- Paperback: 248 pages
- Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; Reprint edition (31 Mar. 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1564782115
- ISBN-13: 978-1564782113
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2 x 21.3 cm
- Average Customer Review: 2.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 130,322 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Wittgenstein's Mistress Paperback – 31 Mar 2006
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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 A work of genius... An erudite, breathtakingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal and whose voice rivets and whose conclusion defies you not to cry. -- David Foster Wallace As precise and dazzling as Joyce... Original, beautiful, and an absolute masterpiece. -- Ann Beattie
About the Author
David Markson's novels include Springer's Progress, Reader's Block, and The Last Novel.
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Top Customer Reviews
I was recommended this book by a note in a bookshop in Memphis - thanks be given.
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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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.
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.
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.