Wittgenstein's Mistress Paperback – 31 Mar 2006
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Unsettling, shimmering . . . compelling.
Beautifully conceived. An irresistible, captivating book! --Walter Abish
Beautifully realized. Initially as hypnotically calming as an afternoon snowfall, then, by stages as menacing and yet thrilling as a nocturnal blizzard. This is Markson in the post-Beckett Gaddis country, staking his own claim, in a territory nobody else has the courage or the strength to inhabit and survive in. --James McCourt
Provocative, learned, wacko, brilliant, and extravagantly comic. This is a nonesuch novel, a formidable work of art by a writer who kicks tradition out the window, then kicks the window out the window, letting a splendid new light into the room. --William Kennedy
Brilliant and often hilarious . . . Markson is one working novelist I can think of who can claim affinities with Joyce, Gaddis, and Lowry, no less than with Beckett.
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
Addresses formidable philosophic questions with tremendous wit . . . remarkable . . . a novel that can be parsed like a sentence; it is that well made.
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.
It seems to me David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) is an attempt to untangle Wittgenstein’s philosophy as laid down in his book (Wittgenstein’s) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, via the workings of the mind of a mid-aged woman, Kate, left alone in the world – all alone. Her mind’s workings, or “inconsequential perplexities” (= anxiety); is the subject matter of the story. There is not really a plot in the conventional sense. Kate puzzles over (among many other things) a book she found in a carton of books, in the basement of a house she’s taken to living in, on the beach of the northeast coast of Italy, sometime in modern times because there are cars and trucks for the taking and driving and playing of music in tape decks (electricity and all power energy is defunct.) There are tennis balls, rackets, and a court. Perhaps a domestic cat has survived with her. She remembers, if not always accurately, the history of writing, philosophy, art, and music. The book she puzzles over is titled Baseball When the Grass Was Green (a real book) which throws her for a loop, or ties her mind in knots. Kate thinks that the book ought to have been called, “baseball when the grass IS real,” and then decides “baseball when the grass is growing,” would be better still. (p 95) Subsequently, she finds another carton that contains some artificial turf (fake grass) and that then further confounds her – she apparently having no known or actual experience of baseball, calling Stan Musial (Of whom there is a huge bronze statue of out in front of Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Really.) “Sam Usual,” and later “Stan Usual.” And also, she calls Lou Gehrig, “Stan Gehrig.” In fact, she even mixes up her dead son, Simon, with her dead lover, Lucien, and can’t remember if her dead husband, Adam, started drinking to excess because she had had lovers, or she took to taking lovers because he drank to the degree of being drunk. And then of course – What does any of anything matter anyway if no one is around to talk to, or with, to argue with or against, except only the voices and/or recollections of what you remember, or have read, and what did the writers’ of books know anyway – of what was real and what was not real – what with words only to explain what was observed. What is real grass anyway: “I [Kate] imagine what I mean is that if the grass that is not real is real, as it undoubtedly is, what would be the difference between the way grass that is not real is real and the way real grass is real, then?” (p 193)
Well that question hardly seems worth one’s time considering, in that it is an “inconsequential perplexity.” Which is sort of the point, here. Is she mad (crazy) or not. She can’t quite remember if it was Heidegger, who she HAD corresponded with, or Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard who had wrote about inconsequential perplexities. (p 216-7) And that anxiety was the default, or “fundamental” mood of humans. And so on and so forth.
So the question is as it always is: Should YOU read this book? I say yes. If. …
There are three populations of people who I think would enjoy this read. Picture a Venn diagram of three circles (=categories of people.) One circle would be persons formally educated in Philosophy, Art, and/or Literature, to include persons who have read and enjoyed reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I say this because there is a great deal of references to philosophy and thinking, art and artists, and literature and writers. I say DFW and Infinite Jest (1996) specifically because you can see how Markson’s book gave permission to Wallace to do what he did within the pages of IJ. Moreover, there is the exploration of, or untangling of, or application of thinking, of mine and perhaps yours, and of the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein, in both WM and IJ – both writers’ book’s playing with the concept of words and language and how they shape thought, which then impacts a person’s subjective reality. Both writers explore, in great detail, the idea that language is, as commonly used, very imprecise. There is the idea of reading/using footnotes, in both books. There is a great deal of redundancy and repetition of words, sentences, and ideas, in both books. There are hundreds and hundreds of characters, in both books, albeit in WM they are mostly historical characters and in IJ they are fictional. And the whole idea of thinking itself. Kate imagines that these hard thinking men, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, you can actually observe, see them, thinking – that there is an observable difference between a person who is thinking hard, and a person who is hardly thinking. I’m thinking that thought, expressed by Kate, was in fact integrated into Wallace’s being, his Self, as you can certainly see Wallace thinking, observe his mind working, if you watch him converse with interviewers on YouTube. There is the technique of the author being aware of what he is doing, and mocking himself and what he is doing in the text via the thinking of a character/narrator. “Am I just showing off?” Kate asks of herself several times, speaking to the reader, who she hopes may read what she is writing, someday. There is the concept of being alone, loneliness, anxiety, sadness, and depression. There is tennis. There is the idea of where does a thought originate and how do we learn. Which brings me to a problem I had with the book: How much of it is true. I believe that in fiction, all the little things should be true, so as to get the reader to buy into the big lie – which is, of course, the fiction itself, the story. In WM, Markson, via Kate, asserts that Michelangelo said something like, “There is no better way of being sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” (p 192) When I read that, which is repeated in the text several times, I thought —I have heard or had that thought before … and then it came to me: It was in a song written by Waylon Jennings in the 1980s, I’ve Always Been Crazy. The lyric is: “I’ve always been crazy but it kept me from going insane.” Which might, or perhaps not, have been intentional by Markson – the confusion. I have no idea about what he, Markson, was thinking.
A second circle, or population, would be persons who are overly anxious, or score high on neurotic indices, to include creatives and artists (= writers, painters, thinkers, etc.) for obvious reasons. Most people like to read about others like themselves, to know that they are not alone, that there are other people on the planet with similar attributes [In this case anxiety(s).] Thus one might think, Maybe I’m NOT so crazy after all.
The third and last circle of the diagram would be persons who have experienced, or are curious about, what it is to be all alone for a long period of time, such as solo wilderness hikers, solo sailors, fire lookouts back-in-the-day, or the sole survivor, of something or another, on planet earth. The ideal reader would be a person who fits into the section of the Venn diagram where all three circles intersect. I’m close, and so I loved this book! I highly recommend it to you if you think you fit into, or are curious about, any of the three populations. It is unconventional, experimental, and like Infinite Jest, the plot is almost irrelevant, though this novel is way, way, shorter, 240 pages. [I did not read the afterword, The Empty Plenum, (1990) 32 pages, by David Foster Wallace, before writing this review.] It is a quick read, and fun. You need not be familiar with all the historical references to get it, is my thinking.
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.