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Reader's Block

David Markson

  David Markson

  Reader’s Block


  For Steven Moore

  This the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in!


  First and foremost, I think of myself as a reader.



  Someone nodded hello to me on the street yesterday.

  To me, or to him?

  Someone nodded hello to Reader on the street yesterday.

  Church bells were already ringing, to announce the Armistice in November 1918, when word reached Wilfred Owen's family that he had been killed in battle one week before.

  Picasso made Gertrude Stein sit more than eighty times for her portrait.

  And then painted out the head and redid it three months later without having seen her again.

  Pablo Casals began each day for more than seventy years by playing Bach.

  I have come to this place because I had no life back there at all.

  I have, Reader has?

  Reader has come to this place because he had no life back there at all.

  Someone nodded hello to him on the street yesterday.

  Anna Akhmatova had an affair with Amedeo Modigliani in Paris in 1910 and 1911. Late in life, not having left Russia again in a third of a century, she would be astonished to learn how famous he had become.

  In 1579, when Shakespeare was fifteen, the population of Stratford would have been little more than fifteen hundred. Is it a safe assumption that he knew the woman named Katherine Hamlet who fell into the Avon that summer and drowned?

  Emily Dickinson became so extravagantly reclusive in the second half of her life that for the last ten years she did not once leave her house.

  Even among the most tentative first thoughts about a first draft, why is Reader thinking of his central character as Reader?

  Gray's Elegy is 128 lines long. Gray spent seven years writing it.

  If forced to choose, Giacometti once said, he would rescue a cat from a burning building before a Rembrandt.

  I am growing older. I have been in hospitals. Do I wish to put certain things down?

  Granted, Reader is essentially the I in instances such as that. Presumably in most others he will not be the I at all, however.

  Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall.

  Thumbed pages: read and read. Who has passed here before me?

  Saint Thomas Aquinas was an anti-Semite.

  Only Bianchon can save me, said Balzac, near death.

  Bianchon being a doctor in Le Père Goriot.

  His life evidently static. Alone, seemingly without occupation or achievement, his means meager.


  Anthony Trollope said he had read Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie at least three dozen times.


  Perhaps someone from a shop Protagonist had stopped in at, a clerk? Or merely someone in a friendly mood in passing?

  Severn, lift me up, I am dying.

  Don't breathe on me, it comes like ice.

  The world is my idea.

  Saint Augustine said his first teacher was also the first person he ever saw who could read without moving his lips.

  Saxo Grammaticus.

  It is not impossible that the young actress Moliere married when he was forty, and with whose family he had been closely connected in the theater for years, was his own illegitimate daughter.

  Nobody comes. Nobody calls.

  At the age of seven, Giambattista Vico fell from a ladder and fractured his skull so severely that his parents were told to anticipate feeblemindedness.

  Where, this isolation?

  Giorgione and Titian were pupils of Giovanni Bellini's in Venice together. Giorgione was dead in his early thirties, in 1510. Titian was still painting sixty-six years later.

  What has happened? It is life that has happened; and I am old.

  Said Louis Aragon.

  If an ox could paint a picture, his god would look like an ox.

  Said Xenophanes.

  26 Piazza di Spagna.

  Laurence Sterne's corpse was sold to a medical school by grave robbers. It had been almost completely dissected before someone chanced to recognize it.

  How much of Reader's own circumstances or past would he in fact give to Protagonist in such a novel?

  Tolle lege, tolle lege.

  Wherever conquest led him, Alexander the Great made it a point to have botanical specimens sent back to Aristotle, who had been his tutor. A copy of the Iliad that he carried in a jeweled chest contained emendations in Aristotle's handwriting.

  Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.

  Leonardo's notebooks indicate that he knew the sun did not move before Copernicus did.

  Nobody came. Nobody called.

  Despite decades of self-analysis, Freud was forever so anxiety-ridden about missing trains that he would arrive at a station as much as an hour ahead of time.


  Joseph Beuys was a Stuka pilot in World War II.

  Monet, visiting London: This brown thing? This is your Turner?

  Rene Descartes was born in a hayfield.

  Ultimately, Emily Dickinson would even hide from visitors at her house itself.

  Reader and this notion of his.

  Reader and his mind full of clutter.

  What is a novel in any case?

  Or is he in some peculiar way thinking of an autobiography after all?

  Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.

  In 1911, an Italian house painter named Vincenzo Perruggia who had been working at the Louvre managed to remove the Mona Lisa from its frame and walk out with it under his overalls.

  And to go unsuspected until he tried to sell it two years later.

  Before Sylvia Plath turned on her oven to commit suicide, she left bread and butter and milk in the bedroom where her two children were sleeping.

  Leibniz: Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?

  When Daumier was sixty, destitute and almost blind, Corot bought the house Daumier was renting and gave it to him.

  Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

  Protagonist living near a disused cemetery, perhaps?

  A sense somehow of total retreat? Abandonment?

  Albert Camus' father was killed in the Battle of the Marne when Camus was only months old. His mother was an illiterate charwoman.

  Once, at dinner, with great delicacy Brahms told Tchaikovsky that he did not approve of his work.

  With equal delicacy Tchaikovsky told Brahms that he did not approve of his.

  After Byron and Leigh Hunt and Trelawny burned Shelley's body on the beach at Viareggio, they got drunk. Boisterously, shouting and laughing and even singing.

  Then again, they had been dealing with remains already five weeks bloated and decomposed. Byron had at least once turned sick.

  Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?

  In Konigsberg, where he spent his entire life, Immanuel Kant had several sisters and a brother and did not see any of them for a quarter of a century. At one point he had a letter from the brother and did not answer it for two and a half years.

  Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?

  An assemblage?

  Knut Hamsun was once a horse-car conductor in Chicago.

  Throughout the Middle Ages, often no more than a single manuscript of certain classics existed. One leaking monastery roof and the Satyricon could have been lost forever, for instance.

  Mallarme learned English specifically to read Poe.

  Walter the Penniless. Peter the Hermit.

  During the four years that Dostoievsky spent at hard labor in Siberia for political conspi
racy, the only book he was allowed was the New Testament. Though once in a prison hospital he found Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield.

  Deus vult.

  Raymond Chandler lived with his mother until her death when he was thirty-five. And then almost immediately married a woman seventeen years older than he was.

  An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.

  Said Henry James.

  George Bernard Shaw was an anti-Semite.

  Protagonist first seen poised abstractedly amid a kind of transitory disarray? Cartons heaped and piled?

  Innumerable books, Reader presumably means?

  The name Kierkegaard translates from the Danish as churchyard.

  Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea.

  Dickens, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Maxim Gorky never finished grade school. Sean O'Casey and Alberto Moravia did not either.

  O'Casey, at forty-three, was working with a pick and shovel when his first play was produced.

  Where precisely would Protagonist live, if near a derelict cemetery? Possibly some sort of structure just within the grounds themselves?

  That building abandoned also? Protagonist possibly stealing electricity through wires connected to the base of a streetlamp outside?

  Reader sees a red brick building, in fact. Fairly small and falling into ruin, but of two stories.

  None of John Milton's daughters was given an education, though two of the three were taught to read to him in his blindness.

  In languages of which they did not understand one word.

  Boethius was executed by having a thong inexorably tightened about his temples.

  As a boy, Tennyson could recite all 103 of Horace's odes from memory.

  Montaigne claimed he knew those and the rest of Horace as well.

  No life back there at all.

  What life here, now?

  John Donne posed for a painting in his own shroud. And kept it beside his bed during a long final illness.

  Why is Reader always mildly incredulous at remembering that the decimal system arose from counting on one's fingers?

  Several ancient oaks, also within the grounds, partly obscure the house. At night, the single bulb beyond one shaded downstairs window is extremely faint.

  There are wire mesh fences, in jagged disrepair.

  Kathe Kollwitz lost a son in World War I and a grandson in World War II.

  Let us read Little Dorrit again. There are passages in that book I can never hear without the temptation to weep.

  According to medieval legend, his pupils stabbed John Scotus Erigena to death with their pens.

  Could one, actually, rewire the connections of a streetlamp in that manner?

  Salvador Dali's perception of Jackson Pollock. Fish soup.

  On a shelf beside Reader's desk: a human skull, a reproduction of Giotto's portrait of Dante, two small rough orange stones.

  Hrotswitha van Gandersheim.

  In his late sixties, Herman Melville took a four-year-old granddaughter to a park and then forgot her there.

  Hospitals, Protagonist will have been in.

  And grows older.

  Dulcinea del Toboso.

  Not far into the story, Robinson Crusoe swims out to the wreck of his ship with no clothes on.

  In the selfsame paragraph Defoe has him filling his pockets with biscuits.

  Should Reader determine a name for Protagonist at this juncture after all?

  Ishmael. Meursault. Harry Haller.

  Should he give him children, if he is still being in part autobiographical?

  A son and a daughter, then?

  Zeno hanged himself after breaking a toe. At ninety.

  Alexander Selkirk.

  Once, not knowing which of several houses was Bizet's, Saint-Saens simply stood in the road singing an aria from Les Pecheurs de Perles.

  Surely, a clerk from the liquor store where Protagonist had already stopped in two or three times for cheap wine, recognizing him?

  At twenty, Joseph Conrad tried to commit suicide over gambling losses. In later life managing to let people believe the bullet wound had come from a duel.

  The cemetery is in the oldest section of the town, and the few dwellings on the opposite side of the street, modest and rundown themselves, seem to house very few residents. A point being that no one questions Protagonist's presence.

  Nor is the fence mesh at that, rather it is a more traditional cemetery construction of tall iron spikes. The gate at the entrance is partly unhinged and askew.

  The paths inside are of gravel, or were, long since thinned and scattered.

  Is there a need to explain the house's availability?

  Obviously a former gatekeeper's or superintendent's.

  William Butler Yeats was an anti-Semite.

  A neighbor once came upon William Blake and his wife Catherine reading Paradise Lost aloud in their garden. Sitting naked.

  Robert Moses Grove.

  Manet was so vituperatively condemned by critics that for a time he was too embarrassed to ask anyone to pose for him.

  Before Cezanne had gained any recognition he once burst into tears when someone sincerely admired his work.

  Nothing now, but my books.

  Haller's books? Selkirk's?

  The Persians deployed so many bowmen at Thermopylae that it was said their arrows would blot out the sun.

  To which a Spartan commander: All the better, then we will be fighting in the shade.

  In his mid-thirties, T. S. Eliot was known to wear pale green face powder. One of the Sitwells said it was to make him look as if he were suffering.

  Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an American prisoner of war in Italy at the end of World War II.

  Should Protagonist possibly have written books of his own once? Unnamed and undescribed, mentioned almost incidentally?

  Once, he wrote a few books. That was long ago.

  Nobody comes. Nobody calls.

  Rossini wore a wig. In chilly weather he sometimes wore two.

  In fact only two Spartans survived Thermopylae. One was killed in battle elsewhere. The other hanged himself in disgrace.

  Cervantes was a tax collector during the outfitting of the Armada.

  And was imprisoned when his accounts did not balance.

  Je crois entendre encore.

  Early on, Protagonist will naturally become familiar with most of the gravestones.

  Both of Paul Celan's parents went to their deaths in German concentration camps.

  Rudyard Kipling once lived in Vermont.

  After Cesare Pavese committed suicide, several young women none of his friends had ever seen before appeared at his funeral weeping, in the hope of being taken for former mistresses.

  They make a desert and they call it peace.

  The Knight of Pentacles, Reversed: A brave Man, but out of Employment, Idle, Negligent.

  Boris Pasternak so admired Rilke that he carried two letters from him in his wallet for decades.

  Nothing now, but Protagonist's books.

  Those, and the graves of strangers.

  Working as a publisher's reader, George Meredith rejected The Way of All Flesh.

  Working as a publisher's reader, Andre Gide rejected Swann's Way.

  Saint Hildegard of Bingen.

  Or would Reader rather see Protagonist live somewhere else entirely?

  An isolated house at a beach, for instance?

  Although perhaps without the even more absolute solitude that might establish?

  At least with others on a floor above? A woman? Women?

  Tomorrow it will rain in Bouville.

  Preferably separate entrances. The house on a dune, possibly, with Protagonist and the others coming and going along opposite sides of the slope.

  And with Protagonist's entrance in the rear, a sort of basement? Possibly what had once been an indoor garage?

  Ergo almost never seeing these women, merely being aware of their proximity.
Or hearing them, on occasion.

  Raskolnikov. Bloom. Mr. Kurtz.

  Rochester died in 1680. A full collection of his verse was not published until 1926.

  And even then was not allowed into the United States.