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David Markson

David Merrill Markson (December 20, 1927 – c. June 4, 2010) was an American novelist. He was the author of several postmodern novels, including Springer's Progress, Wittgenstein's Mistress, and Reader's Block. His final book, The Last Novel, published in 2007, was called "a real tour de force" by The New York Times.

Markson's work is characterized by an unconventional and experimental approach to narrative, character development and plot. The late writer David Foster Wallace hailed Wittgenstein's Mistress as "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country". While his early works draw on the modernist tradition of William Faulkner and Malcolm Lowry, his later novels are, in Markson's words, "literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes" and "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage."

In addition to his output of modernist and postmodernist experimental literature, he published a book of poetry, a critical study of Malcolm Lowry, three crime novels, and an anti-Western, The Ballad of Dingus Magee, later adapted into the film, Dirty Dingus Magee, starring Frank Sinatra,


David Merrill Markson was born in Albany, New York, on December 20, 1927.

Educated at Union College and Columbia University, Markson began his writing career as a journalist and book editor, periodically taking up work as a college instructor at Columbia University, Long Island University, and The New School.

Though his first novel was published in the late 1950s, he did not gain prominence until the late 1980s, when he was over 60 years old, with the publication of Wittgenstein's Mistress. From that point, his reputation as a writer steadily grew, so much so that he told an interviewer: "One of my friends told me to be careful before I become well known for being unknown."

Markson died in New York City, in his West Village apartment where, according to the author's literary agent and former wife Elaine Markson, Markson's two children found him on June 4, 2010 in his bed.

Upon David Markson's death, his entire personal library was donated to the Strand Bookstore, according to his wishes.

Wittgenstein's Mistress

Wittgenstein's Mistress, widely considered his masterpiece, was published in 1988 by Dalkey Archive Press. Though Markson's original manuscript was rejected 54 times, the book, when finally published, met with critical acclaim. It is a highly stylized, experimental novel in the tradition of Beckett. The novel is mainly a series of statements made in the first person; the protagonist is a woman who believes herself to be the last human on earth. Though her statements shift quickly from topic to topic, the topics are often recurrent, and often reference Western cultural icons, ranging from Zeno to Beethoven to Willem de Kooning. Readers familiar with Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus will recognize striking stylistic similarities to that work.

Amy Hempel praised it for "address[ing] formidable philosophic questions with tremendous wit." A decade later, David Foster Wallace described it as "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country" in an article for Salon entitled "Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960."

Late novels

Markson's late works further refine the allusive, minimalist style of Wittgenstein's Mistress. In these novels most of the traditional comforts of the form are absent, as an author-figure closely identified with Markson himself considers the travails of the artist throughout the history of culture. In Reader's Block, he is called Reader; in This Is Not A Novel, Writer; Vanishing Point, Author; in Markson's last novel, The Last Novel, he is known as Novelist. Markson described the action of these novels: "I have characters sitting alone in a bedroom with a head full of everything he’s ever read." His working process involved "scribbling the notes on three-by-five-inch index cards" and collecting them in "shoebox tops" until they were ready to be put "into manuscript form." Markson hoped that these four novels might eventually be published together in one volume.

The first in the “personal genre”, Reader's Block, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 1996. It was followed by This Is Not A Novel (Counterpoint, 2001), Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004) and The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). Of Reader's Block, fellow writer and friend Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "David shouldn’t thank Fate for letting him write such a good book in a time when large numbers of people could no longer be wowed by a novel, no matter how excellent."

The second book, This Is Not a Novel, describes itself in a number of terms:

  • "A novel" (p. 18)
  • "An epic poem" (p. 21)
  • "A sequence of cantos awaiting numbering"(p. 23)
  • "A mural of sorts" (p. 36)
  • "An autobiography" (p. 53)
  • "A continued heap of riddles" (p. 70)
  • "A polyphonic opera of a kind" (p. 73)
  • "A disquisition on the maladies of the life of art" (p. 86)
  • "An ersatz prose alternative to The Waste Land" (p. 101)
  • "A treatise on the nature of man" (p. 111)
  • "An assemblage [nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like]" (p. 128)
  • "A contemporary variant on [The Egyptian Book of the Dead]" (p. 147)
  • "A kind of verbal fugue" (p. 170)
  • "A classic tragedy [in many ways]" (p. 171)
  • "A volume entitled 'Writer's Block'" (p. 173)
  • "A comedy of a sort" (p. 184)
  • "His synthetic personal Finnegans Wake" (p. 185)
  • "Nothing more than a fundamentally recognizable genre all the while" (p. 189)
  • "Nothing more or less than a read"
  • "An unconventional, generally melancholy though sometimes even playful now-ending read."

In This Is Not a Novel, the Writer character states, "A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive" (p. 2). Reader's Block likewise calls itself "a novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel" (p. 61). Rather than consisting of a specific plot, they can be said to be composed of "an intellectual ragpicker's collection of cultural detritus." The seemingly-random set of quotes, ideas and nuggets of information about the lives of various literary, artistic and historical figures cohere to form a new kind of novel.


  • Epitaph for a Tramp Dell, 1959.
  • Epitaph for a Dead Beat Dell, 1961.
  • The Ballad of Dingus Magee; Being the Immortal True Saga of the Most Notorious and Desperate Bad Man of the Olden Days, His Blood-Shedding, His Ruination of Poor Helpless Females, & Cetera Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.
  • Miss Doll, Go Home Dell, 1965.
  • Going Down Holt Rinehart Winston, 1970.
  • Springer's Progress Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977.
  • Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning Times Books, 1978.
  • Wittgenstein's Mistress Dalkey Archive, 1988.
  • Collected Poems Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
  • Reader's Block Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
  • This Is Not a Novel Counterpoint, 2001.
  • Vanishing Point Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.
  • The Last Novel Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.


Further reading

  • John Barth / David Markson Number. Review of Contemporary Fiction. 10.2 (Summer 1990): 91-254.
  • Palleau-Papin, Francoise. Ceci n'est pas une tragédie. L'écriture de David Markson. ENS Editions, 2007. ISBN 978-2-84788-106-6. English version (translated by the author): This Is Not a Tragedy: The Works of David Markson. Dalkey Archive Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-56478-607-4
  • Sims, Laura. Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson. powerHouse Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-57687-700-5
  • "David Markson and Solitude." The Scofield, 1.1 (August 2015). [1]

External links

  • Biography and critical overview from American Writers Supplement XVII
  • Introduction and Bibliography on David Markson
  • Markson's Pier, a novella published in Essays & Fictions in the style of David Markson, by David Ewald and Stuart Ross
  • Interview with David Markson
  • Context interview with David Markson
  • Review of This is Not a Novel
  • David Markson, Postmodern Experimental Novelist, Is Dead at 82 obituary from The New York Times published June 7, 2010
  • "Address Unknown: David Markson, 1927-2010" in memoriam from n+1
  • Dempsey, Peter (June 14, 2010). "David Markson obituary: Experimental US novelist who avoided literary safety nets". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 1 July 2010. This article was published on at 18.36 BST on Monday 14 June 2010. A version appeared on p35 of the Main section of the Guardian on Tuesday 15 June 2010.
  • Corman, Catherine. "Remembering David Markson". The Economist Newspaper Limited. Retrieved 1 July 2010. This article appeared in the online version of Intelligent Life (Summer 2010).
  • Sims, Laura. "Instead of Reading This, You Should Be Reading David Markson (Part One) : Laura Sims : Harriet the Blog". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2013-05-02.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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