Markson's 'This Is Not a Novel' - immortality?

April 01, 2001|By Jeff Danziger | By Jeff Danziger,Special to the Sun

"This Is Not a Novel," by David Markson. Counterpoint Press. 190 pages. $15.

One of the most durable book formats, certainly from a sales point of view, is the collection of quotations, arranged by subject, in which the wisdom of the ages is reduced to tiny morsels of wit and oddness, quickly accessible. In these books I always go straight to the section on writers and artists.(That is after I check the section on slurs on Los Angeles in case I've missed something new and scarifying.) I haven't tried to write a book for about five years now, and the quotes on the glory and misery of writing first spur me to try again and then comfort my disinclination to make the effort. Fortunately I have other things to do. Markson, poor lad, does not.

And so he has arranged hundreds of observations here on writers and writing, with some more thrown in on painters, composers and a few baseball figures. They are gathered without any definite plan, but they shape his future as a writer. Markson has a high, dry sense of humor. He may be not an overly publicized writer, but he's highly regarded by the serious strata of the craft.

In between the one and two liners, he places his own thoughts about sitting down to begin a novel. For the most part, it is not an uplifting series of thoughts. He knows what he doesn't want to do -- doesn't want to get bogged down with characters and plot and situational questions.

But he does want a piece of immortality.

"Thomas Mann died of phlebitis."

"Alexander Pope died of pleurisy."

"William Butler Yeats died of heart failure."

These sad factoids push the writer forward, miserable in the knowledge that time is running out, but that odd and interesting things still precede death.

"If you can do it, it ain't bragging," said Dizzy Dean.

"Madame Butterfly is set in Nagasaki."

"It took Eliot forty years to allow that the word Jew in Gerontion might be capitalized."

"A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity," Johnson said.

What Markson is looking for here is the reason to push himself forward against the pressure to not do it. He must disregard the commercial obstacles, his own jealousy and his rage at rejection, by keeping all these little truths and homilies in mind.

"[William Dean] Howells and Mark Twain once cancelled a dinner they had planned for Maxin Gorky -- after discovering that the woman he had sailed from Russia with was not his wife."

"'A walk? What on earth for?' asked Auden at someone's country home."

"Robert Capa was killed by a land mine in Vietnam."

He keeps in mind also that they all died, some in strange ways, some horrible ways. But they had lives that continue after their deaths, and that appears to be the thought he takes away. It may not matter to some people whether they live on in the collective mind of humanity, and it may not be anywhere as necessary as they think, but taken together these quotes and bits of writers' lives make one agree that there's at least a shot at immortality in the grinding work of writing.

Jeff Danziger has written for the New York Daily News, the Christian Science Monitor and is a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. He wrote "Rising Like the Tucson," and a children's book, "The Champlain Monster."

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