(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


his Is Not a Novel has the feel of a valediction. “Farewell and be kind,” the book concludes, appropriating the last words of Robert Burton’s singular treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy(1628). David Markson, in his mid-seventies and evidently in poor health, appears to bid adieu not only to the reader of this slender book but also to the craft that has been his life’s passion and heartache for nearly half a century. Notwithstanding this long career as a novelist, Markson’s published works of fiction are comparatively few. Following the appearance of three “entertainments,” The Ballad of Dingus Magee (1965) was his most commercially successful novel, adapted into a Western film starring Frank Sinatra. Markson’s career took a different turn in his next two works, Going Down (1970) and Springer’s Progress (1977), ambitious novels that did not attract a large readership. The latter in particular appealed chiefly to a select but remarkably enthusiastic audience who appreciated its Joycean play with language and its bawdy comedy. Clearly the apex in Markson’s critical reputation was reached, however, with Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), a highly experimental narrative featuring a complex female protagonist, a painter convinced that she is the last human on earth. Nearly a decade passed before the appearance of another novel, Reader’s Block (1997) which, like This Is Not a Novel, offers an idiosyncratic collage of anecdotes, quotations, gossip, obituary notes, and self-reflexive musings on the writing life.

Despite the acclaim earned by these works, especially Wittgenstein’s Mistress—called by critic David Foster Wallace “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country”—Markson has perhaps been as well known by some for his literary friendships, which include those with Malcolm Lowry (his one-time mentor), Conrad Aiken, Dylan Thomas, and Jack Kerouac. Fully aware of the relative obscurity of his own artistic efforts, Markson has arrived at a propitious point from which to take stock of his life and career. In effect, This Is Not a Novelresponds to this need, though in a rather quirky way.

One of the work’s refrains is “Timor mortis conturbat me/ The fear of death distresses me.” That the book is haunted by death is undeniable. Indeed, the deaths of almost five hundred prominent artists, philosophers, statesmen, actors, athletes—their precise causes and attendant circumstances—are ruefully enumerated throughout This Is Not a Novel. Thus James McNeill Whistler, Benjamin Britten, and William Butler Yeats all died of heart failure. Vergil, Ludovico Ariosto, Stephen Crane, and pitcher Rube Waddell succumbed to tuberculosis. Strokes claimed Ben Jonson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, and Theolonius Monk. Julius Caesar, Jean-Paul Marat, and John F. Kennedy were assassinated. Dante Alighieri died from malaria, Geoffrey Chaucer from plague, Isaac Newton from complications caused by a kidney stone, Ludwig von Beethoven from dropsy, Charles Baudelaire from syphilis. Victims of that modern scourge, cancer, include Ty Cobb, Gertrude Stein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rachel Carlson, and James Baldwin. Joseph Stalin and Sergei Prokofiev died on the same day, as did President Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West died on successive days, having dined together a week before. Swallowing a toothpick led to Sherwood Anderson’s death from peritonitis. Eighty-eight-year-old Hilaire Belloc set his clothes on fire when he spilled coal from a grate. Tennessee Williams “choked to death on a plastic cap of a nasal spray.”

These obituary notices are profusely scattered throughout the book, several appearing on most pages. The cumulative effect of this necrological incantation is something like that of viewing the names listed on the black marble wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Death is inexorable, capricious, and always decisive even when its precise means are unclear (for instance, the cause of Antonio Vivaldi’s death was uncertain but was listed in the 1741 Vienna church registry as brought on by “internal fire”). It claims the mighty and the mild impartially. Nevertheless, death’s ubiquity only underscores the artist’s dream of arresting or transcending time through the alchemy of imagination. For his part, Markson notes “the mistake of thinking that one may pluck a single leaf from the laurel tree without paying for it with his life.” Yet he also quotes Pindar on the permanence of art: “When the city I extol shall have perished, when the men to whom I sing shall have faded into oblivion, my words shall remain.”

Despite this bravado, much of This Is Not a Novel is devoted to a kind of lamentation over the sad neglect of serious artists, particularly in America. He records such shameful facts as Herman...

(The entire section is 2025 words.)