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Wittgenstein's Mistress Paperback – 31 Mar 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; Reprint edition (31 Mar. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1564782115
  • ISBN-13: 978-1564782113
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 0.2 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 82,401 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


The novel I liked best this year... one dizzying, delightful, funny passage after another... Wittgenstein's Mistress gives proof positive that the experimental novel can produce high, pure works of imagination. The Washington Times Addresses formidable philosophic questions with tremendous wit... remarkable... A novel that can be parsed like a sentence, it is that well made. New York Times Book Review Brilliant and often hilarious... Markson is the one working novelist... who can claim affinities with Joyce, Gaddis, and Lowry, no less than with Beckett. San Francisco Review of Books

About the Author

David Markson's novels include Springer's Progress, Reader's Block, and The Last Novel.

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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Jon on 23 Jun. 2008
Format: Paperback
A superb book. Markson has created a character who has the world to herself, though her memories and thoughts are infiltrated by the artists and writers and philosophers she has loved. There is also a real sense of place, whether real or imagined; mainly European, though the author is American. The book lies at a tangent to Gaddis, with hints and references in his direction. However, many ghosts from many eras share the world with a sympathetic and increasingly unreliable narrator.
I was recommended this book by a note in a bookshop in Memphis - thanks be given.
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4 of 9 people found the following review helpful By bobbygw on 18 Jan. 2011
Format: Paperback
This is a novel about `somebody who woke up one Wednesday or Thursday to discover that there was apparently not one other person left in the world'. This is a novel of `inconsequential perplexities' and has the Laingian ethos that `there is no better way of being sane and free from anxiety than by being mad'.

This is a novel whose style appears (poorly) influenced by the work of Gordon Lish and, if not, then certainly - via existentialism - Samuel Beckett. Markson tries to evoke the absurdity of everyday life by relating the essentials of any one moment through a mass of intellectual trivia.

As examples, and in attempting to reflect the troubled nature of the central female character's mind, he will tell you what Spinoza did to spiders; the birth date of Picasso; how Anna Karenina's cat died; and the classical film roles of Katherine Hepburn. Bizarre events and the behaviour of an eclectic mix of artists can be found here. If you are looking for some sort of plot and want a `story', it's also here, but no more than four or so pages in length and scattered finely like so much powder, over the novel's 240 pages.

The main character is a woman, once a painter and married, who leaves her husband before everybody else, it seems, just disappears. For more than a decade she journeys, looking for other people.

The tale is spun in the form of a monologue, sometimes resembling those of the characters in Beckett's plays (most notably Winnie's in `Happy Days'). Yet the brilliance of Beckett - through his ability to capture the aching tedium and relentless repetitions of daily life - in an exact, sad, darkly humorous way - does not rub off on Markson: instead, he is encyclopaedic; a trivia quiz; an existential void - and here is proof, in the form of his fourth novel: nothingness.
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4 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Swindon Ian on 8 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Oh dear, I struggled with this, and had to give up after 20 pages. I'm sure it is making a profound statement regarding the nature of language and knowledge as an inherently social activity, but the interminably dull monologue really didn't do it for me!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 50 reviews
50 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Unspeakably magnificent 18 Oct. 2001
By Thomas F Wells - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"Wittgenstein's Mistress" is a complex novel of simple sentences in short paragraphs describing thoughts that are all over the maps of history, the arts and the world itself. Presumably, the novel's structure is inspired by Wittgenstein's "Tractatus," a series of short propositions, sub-propositions, sub-sub etc. presented in a logical sequence culminating in the final proposition, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Similarly, the narrator of "Wittgenstein's Mistress," a one-time artist who has come to believe she is completely alone in the world, presents a series of short descriptions of whatever pops into her head as she's typing. Places, people, works of art, episodes of history give rise to anecdotes, apocrypha and tid-bits about other places, people, etc -often inaccurate but always illuminating both our world and hers.
The narrator forms this jumble of information into innumerable weirdly wonderful, laugh-out-loud syntheses. For example, a story that Rembrandt's students painted on his studio's floor images of gold coins, which Rembrandt would stoop to pick up no matter how often the trick was repeated, leads to the recollection that Rembrandt eventually had to declare financial bankruptcy. The narrator then combines these two anecdotes with the fact that Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam as a contemporary of the philosopher Spinoza to produce an imagined conversation between the two famous men in a corner shop. " `Oh, hi, Rembrandt. How's the bankruptcy?' `Fine, Spinoza. How's the excommunication?' "
Sprinkled among these fractured observations are obscure hints as to how and why the narrator has reached the point of what can only be madness. As the insights into her personal history increase in the final pages of the book, a repetitious list of seemingly haphazard commentaries on largely external matters becomes ever more personal. By the time it concludes with its four beautifully poetic lines, the book has created a deep, disquieting pathos made all the more poignant by the narrator's immersion in a world that is a kind of embodiment of Wittgenstein's final proposition.
Like the narrators of "Flaubert's Parrot" (by Julian Barnes) and "Waterland" (by Graham Swift), the narrator of "Wittgenstein's Mistress" takes refuge in a world of facts--in her case cultural scattershot versus the meticulous biographical fact of "Flaubert's Parrot" and local historical fact of "Waterland"--to avoid confronting a terrible personal tragedy. That this novel addresses such a theme with even more originality and craft than those two excellent books makes this a truly magnificent piece of literature.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
The Dementia of Solitude 16 Oct. 1997
By andy@enteract.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
When I found myself describing to my friends the beguiling concept behind this book, I had to grin in spite of myself. The last person on earth sits down and starts to write, in a very particular style, whatever is on her mind. The inevitable questions flooded me: "how did everybody die?" "What about animals?" "What does she do for food?" And while these questions are certainly at the back of one's mind as one pores over her mental effluvia, it is much more entrancing to follow her trains of thought about philosophical questions, historical puzzles (not puzzles so much as head-cocking queries), and anecdotal information about great western artists, from Homer to Rembrandt to Martin Heidegger. Certainly the idea of being the last person on earth for years and years is appealing and frightening in and of itself; but what makes this such a fascinating book is that the narrator "was" an artist, and, without any real audience left, challenges the whole idea of the inherent value of knowledge, or for that matter beauty. Anybody who had fun with epistomology in philosophy class will like this one; also a treat for art majors, as a healthy literacy with art history is helpful in following those trains. A great read, slow in the middle, but utterly digestible on the whole.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Heavens to Betsy 15 Mar. 2001
By John P Wixted - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
My, my, what a book. Such a difficult journey, for me: the endless art, historical and literary references were daunting. And the one-sentence-paragraph style and internal dialogue subject matter so jarring, especially after having just finished reading Infinite Jest (Wittgenstein's Mistress was a DFW recommendation). But I read on, aided by episodes of hilarity (such as the scene in which various painters and cats convene in the narrator's brain, or the speculation about whether Penelope really would have waited around for Odysseus' return) and moments of harrowing poignancy (the gravestone promised by a husband on a son's grave existing in the mind but not in reality). Well, it's hard to describe. But the last twenty or so pages were so intimate and frightening in their sadness as to make you want to reach into the book and hold her head to somehow stop the lonliness. Don't give up on this book.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
My Partial Comprehension 29 Nov. 2011
By Bill Corporandy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I have given this book only 2 stars to reflect my enjoyment and understanding of a novel I partially understood and thus partially enjoyed. My review is perhaps less a review of the novel than a short "diary entry" of my relation to this novel and to Markson's writng style. I have read 3 of David Markson's novels and greatly enjoyed Reader's Block and to a lesser degree The Last Novel. This one seemed by far the most impenetrable. A previous reviewer has said it was based on Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The reader seemed to enjoy the novel greatly probably due to his greater philosophical understanding. I guess I represent someone in between clued in and clueless. I read a book on Wittgenstein about 10 years ago so I as able to pick up on some of the subtlety but apparently one must really do some substantial homework to enjoy this book. This is less true of the previously mentioned Markson novels which do engage and reward the reader providing s/he has a broad awareness of diverse cultural references.
On a literal level, the title is oxymoronic since Wittgenstein was gay and hence would not have a mistress but there is a sense in which those who are susceptible to to his philosophical probings are in a sense his mistress. In all 3 novels I have read, Markson's approach is to throw out statements that seem unrelated or linked in random ways, grouped in small clusters of "facts". Depending on the interests of the reader these ideas can be engaging in their own right. The more perceptive reader begins to see that what is actually being depicted are the mental processes and emotional attitudes of the narrator. Changes in the types of facts, their unique juxtapositions, repetitions of previous statements put in new contexts, and other strategies for arranging statements all point to the evolving changes in the narrator or the narrator's attempt to understand her place in the world. It is this underlying subtext that constitutes the "plot" of the novel. The effect can be quite moving, especially as the true significance of "random" facts come into focus. Occasionally, because of repetitions of various statements or obsessions, readers who are not maintaining focus, getting sleepy, or just returning to the book may incorrectly conclude they already read a particular page or passage.
In this book, unlike the other 2 novels I read, the repetitions began to seem tedious. Some clarifications point to the limits of language,its contradictions and ambiguities, a classic Wittgensteinian concern. For example, the narrator notices that we say we "fight with someone" which can mean someone is fighting on our side as an ally or it can mean fighting against that person. Initially fascinating, this observation seems to become tiresome with repetition but this probably means I have missed some other subtlety in the novel. I suppose I was fighting with the text in both senses of the phrase. Another thing I found tedious was the long sections about a cat which may be non existent--again, I probably missed something.
So, I conclude with a warning, don't come to this book unprepared. Be ready for an entertaining time but come armed. Read some of the other reviews and perhaps Tractatus.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Effective and Riveting 9 Mar. 2004
By foundpoem - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Original and inspiring, I find myself thinking about this book more and more since reading it.
While I didn't find this book difficult, as others wrote, I think there's a dichotomy within it that contributes to that response.
I think this:
Markson wrote one book, a "philosophical novel," if there were such a genre--the novel demonstrates, rather than describes, a philosophy--and in so doing, he utilized more information than just the plot, the style, and the philosophy itself; this information becomes a sort of second book.
And I think the latter, the information that the narrator repeatedly discuses, are the "difficult" or perhaps simply "different" elements than the essence of the novel itself.
A woman is alone. She tells us, in the first sentence, she is alone on the earth ("At the beginning I left notes.") For me, there was a driving force to the plot - is this woman really alone, and to what extent? Is she alone in her house, holed up from trauma, or alone in her mind, "mad," as she phrases it - though she claims she has had periods of madness, not that she *is* mad. I found this plot elemnt a mystery, and I was driven, as such, to find out the ending or "truth."
The other element of the book is the substance itself, what she writes--thinks about--and the way she writes it. This, I think, is where a reader can become tired (I saw reviews say it should have been shorter, though this is quite a short book) or wander from the material.
The narrator talks a lot about ancient Greece, mythology, classical music, and limited-in-scope literature and art. Her focus is on "high art," or certain pieces of, but not all readers will be interested enough in Helen of Troy or in Brahms to find her musings compelling. They can be at odds with the other compelling part, the plot.
So, I think Markson has, in some way, two books. One is his plot/philosophical-novel and the other is the monologue of Kate, the narrator. I, too, perked up at times she did things near the beach house she lives - go for water, explore a neighboring house - and though I was/am interested in Helen, mythology, and literature, her musings were both limited in scope and each topic disproportionately covered. This would happen if any person's inner thoughts were put to paper - I may find Helen interesting, but classical music not so interesting.
Where I think the novel fails to keep the interest of readers is in the disparity between her life (Markson's philosophical demonstration) and her personal interests.
That said, for all my lack of interest in Brahms, et. al., there was an inevitable connection to her world - were there one or two copies of the book about Brahms? Did she burn one in a fire? Did she read it? Was it a children's book?
I was riveted. I too skimmed parts, as others said, as there was just so much about topics not of interest to me. But, no sooner did I begin to skim, than I was reeled back in. The book is fascinating. Its execution nearly brilliant. If I may nit-pick, Markson's excessive use of the word "doubtless" drove me nuts. In character or not, it was too much, to the point of distraction and detraction.
Last, I'll repeat what others have, the structure of each page, paragraph and sentence was wonderful. One-, two-sentence paragraphs, tangents of thought and reversal of thought, and her unreliable narration - contradiction of earlier things said, etc.
I found the end heartbreaking, and reread the last line a few times to be sure of my interpretation what I'd read. It was fully unexpected; it didn't read as the jolt I'd expected but, upon thought, it was one.
Riveting. Now, to figure out which Markson book to try next.
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