The Last Novelist: David Markson’s Letters to Laura Sims

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Fare Forward coverBy Jeff Bursey

Reading this collection of letters to the poet Laura Sims (b. 1973) by the so-called experimental novelist David Markson (1927-2010) brought back personal memories, such as seeing a letter he wrote one of his few literary peers, William Gaddis, on that author’s first (and monumentally important) novel, The Recognitions (1955), displayed at the University of Buffalo where a Gaddis conference took place in March 2005. The exuberance and encouragement expressed to a genuinely admired writer jumped off the page and out of the confines of its glass case.

The same expressiveness is found in Fare Forward. Covering the period February 2003 to March 2010, these letters begin with his delighted response to a fan letter from Sims, which she quotes in her introduction: “Reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress [1988] was revelatory to me—it rejuvenated my faith in the possibilities of literature. It served as solid proof… that there was a living soul out there—someone who was not only trying to ‘make it new,’ but who was succeeding wholeheartedly in the endeavor…” For a writer who had experienced multiple rejections of that novel—a total of 54—and who had also seen it praised by David Foster Wallace as “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country,” there could be no way that Sims’ assessment would come across as too much praise. (You’d think that any novel, whatever genre or style it’s in, is an experiment until it proves to be successfully done, but we are creatures who find categorization useful and yet dislike it too.)

After so much neglect at the hands of publishers, reviewers, and academics, let alone readers, Markson was keen to be noticed (more on that later), but not on the Internet:

Hey, thank you for all that blog stuff but forgive me if after a nine-minute glance I have torn it all up. I bless your furry little heart, but please don’t send any more. In spite of the lost conveniences, I am all the more glad I don’t have a computer.

HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?

They make a statement about my background, there’s an error in it. They quote from a book, and they leave out a key line. They repudiate a statement of fact I’ve made, without checking, ergo announcing I’m a fake when the statement is 100% correct. Etc., etc., etc. Gaw

I have just taken the sheets out of the trash basket & torn them into even smaller pieces.

In addition to such passages, part of the pleasure of this book can be found in watching how Markson becomes familiar with Sims, starting with her full name before switching to her first name and second initial, followed by the more standard use of only her first name, and then to multiple variations: Simsy/Symsy, “Simso-san” when she lived in Japan, and the breezy salutation “Simsy, you’re a pisser,” or referring to her as “dingbat.” Playfulness is quickly established. Including Sims’ husband in the badinage, Markson writes in 2004: “Otherwise, I hope neither of you slashed your wrists after the election. I was gonna jump off the roof here, but my sciatica hurt too much for me to get over the railing.” The combination of a joke mixed with despair, in this case over George Bush’s continued presidency, and a comment on his physical well-being, can be found throughout Markson’s last four collage-like novels—Reader’s Block (1996), This Is Not a Novel (2001), Vanishing Point (2004), and The Last Novel (2007)—where the unnamed character (the male narrator is identified as Writer or Reader or Novelist) comments about aesthetics, the hard times artists have experienced, their poverty and deaths.

Here’s an example from the first book of the tetralogy of typical entries on the lives of other artists:

Oliver Goldsmith was almost always indigent. Samuel Johnson once rushed money to keep him from being evicted. Goldsmith spent it on drink.

Rilke was eternally someone’s houseguest. Once he had fifty different addresses in four years…

The honor of having been the first documented alcoholic author evidently falls to Aeschylus.

The state of the Protagonist in this novel is a matter of some cogitation by the writer of the book, and can be summed up with this: “And how is Protagonist’s health, what with hospitalizations being mentioned?” Health is a constant in these books, but more common are opinions with regards to artists that can be personal, as this vignette from the same novel illustrates:

For Protagonist’s again distant literary past:

Malcolm Lowry: I have a funny story to tell you, about something that happened while you were out.

Protagonist: Happened? Oh, damn, I can smell it all over the apartment. You didn’t drink my shaving lotion?

(Markson was a friend of Lowry and wrote both a thesis and an early study on his work.)

Sims hears about Markson’s recurring illnesses and discomfort in the first letter: “Not feeling well here, ergo I’ve none of the energy it would take to convey how pleased I was—how pleased I am—to have received [her letter].” Later he told her:

I am getting so antiquated I cannot remember whether or not I answered your last. Not long ago I spent at least 10 minutes looking for the shirt I’d taken off an hour before—how many hangers and hooks and closets can there be in a one-bedroom apartment?—and then finally discovered I was wearing it!

Who are you again? Who am I writing to?

As in any correspondence, topics are as easily picked up as dropped. On hearing from Sims that she may write a certain kind of novel, Markson snaps back: “What the hell is a ‘young adult novel’? Don’t waste your writing time on trivia, dammit.” In the same letter, in answer to questions as to the identity of his newest lady friend—never divulged—Markson confesses: “Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s Hillary. She’s told Bill, and understanding the depth of her passion he’s willing to step aside. And of course she’ll forgo a run for the presidency.”

A subject that persists is critical writing about Markson’s books. Like any other writer, he needed to be recognized and validated. In his case, at times this understandable desire shades into amusing or disquieting self-centredness. The first letter contains the earliest of many disappointed references to an article on his works for The Review of Contemporary Fiction that never came out. In the same response Markson signals appreciation of Sims’ “thinking of doing something on my work for some other periodical.” Fourteen months later, with Sims arranging to visit Russia, he writes: “But in the meantime, I demand more and more work on your Markson paper, hear? Every minute, until!”

When Sims does write an essay on him for the New England Review (included in the book) and he has it in hand in June 2008, she says in a footnote that she felt “nervous for him to read it, knowing he was easily angered by mistakes (as he perceived them) people made when writing about him.” Indeed, Markson does ask her a pointed question that catches her flat-footed: “This was exactly the kind of response I’d been dreading.” One of the aspects of writing about an intelligent writer who applies himself or herself to putting a creative work together in a way that makes sense on a variety of levels is that they generally, and specifically, know their work, including individual lines, better than the majority of their critics or reviewers. Academic friends have experienced what Sims did, as have I, when dealing with Markson, but I always appreciated his letters. His touchiness could be seen as aggressively charming (or vice versa), and indicated a deep dissatisfaction with his small audience and the resulting economic precariousness.

On that matter, in an interview with Joey Rubin at Bookslut, Markson spoke about how his financial difficulties necessitated selling first editions of “…Under The Volcano, say, or Dylan Thomas. Or an On the Road. Which, incidentally, Jack was so drunk when I asked him to sign… that he jammed the pen right through the flyleaf.” Markson did have success with a Western satire titled The Ballad of Dingus Magee (1965); while nowhere near a bestseller, it did earn him money from Hollywood for a film adaption starring Frank Sinatra.

Earlier works were slight novels: Epitaph for a Tramp (1959), Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961), and Miss Doll, Go Home (1965). These were followed by the more demanding, and rewarding, Going Down (1970), which is set in Mexico, and Springer’s Progress (1977). Eleven frustrating years later—as his friend Ann Beattie relates in her Afterword, “What do you say to someone who’s written an original, brilliant book that no one will publish?”—Wittgenstein’s Mistress came out. In Rubin’s words, Markson’s oeuvre made him “the consummate ‘unknown and underappreciated’ author of his generation.” This would hardly recompense him for the attention he felt he deserved, and not reconcile him to having, in his opinion, his works misread.

His own intense responses to reviewers, publishers, and ideas about alleged themes in his novels might lead one to suspect he wished for more control of what was said. When a third party tells Markson she knows he and Sims had met, he writes: “What am I gonna have to do, demand copies of everybody’s e-mail?” There is an element of suspicion that perhaps Sims, as a friend, understandably doesn’t want to state outright, yet it runs through the letters. It’s a tribute to Markson’s better qualities—his loyalty and support for Sims’ work, his interest in other aspects of her life, and his sense of humour, often at his own expense—that the darkness of that behaviour can be overlooked or missed.

In addition to the letters, Sims’ essay, and Beattie’s contribution, Fare Forward contains an interview Sims did with Markson in 2007 for Rain Taxi. In it he talks of a potential new novel that “will be different from these last four—the index-card four, as we seem to be calling them… Actually, the basic form will probably be somewhat the same, still ‘experimental’ in that way. Short takes as opposed to lengthy narrative, no fictional baggage, no dramatic scenes, no episodes… But it’s all extremely tentative in my head still.” Had he been able to outlast (I don’t think he could overcome) the illnesses he had, specifically cancer (though what killed him is unknown, to me), then we may have had yet another departure in his writing.

His final completed book, The Last Novel, offers a picture of the narrator that aligns closely with how David Markson often represented himself in the correspondence with Laura Sims: “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke. All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write.” Few though they are, the welcome publication of these letters means that we can once more enjoy his presence and hear a familiar voice. As Beattie says: “Just because they’ve died, those writers don’t disappear.”


Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, Edited by Laura Sims; Afterword by Ann Beattie | powerHouse | 156 pages | $12.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1576877005

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Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015). Bursey is a special correspondent for Numero Cinq and an associate editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries, Rain Taxi, and many other publications.