A recluse is someone who “lives a solitary life and tends to avoid other people . . . often for religious meditation.” The novelist David Markson, famously reclusive in the last few decades of his life, would have scoffed at the latter part of that definition—unless you count literature as a religion, of course. In one of his notes to me from Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, which recounts our seven-year correspondence and friendship, he brings up his “goddamn reclusiveness” himself, saying he “cannot explain” it, “but it’s in the last few books, I’m sure.” It certainly is—his books are full of narrators shut off from the world—either by choice or circumstance, or a little of both. The narrator of Reader’s Block, for instance, often remarks, “Nobody comes. Nobody calls,” perhaps because “Children depart, miscellaneous relationships wither. Friends move to distant places. Friends die.” But he also recalls that, “In fact Protagonist has any number of friends. Among the living and accessible,” and that he himself doesn’t know “why or even when it was that he commenced to fall out of touch.”
Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a nightmare—even after he’d said “I will will will see you when you’re here,” and committed to a date, time, and place, he would often cancel at the last minute, citing one or more of his myriad illnesses, his anxiety over the pending results of medical tests, or even inclement weather. When we did meet, either at a restaurant in the Village or at his apartment, he was voluble and self-deprecating, full of anecdotes and charm. It was hard to imagine such a talkative, friendly, and funny man hiding himself away as he supposedly did, but even by his own account he was a hermit, a man who “did not even get to [his] granddaughter’s third birthday, alas,” so who was I to refute the claim?
At the recent book launch for Fare Forward, held at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan on a rainy April night, I discussed David’s life, work, and letters with his longtime friend, Ann Beattie. On the topic of David’s reclusiveness, Ann said, “He really did live inside his own head. He spent a lot of the day doing research, so . . . he was in dialogue with Plato or Mallarme, or . . . all these voices that he was internalizing all the time. And as we probably all know, it’s not that easy to go out and have a beer of an evening when . . . you’ve been having some sort of inner exchange.” In this way, David was not alone—he was talking to Mallarme and Proust, Stein and Rodin, and many other great minds of the past centuries. So perhaps “nobody [came]” and “nobody call[ed],” but that pertained only to the physical world. David’s work was, in essence, a social act, just not a stereotypical one.
Similarly, I’ve begun to realize that David himself was social in his later years, just not in a way that’s easy to categorize. The correspondence and friendship we had is a perfect example—and ours was not as unique as I once thought. David corresponded with many people during those years, new fans and old friends alike. Since publishing Fare Forward, I’ve heard from some of those correspondents; I’ve also heard from Strand employees who saw David regularly at the store. Eddie Sutton, General Manager of the Strand, remembers visiting with David almost every day since 1991, when he became manager of the store’s basement level. David would hang around for an hour or two, regaling him with tales of the Village literary scene of the 1950s and ’60s, back when David was decidedly not reclusive—stories featuring literary stars like Dylan Thomas, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jack Kerouac. Sutton told me that David was, “more than anyone I ever knew, a direct connection to a real literary world I had only imagined growing up.” Theresa Buchheister, a Strand staffer from 2007-2010, became close with David during the last years of his life. She was reading The Last Novel when she interviewed for the job; when the interviewer told her David often visited the store, she was thrilled. She soon developed “an enormous, blush-inducing crush” on him, and neglected her work during his frequent visits to the store. Buchheister told me, “we had four fantastic years of seeing each other daily, talking on the phone frequently, [and] visiting in his apartment.” She said she has “a permanently broken heart” since David died. It’s clear that David formed real and lasting relationships at the Strand, and probably elsewhere. He may have been neglecting old friendships and even family ties, but he was out in the world in other ways.
The Strand, appropriately, became a crucial nexus for the Markson community after David’s death. When it became known that he had bequeathed his personal library to the store, fans combed the aisles for books from his collection. One of the most successful Markson book-hunters was Tyler Malone, who recovered more than 200 of David’s books in the space of a few months. Malone told me that he “went through every single book in the Strand . . . twice. The entire store TWICE.” He ended up with gems like David’s copy of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which had been misfiled (thus hidden from other “hunters”) under “Toklas.” He also found a copy of Don DeLillo’s Mao II, in which David had written “What an awful couple of pages!” on p. 224, and in which “Bullshit” appears repeatedly in the margins. Tyler said, “Each new book of his I found in the stacks felt like another letter sent to my address, with personal notes, jokes, and insights.” Tyler had written to David while he was alive, but had never corresponded regularly with him. Finding these books allowed him to continue the conversation he and Markson had begun, and soon Tyler expanded that conversation to include others. He created a Tumblr called “Reading Markson Reading,” featuring scans of the Markson marginalia he’d found. The site created a virtual community of Markson fans around the world, allowing them to talk to each other through David’s books in a way that reminds me of those artists, writers, and thinkers rubbing shoulders in David’s books—in the last five, at least. As in this little nugget from Vanishing Point:
The greatest artist who has ever written, George Eliot called Jane Austen.
A prose Shakespeare, agreed Macaulay.
Without poetry—Charlotte Brontë’s dissent.
Skeptical as he was of the Internet, David would certainly have appreciated the spirit of this unusual community of like-minded readers, and hopefully he would have appreciated how his work and life had inspired people to connect not only with his books, but with each other as well.
I’ve tried, in my own way, to keep the conversation going with and about David since he died. Publishing Fare Forward is part of that; my hope is that readers unfamiliar with David’s novels will be charmed by his letters, and will want to read more. At the recent Fare Forward book launch, I asked audience members to write a postcard to David (inveterate postcard writer himself), and many of them did. I’ve included a few of the messages they sent out from “this side of the coil.” It doesn’t really matter, ultimately, whether you consider the last years of David Markson’s life reclusive or not. What matters is that the great conversation he started—in his books, in his letters, on the phone, and in person—goes on. I hope it continues, and more than that, I hope it expands to include many more readers in the Markson fold.
I have your copy of The Order of Things. If you ever want it back, give me a ring from the great beyond. Sorry I never got to know you this side of the coil. R.D. and B.McF. say hello.
I figured something out while reading, rereading, rereading Reader’s Block—it’s the business of why one of the houses is on the beach. The beach is The Strand. As in, The Strand [Bookstore]. I’m so sure I’m right. Don’t tell me if I’m wrong.
I haven’t really read you yet. Being here tonight is more of a chance/destiny kind of thing. I went to class today . . . and our teacher said we were coming to the Strand instead. She got your book of letters for us. As I waited for the reading to start, I was going through the letters and laughing out loud. Looking forward to the novels! All the best up/down there.
Here’s a bon mot from a French writer I’d like to share: “Ce n’est pas pour devenir ecrivain qu’on ecrit, c’est pour rejoinder en silence cet amour qui manqué a tout amour.” It is not to become a writer that one writes; it’s to join in silence this love that is lacking in all love—
Christian Bobin via F.N.]
Laura Sims is the author of three books of poetry: My god is this a man, Stranger, and Practice, Restraint (Fence Books); her fourth collection, Staying Alive, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2016. She edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, a book of her correspondence with the celebrated experimental novelist (powerHouse Books), and has also published five chapbooks of poetry. Her work was included in the anthology, The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, and individual poems have recently appeared in: Black Clock, Colorado Review, Talisman, and Denver Quarterly. Sims has been a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since 2009. She teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SCPS and lives with her family in Brooklyn.
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