R.I.P. David Markson

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June 7, 2010

David Markson, Postmodern Experimental Novelist, Is Dead at 82

By BRUCE WEBER

David Markson, whose wry, elliptical novels probing the scattered mind of the artist and the unruly craft of making art were frequently called postmodern and experimental and almost always surprisingly engaging and underappreciated, died Friday in his Greenwich Village apartment. He was 82.

His former wife, Elaine Markson, who was also his literary agent, said that the cause of death had not been established but that he had had cancer.

Though his books — including “Springer’s Progress” (1977), “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” (1988) and “This Is Not a Novel” (2001) — were often admiringly reviewed, Mr. Markson was a novelist well known largely to other novelists. This was partly because he was a central figure in the Village writing scene in the 1960s, a frequenter of literary watering holes like the Lion’s Head, but also because he eschewed conventional novelistic forms and tropes. Like other experimentalists, he made the form of the novel, at least in part, its subject.

Mr. Markson’s books expressed, both mischievously and earnestly, the hem-and-haw self-consciousness of the perpetual thought-reviser. He wrote mostly monologues, or at least the narration seemed to emanate from a single voice, though the books were not necessarily narrated in the first person. (The writer at the focus of “This Is Not a Novel,” for instance, is called Writer.)

Mr. Markson did not much bother with character development or plot; nor, as his work evolved, did he care much for devices of organization like chapters, or even paragraphs. Rather, he built his books in nuggets and epigraphs, oddball observation by peculiar found fact, to portray the mind of the narrator, who was generally an artist in some state of mental distress.

Mr. Markson excavated the history of literature and art for eerily resonant and often amusing, petty or scandalous tidbits of biography and juxtaposed them with declarations about the narrator’s state of mind.

“Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form,” begins the novel “Vanishing Point” (2004), about a procrastinatory author known only as Author. Then there is a line break, followed by:

“A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York — and left that way for a month and a half.”

That was followed by another line break, another factoid (about the car crash that killed Albert Camus), then another line break, and so on.

Such was the form of many of Mr. Markson’s books. And though readers who crave narrative may have been put off by them, reviewers almost always found themselves succumbing to what many referred to as a cumulative, hypnotic effect. His admirers included Amy Hempel, Ann Beattie and David Foster Wallace, who referred to “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” — a monologue by a female painter, evidently mad, wandering the globe as the last surviving person on earth — as “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.”

Mr. Markson’s early work was hardly experimental. In the 1950s he was an editor of crime fiction at Dell Books, and he wrote crime novels himself, including “Epitaph for a Tramp”(1959) and “Epitaph for a Dead Beat” (1961), featuring a hard-boiled Greenwich Village detective, Harry Fannin. He also wrote a western spoof, “The Ballad of Dingus Magee” (1965) that was made into a movie, “Dirty Dingus Magee,” starring Frank Sinatra.

“The thrillers were very well done,” Pete Hamill, the journalist and novelist who was a longtime friend of Mr. Markson’s, said in a phone interview Monday. “But then he also wrote these books that were superliterary, in the best sense of the word. It was as if John D. MacDonald was working in the manner of Borges.”

David Merrill Markson was born in Albany on Dec. 20, 1927. His father, Sam, was a newspaperman; his mother, Florence, a teacher. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and earned a master’s degree from Columbia, where his thesis was about Malcolm Lowry’s novel, “Under the Volcano.”

Lowry became a friend, as did writers with much higher name recognition, among them Conrad Aiken and Jack Kerouac. In the 2006 memoir, “Sleeping with Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties,” the writer Alice Denham listed Mr. Markson among her celebrated bedmates. Mr. Markson, she wrote, was a “stud lover boy.”

Mr. Markson’s marriage to the former Elaine Kretchmar, in 1956, dissolved 20 years later. His survivors include a sister, Rhoda Markson Goldstein; a daughter, Johanna Markson; a son, Jed Markson; and three grandchildren. His last novel, in 2007, was “The Last Novel.”

Mr. Hamill said Mr. Markson was best known among other writers for the kind of generosity few of them had, an ability to find value in literary work of the kind he had no desire himself to write.

“He’d read so damned much and talk to you about it that he forced you to go out and read the books,” Mr. Hamill said. “And he’d find somebody he liked, even if he had no desire to write in that way, and he didn’t think all the others should be put up against the wall and shot.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 9, 2010

An obituary on Tuesday about the novelist David Markson rendered the title of one of his early books incorrectly. It is “Epitaph for a Dead Beat,” not “Epitaph for a Deadbeat.”

(From the New York Times Online)

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