This is Not a Novel
By David Markson
Counterpoint, 190 pp., $15 (paper)
In the library of the world, the reader who suppresses the prejudice of taste (to go beyond a favorite genre and explore those countless books of every kind that sit still unread on the shelves) is the reader who inherits the greatest riches. With a wide-open mind, she stuffs her head with works from the entire spectrum of the written word. When her field of reference has become a fruited plain stretching to the horizons of her mind, she will enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that she did her best to wring a greater understanding out of the collective consciousness of humanity.
Now, if youre not of my ilk and you dont consider it your duty to gorge your head on the offal of 10,000 other minds, dont listen to me. Read whatever the hell you want to read. But if you are of my ilk, then I suggest you pick up David Marksons latest book, This is Not a Novel
, which is one of the most edifying works Ive ever encountered.
Marksons is a mind stuffed, a mind comprising a vast field of reference, a sated, rich mind. The title is apt. The book is more of a meditation than a novel, though it does fall into the category of highly experimental fiction (self-referential metafiction particularly). There is a narrator, called only Writer, who tempts you down the winding yet circuitous path of his tale, which is, if anything, a fragmented monologue, the outpouring of a mind not just steeped but drowned in the literature, history, music, and art of the world.
If you asked me to simply state what the book is about, I would say: the arts, fame and immortality, and the cold hard fact of impending death, all delivered in anecdotal form. But the novel is not dark at all. On the contrary, it shines brilliantly, plotless and characterless yet seducing the reader (to quote Writer) with details from the lives (and deaths) of artists of every kind: musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, et cetera.
Every page is filled with brief paragraphs throwing out ideas for contemplation. Each piece of the story sometimes implies much more than it says, rendering these tidbits expansive upon consideration. As you go along the ideas and information begin to accumulate and allude to other works and other points set down in the narrative before. You will find yourself learning delicious details about names you know all to well and jotting down names to pursue further, myriad creators lost to all but the most encyclopedic minds. To give you a better notion of the form used throughout, here are some excerpts:
This morning I walked to the place where the streetcleaners dump the rubbish. My God, it was beautiful.
Says a Van Gogh letter.
When I was their age I could draw like Raphael. But it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like they do.
Said Picasso at an exhibition of childrens art.
My mind and fingers have worked like the damned. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, I devour them with fury.
Wrote Liszt at twenty.
Greater than any of us, Yeats called Rabindranath Tagore.
The greatest lyric poet Germany ever knew, Gottfried Benn called Else Lasker-Schuler.
Who at sixty-four was beaten with an iron pipe by young Nazis on a street in Berlin.
Fray Luis de Leon, returning to his Salamanca classroom after five years of imprisonment by the Inquisition:
As I was saying...
Donatello, at work on his Zuccone, heard muttering at the stone:
Speak, damn you, talk to me.
Peppering these anecdotes throughout is the narrators forthright, even self-deprecating, thoughts on the writing itself. He is weary of making up stories. He wants to relate those hes already heard. Hes sick of characters, plot, theme, setting, all the trappings of the novel, yet hes his own character, pared down to only a voice. He can speak of nothing but the creative life and the inevitability of tragedy, but nothing ever gets too heavy. Its all leavened by the capricious glee of the narrators tone, his wit poking through just when needed to break any tearful tension.
Is This is Not a Novel
a compendium of quotations and hearsay or is it a book that would only interest a writer? Its a fine and compelling read is what it is.