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The Last Novel, Page 2

David Markson

  Le Douanier Rousseau, contemplating Cézanne’s work for the first time, at a memorial exhibition in 1907:

  I could have finished those paintings for him.

  Men who do not devote their lives to pursuing wisdom will be reborn as women.

  Determined Plato.

  People who marry young will have female children.

  Determined Aristotle.

  So difficult and opaque it is, I am not certain what it is I print.

  Said John Donne’s very publisher about the first edition of his verse.

  Modigliani’s repeated insistence that Rembrandt was a Jew.

  The possibility that his own mother was a collateral descendant of Spinoza.

  Shakespeare’s sister Joan — the only sibling to survive him, and a relatively indigent widow.

  Whose welfare he took care to safeguard in his will.

  Oliver Goldsmith, who was well-liked by virtually everyone who knew him — and died owing money to all of them.

  Was ever a poet so trusted before? asked Samuel Johnson.

  As a schoolboy, Luther was once flogged fifteen times in one morning for being unprepared with a conjunction.

  Bizet died only three months after the premiere of Carmen — convinced it was an irremediable failure.

  Next to the originator of a great sentence is the first quoter of it.

  Said Emerson.

  Stories happen only to people who know how to tell them.

  Said Thucydides.

  Depressed at the apparent lack of interest in one of his early still lifes, Matisse visited his dealer to retrieve it, only to learn that it had been purchased after all.

  By Picasso.

  A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.

  And thus in which Novelist will say more about himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so, but rarely otherwise.

  A time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.

  Mark Rothko once said.

  Rupert Brooke’s obituary in the London Times, at his death in the Aegean in World War I, was written by Winston Churchill.

  Dostoievsky’s four years as a convict at hard labor in Siberia — where he lived always in a barracks.

  Meaning that for four full years he essentially never had one moment to himself.

  He is not writing about something; he is writing something.

  Said Samuel Beckett, re Joyce.

  He never thinks about something; he thinks something.

  Said Hannah Arendt, re Heidegger.

  Not bright colors. Good drawing.

  Titian said.

  The great early nineteenth-century diva Catalani, in retirement in Paris, is told she has an anonymous visitor. At the door, a young woman bows her head in modesty:

  Madame, I have come to ask your blessing. My name is Jenny Lind.

  Fragonard, ignored and forgotten in later life, but painting nonetheless:

  I would paint with my backside if necessary.

  Realizing that as recently as in the case of Haydn, musicians under the patronage of royalty were still treated as servants — and still wore livery.

  An even earlier dismayed recognition of Dürer’s, while visiting in Venice in 1506:

  Here I am a gentleman — and at home a mere parasite.

  We advise no woman to read this book.

  Said a first review of Père Goriot.

  Truly, young girls and women about to become mothers would do well, if they are wise, to run away from this spectacle.

  Said another, of Manet’s Olympia.

  At twenty-two, William Faulkner was a special student for a semester at the University of Mississippi — and was given a grade of D in English.

  Corresponding with him in later years, Allen Tate became aware that Faulkner habitually signed his letters with only his last name — and mentioned that English nobility signed letters that way.

  Faulkner never wrote to Tate again.

  The sun is as wide as a man’s foot.

  Judged Heraclitus.

  The size of a foot soldier’s shield.

  Lucretius decided.

  Einstein was reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at thirteen.

  Kant died in 1804. More than seven hundred different authors had published books and/or essays on his work in the preceding two decades.

  Clodia, whom Catullus immortalized as Lesbia in his verse — and Cicero dismissed as what can best be translated as that farthing whore.

  Every half-quarter of an Hour, a glass of Sack must be sent of an errand into his Guts, to tell his Brains they must come up quickly, and help out with a line.

  Said a minor poet named Robert Wilde of Ben Jonson at work.

  He kept bottles of wine at his lodgeing, and many times he would drinke liberally by himselfe to refresh his spirits, and exalt his Muse.

  Similarly said John Aubrey of Andrew Marvell.

  Christina Rossetti’s practice of pasting heavy paper over irreligious passages in Swinburne.

  E.g., a line referring to the supreme evil, God, unquote, in Atalanta in Calydon.

  January 23, 1931, Anna Pavlova died on.

  Renoir, well into his forties and still impoverished.

  So thin it wrung your heart, a woman friend remembered.

  Yehudi Menuhin performed as a soloist with the San Francisco Orchestra at the age of seven.

  A dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud.

  E. M. Forster called Ulysses.

  Conscious and calculated indecency.

  Virginia Woolf settled for.

  Along with tosh — presumably signifying something akin to twaddle.

  So preoccupied was Thomas Hobbes with geometry that he sometimes diagrammed propositions on his bedsheets.

  Or inked them on his thigh.

  Unendurable to the music lover, Beethoven was becoming.

  Said a contemporary critic — of the Eroica.

  A depraved ear.

  Said one of the same — of Mozart’s D-minor quartet.

  Item, I give unto my wife my second-best bed with the furniture.

  So often unnoted — that by law Anne automatically also received one-third of the estate.

  Hart Crane’s leap into the Caribbean —

  And the insistence of one of the witnesses that he was pulled under by sharks.

  I was much impressed by the chalk-white face with the swollen purple lips, and felt confident he had been brooding over the Crucifixion all night, or some other holy torture.

  Said William Empson re sightings of Eliot, ca. 1930.

  Who will buy me, who will buy me,

  rid me of my cares?

  Very nearly three hundred times, in Oliver Twist, Fagin is referred to as the Jew.

  Curiously leaving Dickens nonetheless distressed when the book was taken as anti-Semitic.

  Hegel, asking Schelling’s advice about a town to settle in, and listing his chief requirements:

  A good library and ein gutes Bier — a good beer.

  Women were not granted degrees at Oxford until as late as 1920.

  A head of hair like an umbrella.

  Someone said Berlioz had.

  Like a great primeval forest.

  Heinrich Heine made it.

  Schopenhauer’s mother Johanna wrote novels. When she playfully belittled his own first book, Schopenhauer told her it would still be available long after hers were forgotten.

  Indeed, the entire first printing would still be, Johanna Schopenhauer said.

  Rodin’s monument to Victor Hugo — which was rejected by the group that commissioned it.

  Rodin’s monument to Balzac — which was rejected by the group that commissioned it.

  Rodin’s monument to Whistler — et cetera.

  Quoth Charlie Parker, showing someone the veins at which he injected heroin:

  This one’s my Cadillac — And this one’s my house.

  Adolf Hitler’s occupati
on, as listed on his tax returns until such time as he officially became Germany’s chancellor:


  Madame Butterfly is fifteen years old.

  Rereading a Raymond Chandler novel in which Philip Marlowe stops in for a ten-cent cup of coffee.

  Old enough to remember when the coffee would have cost half that.

  Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, who changed his name to Arshile Gorky — and simultaneously announced that he was a nephew of the writer.

  Not knowing that the other Gorky was not really named Gorky either.

  Lying on his back in a field for hours, sometimes from almost before dawn or until latest evening, memorizing the light in the sky.

  Reads a friend’s recollection of Claude Lorrain.

  The sky can never be merely a background.

  Said Alfred Sisley.

  Imperialist bourgeois and decadent counterrevolutionary tendencies.

  Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev were accused of at one time or another by Soviet authorities.

  God gave me the money.

  Unquote. John D. Rockefeller.

  The noblest title in the world is that of having been born a Frenchman, said Napoleon.

  Born in Corsica — of Italian ancestry.

  Alexei Maximovitch Peshkov.

  Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. I have seen nothing like it, but indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything.

  Said Charlotte Brontë of Emily.

  Vespasian, who is remembered for having built the Colosseum.

  But who also established Rome’s first public urinals.

  The interrelationship of Picasso and Braque during Cubism:

  Like being roped together on a mountain, Braque said.

  Stalin read Hemingway.

  His ferocious egoism revolts me every time I think of it.

  Said the wife Gauguin left behind.

  Cézanne’s Old Woman of the Beads —

  Posed for by a servant he took in basically out of charity, and who then stole and shredded much of his underwear — which he allowed her to sell back to him as rags for his brushes.

  Almost forgetting Emily Brontë’s mastiff — which slept at the door of her room for years, after her death.

  That harmonious plagiary and miserable flatterer, whose cursed hexameters were drilled into me at Harrow.

  Byron spoke of Virgil as.

  Benny Goodman once cancelled an engagement at the Hotel New Yorker on the very day it was scheduled to start — when he was informed that all black musicians connected with his band would have to come and go through the hotel kitchen.

  It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.

  Said Mark Twain — of Jane Austen.

  I’ve been shitting, so ’tis said, nigh twenty-two years through the same old hole, which is not yet frayed one bit.

  Wrote Mozart to his cousin Anna Maria Thekla.

  With whom he may or may not have had an affair.

  Émile Zola’s terror of thunder and lightning — so extreme that he not only shut all windows and lit every nearby lamp, but even sometimes blindfolded himself.

  Human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind.

  Tom Paine called religions.

  Senseless and criminal bigotry.

  Nehru saw in them.

  I thought I had done that already.

  Said Mallarmé — at the first talk of Debussy setting L’Après-midi d’un Faune to music.

  Einstein’s honorary degree from Harvard.

  Evidently at the recommendation of an alumnus named Franklin D. Roosevelt.

  I wish you good night, but first shit into your bed.

  Reads another Mozart letter to Anna Maria.

  Leering effrontery, Harper’s Weekly once accused Matisse of.

  He’ll probably never write a good play again.

  Responded George Bernard Shaw — on being told that Eugene O’Neill had given up drinking.

  Willem de Kooning was twenty-two when he emigrated to the United States from Rotterdam — as a stowaway on a British freighter.

  The oddity that Velazquez and Picasso, surely two of the three greatest Spanish-born painters, each used his mother’s name rather than his father’s.

  Among the fragments of ancient Greek literature unearthed in Egypt, where the climate and the soil preserve them extraordinarily, there is almost twice as much material about Homer as anyone else.

  And five times as much Plato as Aristotle.

  Andrew Lang’s indignation over a mild blasphemy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

  A gentleman who turned Christian for half an hour, Hardy dismissed him as.

  Spinoza, who spent his last years in a single attic room in The Hague — and slept in some variant or other of what is now called a Murphy bed.

  Spinoza. Shoving or yanking or hoisting or whatever, to force the unstable whatchamacallit up against the wall each morning.

  Unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper.

  Yeats called Wilfred Owen.

  No one expressed interest in publishing Shelley’s Defense of Poetry until almost twenty years after his death.

  No one expressed interest in publishing Billy Budd until thirty-three years after Melville’s.

  Every Grass, Emily Dickinson once refers to.

  While also contriving:

  The Grass so little has to do

  I wish I were a Hay —

  Balzac had written eighty-five novels in his Comédie humaine — with fifty more already planned — before dying at the age of fifty-one.

  Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together.

  Said Kierkegaard.

  Amid the clutter of multilingual graffiti beside the door to the St. Petersburg garret that is alleged to be the one Dostoievsky used as a model for Raskolnikov’s:

  Don’t do it, Rodya!

  Old enough to remember when they were still called penny postcards.

  And a letter cost three cents.

  Like the daily New York Times.

  Trying to calculate the odds against two poets as talented as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton taking part in the same university writing workshop at the same time — and with an instructor of the stature of Robert Lowell.

  And/or the chances that within a decade and a half both would be suicides.

  The next best thing to God.

  Edna O’Brien called literature.

  Manet made two separate copies of Delacroix’s Dante and Virgil in Hell.

  Cézanne made six.

  July 6, 1971, Louis Armstrong died on.

  In Elizabethan London — the heads of executed criminals on spikes on London Bridge.

  Wondering how frequently Shakespeare or Marlowe or Jonson might have paused to watch their eyeballs being plucked out by kites or crows.

  Bertrand Russell wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy while serving six months in Brixton prison for pacifist protests during World War I.

  Enrico Fermi once wrote an entire full-length textbook on atomic physics in pencil — without an eraser.

  Eighty-eight years after his death, almost fifty Turner canvases, rolled up and inexplicably mislabeled as tarpaulins, were come upon by sheerest chance in National Gallery storage rooms.

  Valladolid, Christopher Columbus died in.

  After drinking heavily, Philip of Macedon once pronounced a judgment that an elderly woman said she would appeal.

  Appeal to whom, when I am your king?

  To my king when he is sober.

  Philip reversed his judgment.

  Ambition for wealth is the enemy of artistic excellence.

  Warned Leon Battista Alberti — in 1436.

  O painter, take care lest the greed for gain prove a stronger incentive than the desire for renown, for this latter achievement is a far greater thing than riches.

  Wrote Leonardo two generations afterward.

  George Moore once
walked in on Swinburne, uninvited, to find him striding back and forth declaiming Aeschylus at the top of his voice — stark naked.

  The first opera Toscanini ever saw, at the age of four, was Un Ballo in Maschera.

  The last opera Toscanini ever conducted, at the age of eighty-seven, was Un Ballo in Maschera.

  A sixth-century AD sporting event, as Novelist remembers it from Beowulf:

  Holding one’s opponent under water until he is drowned.

  Fenimore Cooper used almost eleven hundred Shakespeare quotations as epigraphs and/or chapter headings in his thirty-plus novels.

  My music is best understood by children and animals.

  Said Stravinsky.

  The thought of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, at fifty. Of his possessions — his paintings — being sold for whatever pittance they might bring. Of Rembrandt himself being evicted from his home.


  Now Dawn arose from her couch beside the lordly Tithonos, to bear light to the immortals and to mortal men.

  Says the opening of Book XI of the Iliad.

  Now Dawn arose from her couch beside the lordly Tithonos, to bear light to the immortals and to mortal men.

  Says the opening of Book V of the Odyssey.

  He had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest.

  Said Auden of Tennyson.

  Not conspicuously intelligent.

  Auden added re Yeats.

  Advice from Arthur Schnabel to the younger Vladimir Horowitz:

  When a piece gets difficult, make faces.

  The greatest love specialist in the world, Samuel Goldwyn called Freud.

  While offering him $100,000 to supervise or even write a romantic story for Hollywood.

  Freud at the time was asking fees of twenty dollars an hour. He dismissed Goldwyn with a one-sentence note.

  Discovering that the Cynara to whom Ernest Dowson had been faithful in his fashion was in fact a London waitress.

  Wagner has some fine moments. But some bad quarters of an hour.

  Said Rossini.

  The color of cognac.

  Rodin described Suzanne Valadon’s hair as.

  The imagination will not perform until it has been flooded by a vast torrent of reading.

  Announced Petronius.

  You have to read fifteen hundred books in order to write one.

  Flaubert put it.

  Fra Filippo Lippi was past fifty, and the chaplain of a convent, when he abducted the nun by whom he would have two children — one of the same being the Filippino who would follow him as an artist.