Not the books he wrote. The books he owned. His books. The ones he signed his name in.
Early on, in 1951, on the inside cover of an incomplete translation of Mallarmé’s poems, he signed in formal fashion: David M. Markson, in perfect penmanship, the last name set off with a rising fountain pen slash, the graffiti tag of an easier era. Along the tail—the bottom edge of the book—he added a youthful redundancy: his three initials. Markson was 23 then and it would be eight years until his first book, Epitaph for a Tramp, would appear in print.
Once his work moved toward publication, his signature disintegrated. No more first name and middle initial. No monogram on the tail. Just Markson now, occasionally with a line under it, scribbled in ballpoint on the inside of paperbacks of Maimonides, Orwell, Rilke, and de Sade. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, he added a location and a date—Mexico, 1960—and, as if in confirmation, the volume is stamped in three places as the property of the Centro Mexicano de Escritores. Did Markson buy the book or boost it? No point in asking. This organization, founded in 1950 and most famous for giving Juan Rulfo a stipend and a place to go to write Pedro Páramo, his dark novel of the dead, ran out of cash and issued a notice announcing its own death in 2005.
What does it mean for a writer to sign his name in the books he read? Were they as important to him as the books he wrote? Or, maybe, more important? Is his connection to the world to be found in his own works or in the works of others that, by writing his name in them, he announced were his, too?
Markson, who died on June 4, 2010, started as a genre writer. Three detective novels (his recent books refer to these as entertainments rather than novels.) A western. Several realistic fictions. Then, with Wittgenstein’s Mistress, published in 1988 after collecting 54 rejections, his output turned inward.
In my copy of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I bought at the Strand for a buck, a prior owner, who bought it at the Strand for a few bucks more, left a helpful message on the receipt. Don’t look now but the train to dementia is leaving + you my friend are about to board/Don’t look now but the train to dementia is pulling away from the station and you’re on it.
Markson’s last four books are a series of delicate, almost plotless works in which the narrator—named Author twice, Reader once, and finally Novelist—drops away and the prose slithers forward through terse quotations and stand-alone sentences that resist the imposition of an interlocking whole. To do away with plot and narrative is, in a sense, to do away with time—and Markson’s final four read like an amazing feat of holding your breath out: your pulse slowly slows, the seconds divide into farsighted distance, individuality edges towards an unspoken and unspeakable universal.
Markson lived in the West Village, not far from the Strand, a store which, in a nice parallel, opened its doors in 1927, the same year he was born.
At the end of Markson’s last novel, published in 2007 and called—perhaps aptly—The Last Novel, an aging writer heads up the stairs of his Greenwich Village apartment building, beyond his own floor, to the top:
Access to Roof for Emergency Only. Alarm Will Sound if Door Opened.Some boilerplate from a lawsuit-leery landlord. Five one-word sentences by Markson himself. A quote from philosopher George Santayana. And, to end the book, a fragment inscribed by Jan van Eyck on the frame of his 1433 canvas Portrait of a Man in a Turban. This last, Markson rendered five ways: The best I can do. That’s it. I can do no more. All I have left. I can go no further.
Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.
The old man who will not laugh is a fool.
Als ick kan.
At a reading at the 92nd Street Y in 2007, Markson noted that 98.5 percent of the book involved quotations from others. At the same reading, Markson defined his literary approach: to see how little I can get away with with.
Five weeks after his death seems too soon for his collection to trickle out. Did no one want the library of this writer whose work was so informed by the words of others? Or perhaps this was his wish—to liberate these books from the lock-down of his shelves and thereby become a literary Johnny Appleseed, strewing odd volumes to the public through the crude mechanism of the free market (and a buck a book is about as free as the free market gets these days.)
These tramp-steamer books, found on the carts outside the Strand, are the last work of a writer who, to the end, let others have the last word.