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The Last Novel

David Markson



  “Breathtakingly seamless perfection . . . brilliant, high, fine, masterful, deep.”

  Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  “Striking, devilishly playful . . . and with a deeply philosophical core, this novel proves once more that Markson deserves his accolades and then some.”

  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “David Markson’s books are stunningly true and wildly inventive. They are unsettling and consoling. They are full of strange echoes, paradoxes, and hilarious stories, and in their accumulations they are great homages to great art, celebrating the work of the imagination and at the same time reminding us of swift time and the fragility of cultural memory.”

  Joanna Scott

  “Irresistible . . . a marvelous, page-turning read . . . uncommon brilliance . . . a novel of immense drama . . . explosively artful.” Baltimore Sun


  “Magnificent . . . it’s almost impossible to stop turning pages . . . my soul was humming.”

  Sven Birkerts, New York Observer

  “Reads as addictively as an airport thriller . . . masterful.” Bookforum “Mesmerizing.”


  “Triumphant . . . plangent verbal music . . . altogether wonderful.”

  Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

  “No, it’s not a novel, but it is a masterwork.”

  Publishers Weekly


  “Alarmingly moving . . . yes, you should read this book.”


  “No one but Beckett can be quite as sad and funny at the same time as Markson can.”

  Ann Beattie

  “One of the most original novels of its time . . . unputdownable.”

  American Book Review


  “Addresses formidable philosophic questions with tremendous wit. Remarkable.”

  Amy Hempel, New York Times Book Review

  “A work of genius . . . An erudite, breathtakingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal and whose voice rivets and whose conclusion defies you not to cry.”

  David Foster Wallace, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  “Provocative, learned, wacko, brilliant, and extravagantly comic.”

  William Kennedy

  “The novel I liked best this year . . . one dizzying, delightful, funny passage after another.”

  Washington Times


  “An exuberantly Joycean, yes, Joycean celebration of carnality and creativity — an everything-goes, risk-taking, manically wild and funny and painful novel . . . brilliant.”

  New York Times Book Review

  “Alive with the pleasures of language . . . terribly funny, formidably intelligent.”

  Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

  “The most honest and stunning Greenwich Village novel of my time.”

  Seymour Krim


  “Beautifully constructed. One of the most important books published in America in years.”

  Frederick Exley

  “A beauty. A haunting story of passion and flesh. An erotic work of art.”

  William Goyen

  “A book we will come back to as we do with The Recognitions and Under the Volcano. An unquestioned masterpiece.”

  Les Whitten

  “Leaves me woozy with sex and death and Mexico. Highly recommended.”

  Kurt Vonnegut

  “A contemporary, very literate record of despair; all of it in fact seems to be taking place in darkness, in shadows, in the rain, or in the secret criminal places of the heart . . . supremely successful.”

  Village Voice

  The Last Novel

  Also by David Markson


  The Ballad of Dingus Magee

  Going Down

  Springer’s Progress

  Wittgenstein’s Mistress

  Reader’s Block

  This Is Not a Novel

  Vanishing Point


  Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning


  Collected Poems


  Epitaph for a Tramp

  Epitaph for a Dead Beat

  Miss Doll, Go Home





  Copyright © 2007 by David Markson

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Markson, David.

  The last novel / David Markson.

  p. cm.

  ISBN-13: 978-1-59376-143-1

  ISBN-10: 1-59376-143-0

  1. Novelists—Fiction. 2. Fiction—Authorship—Fiction.

  3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

  PS3563.A67L37 2007

  813'.54—dc22 2006038793

  Cover design by Kimberly Glyder Design

  Interior design by David Bullen

  Printed in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


  For Sydney, for Duncan, for Toby

  And for Trish Hoard

  Painting is not done to decorate apartments.


  If there wasn’t death, I think you couldn’t go on.



  The Last Novel

  There are six floors in Novelist’s apartment building. Then again, the paved inner airshaft courtyard is at basement level, making seven.

  And then the roof.

  From high up on the Sistine ceiling scaffolding, Michelangelo was known to now and then drop things — brooms, even fairly long boards.

  Most frequently, it appeared, when the pope happened to be lurking below for a glimpse at his latest efforts.

  When I die, I open a bordello. You know what is a bordello, no? But against every one of you — all — I lock shut the door.

  Said Arturo Toscanini, to a recalcitrant orchestra.

  As a talisman for the future while still young and penniless, Balzac once sketched a large blank representation of a picture frame on one of his garret walls — and designated it Painting by Raphael.

  Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

  A Frenchman in Delft in 1663, looking to purchase inexpensive art, was shown a Vermeer — on display in a pastry shop.

  Almost certainly being held there as security for a debt of Vermeer’s to the baker.

  Keats stayed up all night on the occasion when he actually did first look into Chapman’s Homer — and then composed his sonnet so swiftly that he was able to messenger it to a friend to read before breakfast.

  Van Gogh, in a letter from Arles, some few weeks after having presented a piece of his ear to a woman in a brothel:

  I went yesterday to see the girl I had gone to when I went astray in my wits. They told me that in this country things like that are not out of the ordinary.

  Shelley, in a letter from Venice, on Byron’s local innamorati:

  The most ignorant, the most disgusting, the most bigoted; countesses smell so strongly of garlic, that an ordinary Englishman cannot approach them. Well, L.B. is familiar with the lowest sort of these women, the people his gondolieri pick up in the streets.

  The unimaginably cramped cell in which St. John of the Cross was once imprisoned for months, beaten repeatedly and virtually starved, but where he nonetheless managed to compose some of his finest verses.<
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  In a building that no longer exists — but can still be seen in El Greco’s View of Toledo.

  At least once, Flaubert informs readers that Emma Bovary’s eyes are brown.

  And several other times that they are black.

  Sigmund Freud ran his household in such a rigidly patriarchal manner that his wife was literally expected to have spread the toothpaste on his brush each morning.

  Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

  All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write.

  Anton Chekhov died in Germany. His coffin arrived in Moscow in a freight car — distinctly labeled Oysters.

  During their first four years in the East Hampton farmhouse where they would live until Pollock’s death eleven years later, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner could not afford to install plumbing for heat and hot water.

  Clarence Darrow went out of his way to inform A. E. Housman that he had recited two pieces of Housman’s verse in avoiding the death penalty for Leopold and Loeb, even presenting Housman with a copy of the courtroom summation — which showed he had misquoted both.

  Claude Monet’s admission, after standing beside the deathbed of someone he had loved — that in spite of his grief he had spent much of the time analyzing which pigments comprised the color of her eyelids.

  That day being come, Caesar going into the Senate house and speaking merrily unto the soothsayer, told him, The Ides of March be come. So be they, softly answered the soothsayer, but they are not yet past.

  Says North’s Plutarch.

  A woman’s body is not a mass of flesh in a state of decomposition, on which the green and purplish spots denote a complete state of cadaveric putrefaction.

  An early critic presumed to inform Renoir.

  The devil damn thee black, thou cream-fac’d loon;

  Where gott’st thou that goose look?

  — Wrote Shakespeare in Macbeth.

  Now friend, what means thy change of countenance?

  — Substituted William Davenant, in a rewritten version that was played for almost a century.

  His last book. All of which also then gives Novelist carte blanche to do anything here he damned well pleases.

  Which is to say, writing in his own personal genre, as it were.

  The first one-man artist’s exhibition on record — put together by Gustave Courbet in Paris in 1855.

  In a tent just outside the official group show that had rejected him.

  Preoccupied with a poem-in-progress, Paul Valéry once paused to glance at a proof sheet in the window of a printing shop, and then without quite realizing it began to mentally revise the lines.

  Until it embarrassingly dawned on him that he was rewriting Racine and not himself.

  Vermeer died in 1675. At which time one of his largest debts was, in fact, to a Delft baker.

  For bread to feed a family of thirteen.

  In November 1919, after a solar eclipse had irrefutably verified Einstein’s concept of relativity, British physicists convened a major press gathering to announce it. The New York Times assigned the story to a man named Henry Crouch — a golf reporter.

  An eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar. Oblivion lurks in the immediate neighborhood.

  Said Thomas Bailey Aldrich of Emily Dickinson.

  The William Sakspere of Gloucestershire — who was hanged as a thief in 1248.

  Along with a letter of homage, Berlioz sent copies of the score of The Damnation of Faust to Goethe.

  Who never responded.

  Venomously malignant. Noxious. Blasphemous. Grotesque. Disgusting. Repulsive. Entirely bestial. Indecent.

  Being among the critical greetings for Leaves of Grass.

  Not to omit ithyphallic audacity.

  Plus garbage.

  Profound stupidity. Maniacal raving. Pure nonsense.

  Among some for the best of Shelley.

  Which was also called abominable.

  Infantile. Absurd. Driveling. Nauseating.

  Reserved for Wordsworth.

  For the rain it raineth every day.

  Actually, Goethe had been gratified by Berlioz’ letter. But then showed the Faust score to a now long-forgotten minor German composer — who informed him it was valueless.

  After the 1953 Laurence Olivier film of The Beggar’s Opera, Britain’s Inland Revenue Service repeatedly sent inquiries regarding an address for John Gay — from whom they had not received income tax returns.

  1732, Gay was buried at Westminster Abbey in.

  I like Mr. Dickens’ books much better than yours, Papa.

  Said one of Thackeray’s daughters.

  At the height of his career, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had become the owner of the Drury Lane Theater. And subsequently astonished everyone concerned by calmly drinking in a nearby coffeehouse when it went up in flames:

  Surely a man may be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside?

  What would you think this artist puts on canvas? Whatever fills his mind. And what can be in the mind of a man who spends his life in the company of prostitutes of the lowest order?

  Inquired a review of François Boucher by Denis Diderot in 1765 — when libel was evidently an absent concept.

  An unmanly sort of man whose love life seems to have been largely confined to crying in laps and playing house.

  Auden called Poe.

  After having been driven to distraction by an organ grinder across the street from his Rome apartment, Pietro Mascagni finally politely demonstrated to the man how to operate the instrument less loudly.

  Later to find him wearing a sign while performing: Pupil of Mascagni.

  It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.

  Said Gertrude Stein.

  It is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one’s mind.

  Said T. S. Eliot — re Stein’s prose.

  Whistler, intending to show someone a new painting in his studio — who would always step in first and turn every other canvas to the wall.

  Jackie Robinson had already played major league baseball for eight years before the Metropolitan Opera saw fit to ask Marian Anderson, then fifty-seven, to become its first black performer.

  A full half-century after Marie Curie died from exposure to radiation, the very cookbooks she had once used were found to remain contaminated.

  The courtesan Laïs, who once asserted that she knew nothing at all about the alleged wisdom of poets and philosophers — except that they knocked at her door as frequently as anyone else.

  No philosopher has ever influenced the attitudes of even the street he lived on.

  Said Voltaire.

  Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

  I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel.

  Said Ivy Compton-Burnett.

  I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.

  Said Joyce.

  Rilke was raised as a girl — in girl’s clothing — until he started school at the age of seven.

  The Rilke who would later devotedly collect lace.

  And maintain apartments habitually overflowing with roses.

  García Lorca’s ten or eleven months in New York City — during which he apparently did not learn two dozen words of English.

  I am not an orphan on the earth, so long as this man lives on it.

  Said Gorky re Tolstoy.

  What sort of Christian life is this, I should like to know? He hasn’t a drop of love for his children, for me, or for anyone but himself.

  Reads a contrasting view from Sofia Tolstoy’s diary.

  People speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting.

  Where and when has anyone ever seen a natural work of art?

  Asked Picasso.

sp; How miraculous it was, noted Diogenes, that whenever one felt that sort of urge, one could readily masturbate.

  But conversely how disheartening that one could not simply rub one’s stomach when hungry.

  The very possibly not apocryphal tale that David Hume, always grossly overweight, once went down on one knee to propose marriage — and could not get back up.

  Dante walked with a stoop.

  Said Boccaccio.

  Coleridge fell off horses.

  Albert Camus had already purchased a train ticket, between the Vaucluse and Paris, when he made a last-minute decision to accept a ride with Michel Gallimard — which would end in the crash that killed them both.

  How many times before his own death twenty-eight years later would René Char recall that Camus and Gallimard had invited him to drive north with them also — but that he had decided their car would be too crowded?

  An upstart crow, Robert Greene famously called Shakespeare in 1592.

  A pair of crows, Pindar called Simonides and Bacchylides — two millennia earlier.

  As Lucian wrote of Helen’s face having launched a thousand ships — 1,400 years before Marlowe.

  I am he that aches with amorous love.

  Wrote Whitman.

  Walter, leave off.

  Wrote D. H. Lawrence.

  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s son Pen slept in her bedroom until her death. When he was twelve.

  This man will never accomplish anything.

  Said Pope Leo X — of Leonardo da Vinci.

  This boy will come to nothing.

  Said Freud’s father.

  The cave on Salamis where for a time, ca. 410 BC, Euripides lived and wrote.

  The ancient clay pot discovered there in 1997 — inscribed with the first six letters of his name.

  That scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!

  Tchaikovsky’s diary says.

  Always give a moment’s pause when happening to remember — that Shakespeare had three brothers.

  One of whom was a haberdasher.

  The justice Abe Fortas, once doing Pablo Cassals the favor of transporting his cello from San Juan to New York for repairs — And purchasing two adjacent first-class seats for the flight.