I first found David Markson without seeking him. I was thirteen, and reading a new biography of the great writer Malcolm Lowry by Douglas Day. Lowry, the author of Under the Volcano, was what you'd call a hopeless alcoholic by the time he befriended the young writer Markson, who gave an account of his friend to The Nation in 1966, almost ten years after Lowry's death in 1957:
The man could not shave himself. In lieu of a belt, he knotted a rope or a discarded necktie around his waist. Mornings, he needed two or three ounces of gin in his orange juice if he was to steady his hand to eat the breakfast that would very likely prove his only meal of the day. Thereafter a diminishing yellow tint in the glass might belie the fact that now he was drinking the gin neat, which he did for as many hours as it took him to. Ultimately he would collapse—sometimes sensible enough of his condition to lurch toward a bed, though more often he would crash down into a chair, and once it was across my phonograph. Then he would hack and sputter through the night like some great defective machine falling apart.
That was in 1973. I was ignorant of the fact that in 1970 Markson had published his own novel of Mexico and madness, Going Down, and dedicated it to Lowry. Here is a passage from that book:
But then how strange, how inexplicably unreal, the facade of the church seeming to waver and recede, the silvered crucifix at its spire melting distantly into the drifting morning's mists, and the square itself as it came alive both familiarly lovely and desolately alien at once, some gloriously insane Turner suddenly conceiving the sky now too, until I felt queerly tense, queerly expectant, and with something exultant in my head as well, Bach-like, the terrible beauty of some passion or requiem or credo never before heard, and with a sense of infinite peace also, as in that ceaseless ebb and drift of love, or the Tao, where something unimaginably miraculous was surely about to occur, or even lay upon me, myself, so that in that very moment I might have raised my lamed hand to deliver all, might have cried forth the dead, invoked radiance before the blind! Or was I only mad yet once again, and lost, as forever, lost?
Markson spent a lot of time as a journeyman writer, doing genre fiction for dough. He wrote the novel upon which Dirty Dingus Magee, a bizarre footnote in Frank Sinatra's film career, had been based; and scripted another very peculiar Western, 1972's Cry For Me, Billy. In his own novels he became more preoccupied with the creative act. In the below passage from 1977's Springer's Progress, the book's titular not-successfully-progressing writer conducts a comic self-interrogation:
Listen, blotterbrain, try to be sober for seventeen seconds. Your problematical ending beside the point, what do you ultimately want out of this coprophagous excursus?
Oh, words, obviously.
Play a little. With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl's midnight underlining.
What've phrases got to do with the cost of smoked salmon in Abu Dhabi?
Haven't I acknowledged that? Just once, can't a character be the product of his own fucked-up head rather than society?
That account for all the pretentious literary disjecta membra in there too?
Don't call me pretentious to vindicate your own long-rationalized surrenders, mate. What should occupy him instead, how many citizens of Warsaw does it take to change a lightbulb? In any case he himself won't be writing for people who can only read long books because they haven't the time to read short ones.
Neat line, except you even borrowed that. Pascal? Meanwhile what about readers who'll splutter over vocabulary words?
Again, what are you accusing me of except the corrosion of your own tool chest?
Now tell me that a book is a mirror and if a jackass looks in a wit can scarcely be expected to look out.[...]
Wittgenstein's Mistress is the most often-cited of Markson's later works, a devastatingly moving book that created a template of sorts for Markson's subsequent works. (It was a favorite of David Foster Wallace's, and one of the handful of books he gladly blurbed.) What seems a random, slightly demented collection of observations and aphorisms and factoids and descriptions coalesces into something more solid but also more enigmatic. A post-apocalyptic chronicle of loneliness? A madwoman's lament? Both? Neither? In any event, a masterpiece. I say a "template of sorts" because in subsequent works Markson laid aside notions of character and narrative and became increasingly, insistently aphoristic, and each of his dazzlingly original and erudite (Wallace speaks of how a novelist has to "give the impression—both in lines and between the lines—of knowing an enormous amount;" Markson was certainly the man for that job) books hit with the force and formal precision of an exact inversion of the "Dictionary of Recieved Ideas" conceived by Bouvard and Pecuchet. Here, from the sadly-aptly titled The Last Novel:
Wine, the title of John Gay's first published poem was. In which he insisted that no one who drank only water could become an author.
One's first glass of the day is a great event. Acknowledged Thackaray.
"Not drunk is he who from the floor/Can rise alone and still drink more." Contributed Thomas Love Peacock.
Bo-ray pri ha-gofen.
A manual-winding pocket watch, Einstein carried.
Snivel in a wet hankie, D.H. Lawrence called Lord Jim.
At fifty-eight, two year before his death, Chaucer was sued over a debt of fourteen pounds.
And did not have the money.