CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Interview with David Markson
Tayt Harlin: You started out writing crime novels.
David Markson: I had a great deal of trouble getting started. I don't know whether I was afraid or just thought I was bullshitting the world and myself. I wouldn't have known what crime novels were like—except for Chandler, whom everybody read—had I not edited them for a brief time in the 1950s for Dell Books, after I'd gotten my M.A. at Columbia. So finally I said, "Well, Jesus, I'm not getting anything serious done here. Let me at least prove I can write a book of some kind." I wrote three crime novels, and then I got down to work more seriously.
Harlin: You've labeled those books "entertainments."
Markson: I think Graham Greene, years ago, did that to differentiate from what in those days were called "potboilers." At the front of the book, where it would say "also by Graham Greene," there would be "novels," and then down below "entertainments." Brighton Rock, I think, he called an "entertainment." People don't remember it, but it isn't my invention.
Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?
Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven't had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it's almost as if it's been written for you, or you're the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, "Be my daddy. Be my father." It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he'd written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken's poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.
Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.
Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don't think I'd ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can't imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, "How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?" He said, "Yeah, I'll meet you." One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who's long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he'd go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we'd go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he'd ring our bell. For about two years—I'm guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he'd be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he'd stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we're sitting in the living room, and I'm recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, "You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?" And he said, "Well, I had a shower." Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.
Harlin: There's also William Gaddis.
Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That's the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, "How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?" I wrote this casual letter, saying, "Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did." When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, "Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I'll read it when I get home." And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: "Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of"—whatever it was—"May 16, 1955." It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.
Harlin: Anyone else?
Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I'd known for about forty years. We weren't that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren't buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you're writing, who do you know? If you're a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you're a dentist, you know dentists. If you're a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, "Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it's great." This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she's admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she'd slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, "the novelist David Markson," was "stud lover boy." And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.
Harlin: Your fourth book, which you wrote after you returned from Mexico, was The Ballad of Dingus Magee, a kind of satirical Western.
Markson: When we came back to New York, I took a job—the only time I ever taught full-time—at Long Island University, in Brooklyn, between ‘64 and ‘66. During that time, I'd set aside the big book I was working on, the serious one, and in almost no time I wrote The Ballad Dingus Magee. But it broke my heart. Everybody loved the book; the reviews were fabulous. It was funny-serious, even though it was a Western. But then MGM bought it, and Frank Sinatra did a walk-through. Dingus Magee is nineteen in the book, and Sinatra was about fifty-five at the time. It was the worst movie you ever saw.
Harlin: Then you left the country again.
Markson: Yes, when Dingus Magee sold to the movies for what was then a staggering amount of money, my wife, Elaine, and I had two little kids, and we said, "Now or never," and we went to Europe for a year and a half.
Harlin: Where did you go?
Markson: We thought of Spain, but for some reason we wound up in Italy. We were in Florence, but then in ‘66, in the fall, there was a staggering flood that just tore Florence apart. All the reasons you would want to be in a place like that had ceased to exist: the museums were wrecked, everything. So my joke is we went to London for a dry climate. We stayed there for a year.
Harlin: And what were you working on out there?
Markson: The next book I did was Going Down. It's sort of Faulknerian, set in good part in Mexico. I had the credentials of having lived there. I thought it was going to make me into the Faulkner or Lowry of my time, and nothing much happened with it. Lehman-Haupt shat all over it in the Times. As any writer would be, I was pretty depressed because it had been in and out of the drawer for some years.
Harlin: Then you're back in New York.
Markson: Right. Going Down came out in 1970. Then there was a kind of gap, where I didn't get much done. Actually, an old girlfriend of mine died. I was walking around in pain for weeks, and people said, "What the hell happened to you?" I hadn't realized how important she'd been in my life. That triggered Springer's Progress. The book is essentially about a married man who's having an affair, but there is an old girlfriend who flits in and out of the story, and she dies. It began with that sense of tragedy: suddenly you get a phone call, and someone who is not yet forty years old is dead.
Harlin: Then there's Wittgenstein's Mistress, a book that consists entirely of the discrete, random thoughts of a woman who believes she's the last person on earth.
Markson: I was actually thinking of it as a real story about the end of the world. And then it dawned on me that I could write it from the point of view of this woman who's announcing that she's the only one around, but leave it totally ambiguous. After a major false start, the minute I wrote a few pages of it, I said, "I've got my book. I know what the hell I'm writing."
Harlin: Her thoughts are presented one at a time, almost like a list. How did you hit upon this atomized style?
Markson: It's just the way I heard her voice. In Going Down, several long sections were written from the point of view of a woman, and people always said they admired them. So I thought, I can do this, and I was looking for a voice, and I fell into it. I don't know what more to say about it.
Harlin: You had a lot of trouble publishing the book, though.
Markson: I think it set a world record for rejections. You're not going to believe this, but it had fifty-four rejections. Fifty-four. Some editors are not particularly bright, so some of them didn't understand it and wrote stupid letters. Some liked it, but felt it wasn't publishable. And others wrote letters that sounded like Nobel Prize citations, but the kicker always was, "I can't get it past the sales people."
Harlin: Since then you've written four novels that consist almost entirely of facts and anecdotes about artists and thinkers, along with quotations by and about them, again in a list-like style. How do you go about compiling information for the books?
Markson: I just pour books onto the top of my head. Grab this book on art, this book on philosophy, this book on the classics, this book on the lives of the poets. My own books I've got floor to ceiling in a couple of rooms—about 2,500, though I've dumped as many as 400 at a time throughout the years—and they're all marked up in the margins. But for every ten tidbits that I think interest me, I wind up keeping only one. I might find a few anecdotes about Shakespeare, and then a month later toss them out. After the first one, Reader's Block, anything I read I would read in a normal way, but I would say, "I didn't know that about Chaucer. Or Rembrandt. Or Spinoza." The next thing I knew I had three more books.
Harlin: You must spend a lot of time looking for these odds and ends.
Markson: In This Is Not a Novel, the second one, I talk about how certain people died. Henry Fielding died of dropsy, for example. For some of those facts, I actually went to the nearest library and walked through the biography section. If I saw someone I was interested in, Tennessee Williams, say, I'd browse through the last three or four pages of the book and see what he died of. Also, for reasonably quick things, I'll call the research desk at the public library. In fact, they're very good. I've probably called them about fifty times over the years.
Harlin: Interspersed throughout the novels are references to an unnamed person—someone you've called Reader, Writer, Author, and Novelist—little tidbits about his life, his failing health and whatnot.
Markson: In Reader's Block, I talk about the so-called Reader for roughly 20% of the book. In the last three, that figure is mentioned about 1½% of the time. Of course, the intellectual odds and ends are meant to convey a portrait of what's in his mind. My object is to create him, too, and it seems to work.
Harlin: How do you organize the all the anecdotes you like?
Markson: I use index cards. I store them in the tops of a couple of shoes boxes. If I made a stack of them, they'd probably be about two feet tall. I'm constantly shuffling. This goes on for a couple of years. I might have a few quotations about Joyce, and I figure out which one goes where. I try to make sure I don't overbalance. I know in the end that there's going to be more literature, but I try to make sure I have as much about art and music, too. There's always a certain amount of the classics and philosophy. With the historical stuff, it just depends upon its significance or irony. Then, somewhere along the line, I make notes about Author or whoever it is and figure out where they go.
Harlin: Have you ever thought of doing a remainders book of what didn't make it in?
Markson: No, in fact, I destroy whatever I don't use. You know how you have manuscript boxes? I also have a box with the final index cards. But this is it: I never intended to do four books like this.
Harlin: Will this really be your last?
Markson: No. I'm thinking about doing another, again in this pared-down style, but it won't be about one individual alone. It'll be about a relationship between two people. That's all I can say about it.
Harlin: What's the effect you're after?
Markson: Poetic structure, I guess. It's a kind of aesthetic balance. I don't want to sound pretentious, but it's akin to something that I.A. Richards used to call "synesthetic equilibrium." In part, the structure comes from shuffling those cards and thinking about them for a couple of years. I'll drop in something on page three, and it'll be picked up once or twice in a different way. I'll give a for-instance. In This is Not a Novel, I quote Dizzy Dean, the old ballplayer, who was very colorful and massacred the language when he was an announcer, but was very popular and a great pitcher. In the beginning of the book, I quote E.M. Forster and other writers on how a novel has to follow certain rules and how you can't write a novel without doing this and that. And then I throw in Dizzy Dean: "If you can do it, it ain't bragging," contradicting what these authors have said about the nature of fiction. Late along in the book, after I've written an entire novel breaking all the rules, I quote some more people on them, and then, without attribution this time, I throw in the Dizzy Dean line again, "If you can do it, it ain't bragging." But I knew it would be forgotten, and people don't know who Dizzy Dean is anymore. So I made sure I dropped in—let's say a third of the way and two-thirds of the way through—other Dizzy Dean references. One of them is a Marianne Moore quotation about him, and one is an anecdote about Ezra Pound, how, when he was locked up in a cage at Pisa during the second World War, his exercise was to swing a stick like a baseball bat. I worked a mention of Dizzy Dean into that. And then, because I had that list of deaths throughout—this one died from this, this one died from that—I put in "Dizzy Dean died of a heart attack," and this just a few pages after that unattributed quotation occurs for the second time. In other words, the graduate student who's working hard will spot this stuff on his third go-through, though I'm making it sound very simple here. It gets infinitely more subtle and complicated in context.
Harlin: Do people ever question whether the material is true?
Markson: Yes. I once had an anecdote about Hemingway punching Wallace Stevens down in Key West. It sounded unreasonable to one reviewer, who said so. Critics will question the authenticity of these things with no sense of responsibility to go check them out. Insofar as I know, every single thing I use is true.
Harlin: The Last Novel begins with a quotation from Picasso: "Painting is not done to decorate apartments."
Markson: I got a call from someone once who said, "I bought your last book, and I quit after six pages. That's all it is, those little things?" I'm not writing for those people. This is what I care about; it's not decorative work.
Harlin: There are some contemporary references in this book. You mention the Iraq war a couple of times, George W. Bush, and even Rush Limbaugh.
Markson: I hesitated about that; I usually don't do it. My attitude is that everybody should know even the most obscure painter or composer. But fucking George W. Bush? A hundred years from now? Who will know him any more than they know Chester Alan Arthur? Well, no, it's different, because he may end the world. But I think I released some braces with this book when I let myself mention those few people.
Harlin: It seems that so much of your writing has to do with how artists get treated horribly. At one point, you quote Octavio Paz: "Writers are the beggars of Western society."
Markson: Of course, there are important writers who become rich and famous. But there have always been—and I have an awful lot of quotations saying this—artists who are forgotten for decades or centuries. I quote Vasari about painters "who, not only without reward, but in miserable poverty, brought forth their works." It's a fact of the creative life. On the other hand, I found another quotation, and I was pleased to see it, by Jules Renard, about how "Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money."
Harlin: This is really a project that could go on forever.
Markson: When I finished the book before this one, Vanishing Point, I said, "No more." But then I came upon something—I forget what it was—and I said, "I'm not going to copy it out." But I copied it out on a tiny scrap of paper and rolled it up like a spitball. There's an empty decorative coffee mug on my windowsill behind my typewriter, and I threw it in there. And then I threw in another. Finally I had forty or fifty, and I said, "Oh, shit, am I?" Since finishing this last book, I haven't even allowed myself to read criticism or critical studies. A few days ago, there was a great quotation in some magazine—maybe it was in The New Yorker—and I spent the whole day trying to un-remember it.
Harlin: Do you read much contemporary literature?
Markson: Very little. Ezra Pound once said something like there's no record of a critic saying anything important about writers who have come after him. I see these photos, and the authors all seem to be nineteen years old, and they're all named Jonathan. I'm just not drawn to it. Once in a while, I read something. I really admired Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I found flaws in it, I didn't understand the structure, but I laughed myself silly.
Harlin: Is it true that you don't use a computer at all?
Markson: I know what I'm missing in terms of all the conveniences. But I'd have to buy the stuff—I don't even have any idea what it costs—and then I'd have to have some kid come in every day for three months to teach me how to use it.
Harlin: Nowadays everyone uses search engines on the Web for research.
Markson: It's funny. When Reader's Block came out, Kurt Vonnegut called me, two-thirds of the way through, and said, "David, what kind of computer did you use to juggle this stuff?" I told him what I'd done, and he called me when he finished it and said, "David, I'm worried about your mental condition."
—28 April 2007