By David Markson.
190 pages
Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001.
ISBN # 1-58243-133-7

Comments of Bob Corbett
February 2002

David Markson has produced one of the most creative and delightful books I’ve read in ages. It is a non-novel novel, a book of fascinating sophisticated trivia, certainly a bit arcane, even pompous, but very funny and intriguing. Lots of fun.

The book consists of four sorts of “entries.” Each entry is usually a single sentence, a very few being two or three sentences. There are about 10-12 such paragraph/sentences per page, virtually none of them being related to the one before. The four categories of entries are:

In the opening few pages there are about a dozen entries in which the “Writer” theme gets established. A few of these will set the tone.

“Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.”

“Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

“Writer is equally tired of inventing characters.”

“Does Writer even exist?”

“Obviously Writer exists.”

“Not being a character but the author here.”

“Writer is writing, for heaven’s sake.”

This is to be a novel with no intimation of a story or characters, plotless and characterless, yet:

“Yet seducing the reading into turning pages nonetheless.”

And seduce me it did. I think there is no question he achieved most of what he says he set out to do, but is there really no character? I tended to think of Writer as a character more than just as the author talking aloud. Thus I’m not quite convinced it is totally without a character.

These quips, if I may call them that, which I quote above and some which will follow, are not clustered together and usually appear alone, separated by several pages. But Writer has a curious view of his power to decide what this book is. There are many things Writer thinks this book may be. I enjoyed those. But Writer’s insistence that merely his saying that these things are so makes them so was not as convincing to me. More samples:

One by one he can make the case that elements of this non-novel is anyone of these things, but what puzzled me was: is it actually Writer’s saying so that makes it so, or is it the content of the work which makes it so. Despite the cuteness of Markson’s insistence, my own notion of aesthetics and criticism is such that I think it is the book that Writer produced which is what it is, no matter what Writer himself may think or claim.

Toward the very end, in the last few pages, were the descriptions which to me best summed up what this book is:

The most puzzling claim for me that Writer made was that this book had:

“Indeed with a beginning, middle and end.”

The only way I could find such things were that the first few pages could mathematically be called the beginning, the pages from about 90-100 of this 190 page book could be considered the middle by simple division and the last 10 pages the end. Other than that I could find no criterion which suggested those divisions.

In pure bulk, this is a book of very arcane, fascinating and funny trivia. I just loved reading it. Again, like Writer’s comments, the bulk of these items were one single sentence. A few were longer, but the longest I think was a five line alleged exchange between Napoleon and his secretary:

"Well, Bourrienne, you too will be immortal.
"Why, General Bonaparte?
"Are you not my secretary?
"Tell me the name of Alexander's.
"Hmmm, that's not bad Bourrienne."

Another delight was a story of Johann Strauss Jr.’s wife asking Brahms for his autograph. According to Markson’s story Brahms sketched out the first couple of lines of the music of The Blue Danube and then gave the autograph line below as:

“Alas, this is not by Johannes Brahms.”

But I think my favorite bit of all is the claimed line of Allan Bloom telling The New York Times that he could read 500 pages an hour. Markson has a ball with this, first with this bit of fun math:

“Spectacular exhibition! Right this way ladies and gentlemen! See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!”


“What’s this? Can’t spare an hour and a half? Wait, wait. Our matinee special, today only. Watch Professor Bloom eviscerate the Pears-McGuinness translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – eight minutes and twenty-nine seconds flat. Guaranteed.”

Writer is on a role and some thirty pages later still can’t leave it alone:

“Did Professor Bloom take any books with him, do you know?
Someone said he had a twenty-six volume complete Joseph Conrad. It’s only a weekend cruise”

But most of the quips are one-liners and zingers at that.

Of course one is left to wonder, are these really so? That is, do these stories exist in the literature or does Writer simply make them up? Or, if they are in the historical literature, just how seriously should we take them, what sources are they from? None of this is revealed, and that should only worry us were we to be scholars wanting to learn very odd and strange things about famous people in literature, art and music.

Regardless of the trustworthiness of any given item, I suggested that this book would make the very best set of trivia questions available to us. On my view of the game out of Markson, one would spin the first dial to pick randomly one of the 190 pages. Then another spin would pick a number up to 12 (there are rarely more than 12 items on a page and usually very close to that many). Then the players would have to take what is given, from a sentence to a title to a name, and elaborate on this item. The group would award points from 1-10 depending on the assumed accuracy of the reply and relevance to the clue itself. Hmmmm, I think I’ll try to game at a party one of these days.

The third theme of the non-novel is death. Writer is utterly fixated on it and there are well over 100 sentences which simply record an alleged cause of death of an alleged noteworthy person (no question about it – he certainly stumped me on some of the entries). Many of the examples are quite simple, heart attack, cancer and so on. Some are a bit more exotic. A few random examples are:

The final theme is what Writer seems to view as puzzles, but it isn’t clear what they are. Given that there are dozens of entries which are simply a name, seemingly a title, seemingly a “famous” quote (again, stumped me a lot), I take it that the puzzle is simply to figure out what in the world the entry is doing in the book.

I loved the book. I couldn’t put it down. I read and howled with laughed, I chucked many a more gentle chuckles, I marveled at some claims and doubted their veracity. I wearied a bit at all the causes of death, particularly the frequent repeats of relatively common causes. But in answer to Writer’s hope at one point:

“Yet seducing the reading into turning pages nonetheless.”

Ah, there’s not doubt about it, I read and turned the pages like a would be Allan Bloom and then even hurried to the internet to order more of his works.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett