Reader’s Block by David Markson (1996)
Old favourites: Rob Doyle’s year of re-reading
There are significant novelists whose work is propelled by a confidence in the novel form’s inexhaustibility, the belief that it can do anything. Then there are those whose achievement emerges from a struggle against a sense of depletion or weariness, of no longer being enlivened by the conventional strategies of prose fiction. Such novelists sometimes produce their most vital work right at the point when they’re ready to give up on the novel entirely.
David Markson was almost 70 when Reader’s Block, the first in his extraordinary series of late novels, was published. In these books, Markson succeeded at that most attractive ambition held by those seeking new pathways for the novel: he removed almost all the traditional furniture of setting, plot and character development, and delivered a captivating read nonetheless.
The protagonist of Reader’s Block is “Reader” (in This Is Not a Novel it will be “Writer”; in Vanishing Point, “Author”, and in The Last Novel, “Novelist”). Reader is alone, melancholy and old. His mind is cluttered with desultory impressions from a lifetime among books. And here comes Markson’s stroke of genius: the flesh of his late novels is composed of bitesize anecdotes and quotations from the lives and works of writers and artists, and these, through repetition and patterning, cohere into themes – and a sort of narrative.
Fragments such as “Robert Walser spent his last twenty-seven years in a mental institution” are entwined with Reader’s ruminations on the barrenness of his winter years and the transience of all things. The literary flotsam and jetsam mirrors his late-life concerns: decay, regret, solitude, the meaning of a life devoted to literature. Like other Markson protagonists, he dwells on suicide, madness, alcoholism and despair – art’s immemorial companions, Markson will have us remember. And death too – death is all over these books.
David Markson’s four anti-novels are as addictive as smack – and they’re all quite alike, as Markson admitted. But then, he noted, no one ever hassled Monet for painting so many water lilies in his mature years, now did they?