Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Notes on David Markson and the facts

The piece on anti-Semitism that I linked to in my last post reminded me that sometime last year I almost set out to write something similar, if less comprehensive, but my attention strayed to other things and I never got around to it (as happens to so many of my great unwritten posts). It was while I was in the midst of reading David Markson's Reader's Block. Something in the book troubled me. Reader's Block is the first in Markson's quartet of books following a similar form: an elderly writer sick unto death of making up stories, characters, plots, etc., but who writes anyway, bits of narrative emerging amidst short paragraphs, no more than a sentence or two usually, recounting facts, usually facts about artists, their lives, deaths, poverty, and so on. . .

In Reader's Block, the narrator seems especially obsessed with the Holocaust, and artists' and writers' ugly attitudes towards Jews over time. In this context we encounter many sentences that assert that x or y writer "was an anti-Semite". For example, from throughout the book:
"D.H. Lawrence was an anti-Semite."
"Saint Augustine was an anti-Semite."
"Erasmus was an anti-Semite."
"Henry Adams was an anti-Semite."
"James Baldwin was an anti-Semite."
"Seneca was an anti-Semite."
"Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite."
The accumulation of such sentences began to bother me. I began to fixate on them, to mouth the words, stare at them till they became nonsensical. What is an anti-Semite, after all? Markson clearly uses it to mean, simply, "hater of Jews" or "prejudiced against Jews", and, of course, this reflects the common use of the term today. But anti-Semitism, I thought while reading, is not mere bigotry or prejudice. Anti-Semitism was a political movement, with a historical context. So, while it makes perfect sense to write "Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite"--Pound specifically subscribed to a politics blaming Jewish "moneylenders" and financiers for the world's ills, and he did so in the midst of a very particular historical moment--it makes less sense to write "Seneca was an anti-Semite" for the very reasons described so well in Gabriel Ash's post at Jews sans frontieres.

I don't have a whole lot else to say at this point (since Ash said the rest of it), but I do recall Ellis Sharp's problem with This Is Not a Novel, the follow-up to Reader's Block. Ellis' post is titled "David Markson slanders Jean Genet". Here's Ellis:
As a body of writing it relies on the authenticity of the biographical materials it recycles. It rests on the assumption that the narrator knows far more than the reader and that the reader will find this new information interesting and entertaining. Everything is factual. Except that it isn't. Most of the material that Markson displays was new to me. I chuckled, I gasped, I thought: how ironic! But then I came up against a reference to an author whose biography I've recently read. And the alarm bells started ringing.
Then he encounters the following sentence: "Jean Genet was a paid informer for the Nazis in World War II." Which Ellis says is "simply not true". Ellis refers to Edmund White's massive biography Genet, which was published well before Markson's book, meaning, Ellis says, "there's not really any excuse for Markson getting it wrong". I appreciate the point Ellis is making in that post, though I think Markson's not really about getting it "right" or "wrong" in these pieces of trivia. At the time, I'd thought Matt Christie's idea that they are more like bits of cocktail party gossip was apt--Markson's novels are hardly reference books. But I think, more than gossip, they are the knowledge and trivia accumulated over a lifetime of reading, the preoccupations of an elderly writer. As they appear in the books, the "factual" statements do not give the air of someone having looked something up (and thus having gotten it right or wrong), but rather of things occurring to the writer as he avoids writing. So, in this context, that some of them are not factually true is beside the point. And yet those "wrong" ones nag, I can't deny it. (And of course the questions of fiction and historical fact, which I raised, for example, in my posts last December concerning Aharon Appelfeld, do not go away. . .)


Matt said...

"preoccupations...occurring as he avoids writing" but avoids it precisely by way of writing, which is something of the condition itself of writing...right?

anyway i'm glad you got my point. and i agree with your description (and share your unease as well) here.

OrangeDrink said...

Factuality not withstanding, I also paused at Markson's Holocaust/anti-semite comments (The simplest of all just "Zyklon B") in a book that gives no evidence of Judaism in either Protagonist or Reader. I'm just not sure I was able to piece it together, is all.

Thanks for the food for thought.