him (and still before him, as his reputation grew in those final years); I was just beginning to publish poems in a serious way, and looked up to him as a model of what an avant-garde writer should be. We were also, age-wise, at very different stages of life. During those years, David endured various ailments and health scares related to old age, enjoyed the bittersweetness of a last romance, and then suffered its loss. He saw his final book, The Last Novel, published, and attempted to escape from what had become his habitual method of composition. During our seven years of correspondence, I got married, published a first book of poetry, lived in Japan for half a year on a fellowship, moved from New York to Wisconsin and back again, published a second book, lost a job I had cherished, and finally, by the time of David’s death, was seven months pregnant. Through it all, David’s notes punctuated and brightened my life, whether he was chiding me (“Why why why do you do all those readings?”), praising me (“James Joyce…said to tell you, ‘Mazel Tov’—which is Irish for ‘Zowie.’”), or confiding in me (“I am desperately trying to write a new book.”). For seven years he was a great, glowing presence in my life, one to which I turned for literary companionship, mentorship (though he never critiqued my work, except to say it was puzzlingly “difficult”), and also, simply, for friendship.

  In 2008, I finally began to come through on the promise I’d made to David early on to spread the good word about his work. I published an essay, “David Markson and the Problem of the Novel” in New England Review, and then chaired a panel, “In Celebration of David Markson,” at the 2009 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. Small gestures, ultimately, but public ones at least. I made a recording of the panel for David, and lent him a small tape recorder so he could listen to it—and he did, over and over again, until the tapes wore out. I didn’t see the tape recorder again until May of 2010, after months of promises to return it, when David finally sent it back. I hadn’t heard from him for a couple of months, but I was too distracted by pregnancy and job-related distress to give his silence much thought. When I got the package, there was no note, which was very unlike David. I called him right away and left a message—was he mad because I hadn’t been in touch? Was everything okay? He returned my call later that day, sounding like his jovial self, so I felt reassured—enough to put him out of my mind yet again. Several weeks later, a novelist friend of his wrote to tell me he had died. I was shocked and distraught, and felt that somehow I’d failed him.

  This book of letters is not meant to remedy that failure. Nor is it meant to be a comprehensive memorial to Markson the Man or even to Markson the Man of Letters—it reveals a slice of Markson’s life, as shared with one person in bits and pieces through the years, but it doesn’t reveal, as a lifelong journal or a lifetime collection of letters might, the full arc of his thoughts and feelings, or the full spectrum of his character. The letters here provide a snapshot, not a panorama, but a snapshot is remarkably appropriate for Markson—it gives a narrow, intense glimpse of a man whose work has been narrowly, but intensely adored. It reveals, in its intimate focus, the undeniable vibrancy of the voice of one of contemporary American fiction’s greatest innovators—a voice his fans will recognize, and delight in; a voice that will surely delight newcomers to his work as well. In these casually written lines, David’s playfulness, his offhand literary erudition, his prickliness and stubbornness, his loving kindness, and above all, his damn good companionship, are on full display. These are attributes of the man that I’m happy to reveal, and preserve, alongside his incomparable body of work.

  Feb 4 ’03

  Dear Laura Sims—

  Thank you, and then some, for the kind letter about my work—truly appreciated.

  Please do believe that, even though this response won’t be half so good as you deserve. Not feeling well here, ergo I’ve none of the energy it would take to convey how pleased I was—how pleased I am—to have received it. I’ll reread it more than once, also.

  I’ve heard from the fellow writing the Review of Contemporary Fiction essay,1 actually, but am grateful you’re thinking of doing something on my work for some other periodical.

  News that may remotely interest you is that I’ve only lately finished a new book, just now being submitted by the agent. Very like the last two,2 tentatively called Vanishing Point. Whether it’s any good or not, however, is another question altogether.

  Hey, forgive this, please. As I said, a bum stretch. But I do send you all my best wishes—and again, deep thanks.


  David Markson

  1 Review of Contemporary Fiction, a tri-quarterly literary journal from Dalkey Archive Press that features critical essays on innovative fiction. Henceforth RCF.

  2 Reader’s Block
and This Is Not a Novel.

  Feb 7 ’03

  Dear Laura S—

  A P.S.: I still regret that inadequate answer to your letter. (Whatever it is, here—age, the rotten weather, my 97 sundry infirmities, etc.) But it does occur to me to add: if you ever do write an essay on my work, don’t hesitate if/when you have any questions—of any sort—textual, biographical, your choice. Be my pleasure, seriously.

  Yours again—

  David M.

  Incidentally, Astoria3 is by chance named in my new ms!4

  3 My neighborhood in New York at the time.

  4 What would be Vanishing Point.

  Mar 18 ’03

  Dear Laura S.—

  Don’t hate me. I just glanced into my new ms for the first time since giving a copy to my agent—and it’s not Astoria in there, it’s Corona.

  Just shows you what us benighted Greenwich Villagers know about exotic foreign territories—alas!

  Forgive, eh?

  My best—


  Mar 21 ’03

  Dear Laura—

  Yes, I remember seeing that piece5—someone, maybe Bill Kennedy,6 sent it to me (I have no computer)—and if I’d run into the guy [who wrote it], even in my mid-70s I would have punched him in the mouth. Gawd, of all the naïve, self-contradictory horseshit, full of misreadings, meaningless conclusions, incorrect facts—even insults—well, never mind. (Though in fact I’d still like to whack him one.)

  Re the Newsday article, only on delayed 2nd thoughts do I remember chatting with the columnist Dennis Duggan, but don’t recall ever seeing the piece itself. Maybe looking for it under his name would help you?

  Otherwise, again, my best.



  5 While researching his work, I’d tracked down numerous reviews and articles online. I’d asked him, here, about one in particular that I’d found to be sloppily written and insulting.

  6 William Kennedy, American novelist.

  June 5 ’03

  Dear Laura:

  Hey, mazel tov on your good news.7 Assuming your taste in men is as acute as it is in books, I’m sure he’s a winner. My very best to you both.

  Even in Wisconsin. Hmmm. I’ve a vague feeling I’ve heard that Madison ain’t a bad choice. Be happy out there, eh?

  Guy name of Jack Shoemaker, who had been the publisher at North Point, and was at Counterpoint when they did Not a Novel, has started a new outfit called Shoemaker & Hoard, in DC. They will do my new one next winter, maybe Feb.

  Meantime, lissen. Sometime last year I had a note from Ann Beattie, in Key West, saying she was reading here at the 92nd St. Y and that there’d be a ticket left in my name. I didn’t get there. A few weeks later I had a dinner date with Kurt Vonnegut and a couple of other chums, and I finked out on that too. But do, as soon as you receive this, scribble me a card with your phone # on same. I will try, try try, to get off my butt and set up a drink or whatever. Honest. (I cannot explain this goddamn reclusiveness, but it’s in the last few books, I’m sure.)

  All congratulations and luck to you both, again.


  7 My good news was my impending marriage, and a planned move (from New York) to Madison, Wisconsin.

  Aug 2 ’03

  Dear Laura—

  I’m sorry, truly. I don’t believe I’ve been any farther out my door than to the local supermarket since my last note. I’ve just not been feeling well—one damnable medical thing or another. In fact I did not even get to my granddaughter’s third birthday party this past weekend, alas.

  But I do hope married life goes well. Hell, make that “excitingly.”

  Likewise for your upcoming move. (Did you know that Leslie Fiedler’s8 PhD was from Madison?) (Heaven only knows how I know it myself, to tell the truth.)

  Please do get in touch when you’re settled in that other universe. And please accept all my deepest good wishes—to you both—for luck, health, happiness, etc. And (trust me on this) stay young!



  8 Leslie Fiedler, noted American literary critic, 1917-2003.

  Aug 24 ’03

  Dear Laura—

  Are you really surrounded by water, as on that card? Gee, surrounded by water. Sort of like…hmmm….Manhattan island?

  I take all sorts of advantage of it here, too. Back when my kids were about 5 and 7 (they’re now 38 and 40) I once took them for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry!

  It truly does look spectacular. How’dja know?

  Stay well, do well, both of you. (See the last two lines, Part III, “The Dry Salvages.”)9

  All my very best again—


  9 “Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers.” T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” The Four Quartets.

  Oct 1 ’03

  Dear Laura:

  Poor innocent child, thinking a man of 117 years of age would remember what T.S. Eliot quote, that long after I’d sent it. Have you not heard of “senior moments”—or weeks—the current euphemism for rampant senility?

  Re your job,10 Cavafy, a great poet, worked for the Dept of Public Works in Alexandria for 30 years. (That’s in my new book. I think it’s in my new book.) (Also, that’s the original Alexandria, not the one in Virginia.)

  Did I say I was 117? Now that the heat/humidity has finally lifted, I sometimes don’t feel a day over 109.

  Have you guys learned all the words to “On Wisconsin” yet, or just the first stanza?11

  Hey, again, stay well, etc. Oh, hallelujah—in the context of that last phrase, I just remembered what Eliot quote! So, do so, hear?



  10 A temp job I had on arriving in Wisconsin, doing administrative work (“the clerical equivalent of digging ditches/cleaning sewers,” as I’d told him in a letter on 9/20/03) for the Fitchburg Department of Public Works.

  11 “On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! / Plunge right through that line! / Run the ball clear down the field, / A touchdown sure this time. (U rah rah) / On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! / Fight on for her fame / Fight! Fellows! - fight, fight, fight! / We’ll win this game.”

  Oct 10 ’03

  Sorry, Ms. Sims—the Lorine Niedecker stuff is in one of my books.12 I can’t remember which, Not a Novel or Reader’s B—but I guess this means your A is now an A-minus.

  Industry, extra after-class hours—and neatness—will help.

  12 In the context of his note about Cavafy (and writers with boring jobs), I’d told him he should include a quote about Lorine Niedecker, Wisconsin poet, in a future novel.

  Oct 11 ’03

  Reader’s Block.

  Top page 38.13


  13 “Lorine Niedecker spent years of her adult life scrubbing floors in a Wisconsin hospital.”

  Oct 11 ’03

  *No note, but a neatly excised article from the New York Times travel section called “36 Hours in Madison, Wisconsin” that begins, “On an isthmus sandwiched by Lakes Mendota and Monona, Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, is a progressive university town noted for the good life…”

  Nov. 8 ’03

  Dear Simsy14—

  Hey, thank you for that copy of the RCF. I was pleased to see your essay,15 even though it’s hard as hell for me to read same intelligently, what with knowing absolutely nothing about Diane Williams16—not having read one word (of her or of anybody else under the age of seventy, it begins to seem). But you make it all about as vivid as it could be under such circumstances. In other words, you write nice. So indeed, yes, I want you “on my side.” For that matter, stop threatening and get to it, hear?

  Yes, I know about that “other woman.”17 In fact she’s already delivered several essays at one conference or another in France. As did someone from Temple U. at an American Lit Ass’n thing in Boston last spring. Plus there’s the hombre presumably doing the one for RCF. So I repeat, kiddo—get to it.

  You did see the Markson
stuff in a much earlier (1990) RCF,18 no? If we’ve mentioned this, excuse my ever more pervasive senility, eh?

  Otherwise I wish I had some news—or at least something cheerful to say—but my under-the-weatherness is even more pervasive than my empty-headedness. Just awrful. DON’T GET OLD.

  Speaking of which, it only lately occurred to me that tomorrow, around lunchtime, will be fifty years to the hour since Dylan Thomas died about four blocks from where I now sit. He was in a coma for approx. five days, and it was about three before that when I last chatted with him at the White Horse19 (also four blocks off). But good gawd—a half century ago?! Old, did I say?



  14 This was his first use of this nickname for me; for some reason he alternates, from here on out, between two spellings: “Simsy” and “Symsy.”

  15 “Diane Williams.” RCF, Vol. XXIII, No. 3.

  16 Diane Williams, American fiction writer, author of Romancer Erector and Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty.

  17 FranÇoise Palleau-Papin, the French scholar who published This Is Not a Tragedy, the first book-length study on David Markson, in 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press).

  18 “John Barth/David Markson.” RCF, Vol. X, No. 2.

  19 The White Horse Tavern, at Hudson & 11th Street, was a popular Greenwich Village gathering-place for writers and artists (including David, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, and Norman Mailer) during the 1950s and 60s.

  Dec 4 ’03

  Dear Laura:

  Do forgive the silence. I appear to have gone to 938,627 MDs since my last. No, only a few, just seems that way. // You’d never told me you were a poet, you know?20 So how’d I know? I sure do wish you luck on placing a book. // I just saw a first pre-pub review of my own new book,21 only Kirkus, but it appears I am single-handedly keeping American lit significant. I wonder if guys like Roth or Barth or DeLillo know that, poor deluded souls.