David Markson – An Appreciation

David Markson (1927 – 2010)

I first read David Markson on a flight from New York to London in 2002.  The book was ‘Reader’s Block’.  ‘Reader’s Block’ was the perfect book for a long flight across the Atlantic.  Reading this book, I did not have to deal with intricacies of plots, settings, or characters while I was in flight.  All these items which are usually considered essential were missing from this 194-page novel.  What was there instead?   For one thing, it contains some of the wildest true items about novelists and other famous people I had ever read.  Here are some examples from his various books.

“Tolstoy to Chekhov: You know I can’t stand Shakespeare’s plays, but yours are worse.”  – Reader’s Block

 “From the earliest biographical note on Rembrandt:
He could read only the simplest Dutch. And that haltingly.  Rembrandt. ” – Vanishing Point

“Remembering that Bizet’s Carmen is based on a novel by Prosper Merimee.
Not remembering that the Merimee is in turn based on a narrative poem by Pushkin.”  – This is Not a Novel

“Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray.”  – The Last Novel 

“I’ve had it with those cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book. Growled Kenneth Rexroth.” – The Last Novel

“By his own admission, William Butler Yeats, at twenty-seven, had not yet ever kissed a woman.” –  Vanishing Point

David Markson himself defined ‘Reader’s Block’ as “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage… A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.”   The entire novel was seemingly a random collage of these short fascinating samplings of  gossip about famous people.  I wondered where Markson found all these items, because they were not the usual encyclopedia fare.  In many cases you wouldn’t think even an in-depth biography would include these items that frequently reflect poorly on the famous person.  As I remember, I read the entire book during that flight.   

Interspersed with these biographical notes, there were notes from the Author himself.

”Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form.” – Vanishing Point

“Author had been scribbling notes on three-by-five-inch index cards. They now come close to filling two shoebox tops taped together end to end.” – Vanishing Point

David Markson died this week.  He wrote experimental fiction which appeals to people who don’t usually like experimental fiction.  He was lucky in his career as a novelist, because his first novel, “The Ballad of Dingus Mcgee”, which was an anti-Western was made into a movie called ‘Dirty Dingus McGee’ starring Frank Sinatra.  The money from this movie supported him for several years.    I have now read all of the last books he wrote: “Reader’s Block”, “This is Not a Novel”, “”Vanishing Point”, and “The Last Novel”.  Each book stands alone and can and should be read separately.  I found each of these books entirely fascinating.    The feature these four books share is the fact-collage technique.  I am a trivia aficionado and loved these not-so-flattering stories about authors, artists and others.   Besides these books are fun and easy to read. 

What was Markson trying to accomplish with these books?  Many of the items concern the gruesome details of the deaths of these famous people.   Other of the items show that outside their chosen areas, many of these famous people are just as messed up in their attitudes and thinking as the rest of us are.  Many were anti-Semitic; many hated some other famous person for no justifiable reason.   The point seems to be, no matter how sanitized the lives of these famous persons have been presented, they were just as erringly human and died just as terrible deaths as the rest of us.   This is an important lesson.  

There have been quite a few appreciations of David Markson these last few days on the Internet, and I am pleased to add my own.  From reading all these tributes, I’ve learned that I have still to read one of his best-considered books, “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”.  If it is as good as the Markson books I’ve read so far, I’m in for a treat.

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  7. If you’re interested in reading Markson’s marginalia in the books in his personal library, check out:



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