A Conversation with David Markson By Joseph Tabbi

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1990, Vol. 10.2

JOSEPH TABBI: People find it interesting that you were friendly with several major writers when you were quite young, long before you had written anything yourself.
DAVID MARKSON: Oh, well, that’s mainly Lowry, of course. He’s the one with the exotic aura, all that legendary drinking, living off in the wilderness . . .
JT: You visited him up there in British Columbia. And he stayed with you for a few weeks in New York?
DM: I’ve written a reminiscence about it, yes. It’s tucked into the back of my critical study of “Under the Volcano,” as an appendix. And it’s been reprinted a number of times.
JT: How did the relationship come about?
DM: Correspondence, initially. A friend had given me the novel to read, in my last year of college. At Union, in Schenectady. It quite simply knocked me out of my chair. Within a couple of years, I’d read it probably half a dozen times. And then I finally sent him a letter saying God knows what- be my father, or something as asinine. But evidently it did strike the right chord, since one of the first letters I got back ran on for twenty or more pages.
JT: That’s in Lowry’s “Selected Letters”?
DM: It is, I think. Of course something I didn’t know at the time was that Lowry had written the same sort of letter himself, as an even younger man, to Conrad Aiken. So he was ready to be sympathetic with that “identification” that someone can feel for a given book.
JT: You mention your critical study of “Volcano.” But you did a master’s thesis on it at Columbia much earlier?
DM: While we were in touch, but before I’d actually met him, yes. In 1951.
JT: Which means it was only four years after the novel had been published. Isn’t that rare, an academic paper on an entirely “new” writer with no body of criticism to verify his status?
DM: As a matter of fact I had to wander around the English department knocking on doors looking for someone to approve the project. I remember Lionel Trilling’s dismissal in particular: “What is all this drunkenness all about?” My whole object was to explain just that, obviously, but I decided to find less of a current to buck. Finally William York Tindall gave me a go-ahead.
JT: That brings up a question of a different sort, however. “Volcano” is scarcely your everyday traditional novel. What sort of training or background did you have that let you feel able to confront the challenge of interpreting something that difficult?
DM: To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I had any real idea what I was getting into, or if any of us do, the first time we’re seduced by a book of that sort. Though Joyce certainly teaches us, for starters. By which I mean that we all learn quickly with “Ulysses” that we cannot simply read the novel itself but have to lean on some of the critical crutches.
JT: But you had no crutches at all?
DM: Oh, well, but there are always clues in the text itself—this reference to that which leads to patterns you begin to trace out. On one level I impressed the hell out of myself, surprised at what I did know. And evidently I impressed a few other creatures as well, since I kept hearing that the thesis was being stolen from by students all over the place. The again when I sat down years later to turn that early stuff into a full length book I was almost embarrassed at how little I’d seen after all.
JT: Not long after that original Lowry thesis you were proselytizing fairly extensively for “The Recognitions” too?
DM: I suppose you become addicted to a certain kind of writing. There’s little enough of it extant, God knows. I’m not sure how much actual “proselytizing” I did for Gaddis, however. Except of course for practically button-holing friends on street corners.
JT: But I understand you were very directly responsible for the first reissue of the book, also?
DM: Evidently I was. It’s a funny story, actually. I was living in Mexico, and someone—well, old Aiken, in fact—gave my address to Aaron Asher, who was the editor of Meridian Books at the time. I picked him and his wife Linda up at their hotel and brought them out to where Elaine and I were living—outside Mexico City—for dinner and then spent approximately three solid hours talking nonstop about Gaddis. Finally Aaron threw up his hands in despair, telling me, “Please, please, I promise I’ll read the darned thing as soon as I get home! But now tell us something about where to go and what to see in Mexico, for heaven’s sake!”
JT: And then he did publish it. Did Gaddis himself know about the impetus?
DM: That’s fairly funny too, as it happens. “The Recognitions” came out in 1955. I’d read it twice when it did, and then wrote Gaddis a letter. It’s perhaps the only other letter I’ve written to an author I didn’t know, but it was completely different from the one I wrote to Lowry. In this case I’d just been infuriated by the rotten reviews and simply wanted to tell the man the hell with them all, that there were some few of us out there who did see what he’s accomplished. I didn’t get an answer, though I eventually heard secondhand that Gaddis had been too depressed at the time to send one. Or that he’d ultimately decided it was too late. But then sometime in 1961, not long after the Asher incident, I did hear. Six years after the fact, this was, a long letter beginning with something like, “Dear David Markson, if I can presume to answer yours of June whatever, 1955!” Which went on to say that Asher was in fact about to do a first reprint.
JT: I know you became friendly with him subsequently?
DM: Back here in New York, yes. The period when we saw the most of each other would have been over the next ten or fifteen years.
JT: You knew Jack Kerouac in that period also?
DM: Not really that well. And oddly enough my connection with Kerouac didn’t begin as any sort of “literary” relationship at all, though in fact it’s that sort of thing that can happen only in New York. In actuality he was an old friend of my next-door neighbor, a sound engineer named Jerry Newman with whom he’d done a lot of listening to jazz. Elaine and I were close to Jerry too, and Jack essentially began to wander from apartment to apartment when he was in town—or if Jerry was away he would use our couch.
JT: Considering the dates we’re talking about, I’d guess he wasn’t in the best of shape?
DM: Bad, bad. Extremely depressed, always drunk. And sort of astonishingly isolated. I remember getting a call very late one night from a bartender I happened to know at the White Horse Tavern telling me that there was “someone” over there “who says his name is Jack Kerouac,” and who was totally smashed, but who also claimed he was sleeping at my place and would I come and pick him up? It was Jack, of course. Half a swallow away from complete collapse, and utterly alone. It seemed a damn shame. Though I never got through to him well enough to solve it. And then a few years later he was dead.
JT: You had also known Dylan Thomas?
DM: There again, less than intimately. Though that was by way of Lowry too. Malc’s name came up in what otherwise very possibly would have been just a casual meeting, and it led to other evenings together. God, it’s long ago. I did a piece for the “Village Voice” on the twentieth anniversary of his death—and here we are moving up on the fortieth.
JT: All of which brings me back to my earliest question, however. Through all of that time you yourself had written virtually nothing?
DM: Actually some commercial stuff, after a while. I did a number of short stories, including quite a few Westerns, most often for magazines that nobody has any longer ever heard of, and often under pseudonyms. And then three crime novels, paperback originals.
JT: But you were in your midthirties before you began to publish serious fiction. Why the late start?
DM: You might as well ask why such little output since? I honestly don’t know. My father would have called it sheer barnyard laziness and probably not have been far off the mark. In the beginning there might have been an element of fear in it too, very likely there was. But even now when I do have a moderately acceptable body of work behind me I can still go months, sometimes even years, without writing a solitary word. And of course I’m just baffled, baffled, by those people who seem to publish a new book every nineteen days. There’s a kind of compulsion there, or need, that I simply do not possess to any degree whatsoever.
JT: Then again, there’s always someone like Djuna Barnes as a model?
DM: Thank you, yes. Another writer I dearly loved, by the way—or in “Nightwood,” at any rate—and who went on until ninety with nothing at all approximating mass production. Just incidentally, not counting periods out of the country, I never lived more than half a dozen blocks away from her for something like thirty years, here in the Village, but to my knowledge I never saw the woman.
JT: She does remain an exception, nonetheless?
DM: I repeat: no real answer.
JT: Somewhere in “Going Down” your character Steve Chance does comment about people producing “unnecessary books.”
DM: That’s a possible factor, yes. All of that, oh, sameness, with so many of those book-a-year types. For good or bad my own few things have been rather radically different from each other, even stylistically. Which then again probably helps explain why they’ve sold so little—since it keeps readers from getting a comfortable handle on anything.
JT: I understand you even had difficulty getting some of them published?
DM: Don’t remind me. Even “The Ballad of Dingus Magee,” as innocuous a concoction at that. But it had twenty-two rejections. The explanation generally being that there had never been any such animal as a satirical Western before. On the other hand “Going Down” and “Springer’s Progress” were OK. I think the former was bounced once, and “Springer” went out to four or five places simultaneously, of which two wanted it.
JT: I was really thinking about “Wittgenstein’s Mistress.”
DM: I know you were. I suspect it set a record. For years, the highest number of turndowns I’d ever heard of was thirty-six, on “The Ginger Man.” Then I read in the Deirdre Bair biography that “Murphy” had about forty two. “Ironweed” had a dozen, as I recall, and I once jokingly told Bill Kennedy while “Wittgenstein” was going around that if rejections were any sign of quality, then mine was already twice as good as his. But then I left Donleavy and Beckett in the dust also.
JT: What sort of figure are we finally talking about?
DM: I almost hate to announce it. Fifty-four.
JT: For a novel that well thought of since? Wasn’t one editor in fifty-four capable of seeing “something” in it?
DM: Obviously it wasn’t all black and white. Oh, about a third of them didn’t like it at all, and perhaps another third made it inadvertently evident that they didn’t understand a word. And OK, you can’t fault the totally negative responses—or the vapid ones either, since they pretty much correspond with the percentage of editors you know are C students to begin with. But it’s the other third that really cause grief. I mean when the letters practically sound like Nobel Prize citations—”brilliant,” “twenty years ahead of its time,” “we’re honored that you thought of us” . . .
JT: And?
DM: The predictable kicker, of course. It won’t sell. Or worse, we couldn’t get it past the salespeople. Actually acknowledging that those semiliterates don’t simply participate in the editorial process, but dictate its decisions. God almighty.
JT: How long did it take?
DM: Something like four and a half years. It would have taken infinitely longer than that if the book hadn’t frequently been submitted to several places at once.
JT: How did you maintain your sanity under such circumstances? Particularly when you yourself have to know what you’ve written?
DM: Sometimes you get to be damned near borderline, believe me. One reaction that helped “immensely” was Ann Beattie’s. She’d been the first person I’d shown the manuscript to, in fact, mainly because I knew that if I’d fallen on my face anywhere she’d be tough-minded enough to tell me so without hedging. Instead she dialed me the next morning with what may be the most unforgettable telephone call I’ve ever received. Well, you’ve seen the blurb she wrote later on.
JT: “As dazzling as Joyce” and “an absolute masterpiece,” yes.
DM: Gordon Lish buoyed me up also. He’d wanted to take it at Knopf, and couldn’t get it through , but he cared enough to ask for it back and try again at least twice more. Plus I can hardly leave out Elaine. Love hath no greater agent than she who will submit a manuscript fifty-four times for an ex-husband.
JT: What I’d like to do next is go to the novels themselves. Perhaps the origins of each, if you remember?
DM: Actually “Dingus Magee” was meant to be a straight commercial genre novel, at least before I sat down at the typewriter. I’ve mentioned having written Westerns for magazines. “Going Down” was already in the drawer -a rough draft from start to finish, and incidentally twice as long as the final version would turn out to be—but I wasn’t getting anywhere with it and thought I might at least pick up some rent money. But then I no more than took the cover off the machine when I knew I was in trouble. What happened was that I discovered I was bored by the whole idea—and so I was turning the entire myth upside down. Everybody a coward or an incompetent, all the women unappetizing, that sort of thing. Not to mention that I found myself writing in a playful variation on Faulknerian prose, too, as if to see if you could use that same complex syntax in dealing with patent absurdity.
JT: So much for genre fiction, in other words?
DM: Indeed. But I don’t think I ever had more unadulterated fun with a book, to tell the truth. “Springer’s Progress” is an extremely witty novel in its own way, but there it’s a sort of line-at-a-time wit that I could only get to through excessively heavy revision. With “Dingus” my mind kept racing ahead of my typewriter, as it were, inventing these unholy hilarious situations that I never knew were going to be in the story at all. And I actually wrote the book in only a few months—when normally it takes me that long to leave a note for the mailman.
JT: Can you say more about that business of “Going Down” having been set aside?
DM: “Dingus” came out in 1966, though for some reason it’s copyrighted the year before, and “Going Down” was 1970. But an earliest sketch for it, a couple of scenes about a girl alone in New York, had been written back in, oh, I’d guess 1957. Then in Mexico I submitted that to a writer’s center that gave fellowships to both Mexicans and Americans, and I got a grant for a year’s work. That’s when I did that first full version of something more than seven hundred pages, from the summer of 1960 to the summer of 1961. Then it was diddled with on and off—mostly off—over the next decade, in New York and for a while in London, where we lived in 1967 on some of the money from that awful film of “Dingus Magee.” Then I did the final draft back here in about a year in 1968 and 1969.
JT: Were those earliest sketchy scenes about a girl the origins of the character you call Fern?
DM: They were. They became the New York flashbacks in which she meets my man Steve. But by the time I started that larger version I felt I already had a pretty good grip on Mexico—I’d lived there for two full years before getting that grant—and so I set the rest of it down there.
JT: Particularly with people knowing about your relationship, have you ever been accused of borrowing from Lowry in that regard?
DM: Oh, perhaps in a superficial review or two, I’ve forgotten. But to a good extent they are two “substantively” different Mexicos, in all truth. Malc’s is charged with all that “dark, brooding history,” all that sort of thing, whereas I think mine is more plugged into ordinary reality. At least some of the time in “Going Down” a latrine can be a place to take a leak and not necessarily contemplate eternity. In fact when I think back I’m not quite sure where I found the guts to write those several chapters from the point of view of unlettered Mexican peasants—and yet I’m mostly convinced I brought them off. The finest compliment I ever received on the book, possibly, came from a Mexican friend, a woman, who was almost angry to discover I’d paid that much attention to things when all I’d appeared to be doing for three years was drinking too much.
JT: What about the presentation of Steve? All that remoteness, the acute intellectuality—is there even a touch of the Gothic, perhaps?
DM: It’s difficult to remember. I could have had too much Dostoyevsky in the back of my mind, maybe. He’s changed his name to Steve Chance from Steve Chazen, and I almost suspect I once toyed with the notion of making it originally Steve Rogin.
JT: Should I wince? Stavrogin, from “The Possessed”?
DM: Believe me, I winced quickly enough myself to discard the notion. Though in fact once when somebody asked me what the novel was about—I mean while it was still being written—I did tell him unseriously that it was a modernized version of what Dostoyevsky left out, that big hole you can’t help but notice in the book’s background when Stavrogin has been offstage. Unseriously, I reiterate. Though I’d be hard pressed to say where a lot of the rest of that abstraction and murkiness really did come from in Steve. A little seepage from “Hamlet,” possibly. I think it’s alluded to fairly often.
JT: In terms of overall style, was there possible still some Faulkner you’d not shed?
DM: Possibly, in some chunks of the external narration. Probably, in fact. And possibly/probably some Joyce and Lowry in the interior stuff—or maybe Faulkner again from the Quentin section of “The Sound and the Fury.” And maybe some touches of Gaddis in the dialogue. I’ve forgotten where I said this, but I believe I’m quoted someplace as indicating that I’d rather write prose that does something, and be accused of my origins, than be accused of nothing because my prose does nothing either. Obviously you hope to hell you’re assimilating, making your own blend. I know I got infinitely farther away from those people in my next two books, yet I know too to what extent some of them were still the wellspring for every sentence. Can one think of a more remarkable personal blend than Faulkner’s? And yet there was a time when I would have been willing to bet on which Conrad novels he had been reading when he did a certain few of his own. And I’ve just named one more of his that couldn’t have been written at all, if “Ulysses” hadn’t appeared a half a dozen years earlier.
JT: Tell me about “Springer’s Progress,” the origins there.
DM: That one I can pin down exactly. Someone died. An old girlfriend, the one I called Maggie Oldring in the book. It had been years, years, since we’d gone together, and I’d had no idea how important she still was in my life. Or rather how important the memories were—some of the best of my youth, all those dreams—and in New York, no less. Evidently I didn’t even quite realize it when she did die, until I became aware that even weeks afterward people were telling me I looked like I’d just seen someone hit by a truck. So then I sat down and got to work. She’s a minor figure in the novel, really, and the book is nothing if not craft—it’s all language—and yet the heart of it for me, at least initially, was that loss, that sadness. Go figure.
JT: Since you’re admitting to a certain autobiographical element in it, would it be of any value to a reader to know who the original characters might have been?
DM: None at all. Anyhow the very nature of the way I work makes the concept of autobiography pretty much meaningless. Even if you do happen to be thinking in such terms, you’re already inventing for the sake of structure, for elementary “story,” in your earliest draft. And then in that particular book every single one of those short chapters was revised endlessly, some as many as thirty times, none surely less than eighteen or twenty. So what sort of “real people” could be left at that point anyhow?
JT: There is Springer himself. Aren’t his work habits quite similar to your own?
DM: If you mean insofar as he generally doesn’t work, as I’ve already acknowledged, unfortunately yes.
JT: I meant when he does. Once he starts his own novel, people are repeatedly impressed at how quickly he’s writing but he keeps insisting it’s somehow almost illiterate.
DM: That’s a fact too, yes. Almost always, I very literally bang things out as fast as I can type—with no thought whatsoever for anything except the substance itself. No one ever believes me, but most of it honestly reads as if I’ve just gotten off the boat.
JT: The purpose being?
DM: Somehow I feel that I always have to “get it down,” from beginning to end. So that I can see the architecture—so that I can see if it is a book. Then I’ll revise word by word for as long as it takes.
JT: Aren’t there novelists who revise as they go?
DM: Many, I’m sure. Though it obviously implies a far greater sense of up front control than I’ve ever felt. What happens if you make an unforeseen turning along the way and have to discard a fat folder full of pages? God knows, I’d much rather do that with work I hadn’t agonized over.
JT: Should we go on to “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” the origin of that?
DM: It’s more complicated than the others, as it happens. And by the way it is a rare instance when I did revise too soon, roughly 125 pages, that I subsequently had to dump. But it began as a short story first. Something I’d not realized until recently, but it was very like the beginning of “Going Down.” A woman essentially alone. Obviously it’s a theme that has a grip on me, Fern all those years ago and the woman I called Kate here. In a story named “Healthy Kate,” though the title was of course ironic. She was middle-aged, a good artist but pained by a lack of recognition, by the memory of a long-dead child, also caught up in your classic relationship with a married man that was obviously headed nowhere. The story works fine, but it left me with a sense that there was more to do with it. Finally I began pushing that central concept, the idea of aloneness, and I contrived as extreme a metaphor for it as possible—quite literally turning her into the only person on earth.
JT: Which became “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”?
DM: Except not quite. This will sound ridiculous and science-fictiony in a summary, I’m sure, but first I started a novel in which the woman actually did wake up to find herself in that situation. Alone, the whole world emptied. I won’t go into detail about how I handled it—suffice it that I thought it functioned—but what followed was a straight first-person narration of the next eight or ten months of her life, all the panic, the natural disbelief, the terror over who else might still be out there if anyone else was, the gradual adjustment to it all. Insofar as she could adjust. And of course with endless questioning of reality too. And/or of madness. So that when I carried her through to her first utterly isolated, snowed-in winter she very nearly did go nuts. Positive she was seeing Modigliani strolling through the snowdrifts in Bermuda shorts, finding Brahms playing the piano in a restaurant, that sort of thing. But then one fine day, lo and behold, spring. The point being, up to that juncture, that she had in fact gotten through. End of Part One. Then I was going to jump ahead to ten years later. My same woman, but with most of those fears gone now, simply living with the situation, handling it, psychologically feeding off whatever she was capable of to sustain the balance. But to get back to that subject of wasted effort for a minute, this time once I’d roughed out that early section for some reason instead of immediately starting the second half I did stop to revise. For something like eight months, those 125 pages or so that I mentioned. Up to but not including that last hallucinatory chapter. Then I happened to leave New York, to go out to East Hampton for the summer and when I got there I decided to use the change of air to get into the second half after all. And then knew, knew, within no more than two or three days, that that was the book. The whole of it. Suddenly, there it was, that open-ended, the woman “claiming” she was alone but with nothing in the text to verify it, and all so improbable to the reader—opening things up for all sorts of infinitely more subtle questions of reality than I would have been able to deal with the other way. On one level I was scared shitless, wondering how you could get away with anything that ambiguous—but I just “loved” it. And meanwhile of course any number of incidents that the woman refers to as having happened early in the past decade—such as, oh, setting up all her own paintings on display in the Metropolitan Museum, or learning how to switch from one abandoned car to another when she came to obstructions in the street—all of that had really occurred in the section I was discarding, but of course now seeming like only so much more inventive unreality on her part. Plus I had a head full of people like Wittgenstein and Heidegger at the time, whom I could now make use of in regard to all sorts of added meanings—in the very way she questioned herself. Talk about the proverbial light bulb going on over your head. Except that I also felt pretty damned witless at the same time, for having taken so long to get there. Or who knows, maybe every minute of that earlier work had been necessary.
JT: What did you do with the discarded sections?
DM: The short story was in print, that stands by itself. The rest is on a high shelf somewhere, but I suspect I’ll destroy it.
JT: Wouldn’t it perhaps have some scholarly interest?
DM: Possibly. If the novel itself has any sustained life. But what I’m afraid of is that some harebrained future critic might tack the two of them together—it’s the sort of inanity that critics are capable of—and of course the book as published is the book. The other chunk has nothing to do with it whatsoever.
JT: Tell me about the title.
DM: Originally I was calling it “Wittgenstein’s Niece.” Never knowing, of course, that Thomas Bernhard would eventually publish something called “Wittgenstein’s Nephew.” But even before I submitted it I knew I’d have enough trouble finding a publisher as was—hardly the amount I did have, but some—and so not wanting to compound the difficulty I changed it to “Keeper of the Ghosts.” Which is something I swiped from Lowry, by the way, from a character named Ghostkeeper. But once the manuscript wound up in the hands of a small press that wasn’t going to be worried about recognition value in Downers Grove, Illinois, or among the knuckleheads at a sales conference, I went back to Wittgenstein. “Mistress” had been on the same scratch sheet with “Niece,” and I decided I liked it better by then.
JT: And meaning basically that your heroine is mistress to Wittgenstein’s thought?
DM: Well, along with several other people’s yes. But as I started to say a few minutes ago, the Wittgenstein is frequently most obvious in the very way she questions so many of her own “propositions,” as it were.
JT: Do you want to give me an illustration?
DM: Oh, Kate walking through the woods, let’s say, and seeing some smoke from her stove, and telling herself, “There is my house”—but then of course immediately realizing it’s hardly her house, but “just” smoke. That couldn’t sound more banal as an isolated instance, but it all grows infinitely more sophisticated as things unfold.
JT: Just incidentally, how do you react to reading Wittgenstein himself- particularly the style, if only as compared to your own?
DM: It can be an ordeal. As if he stutters when he writes. And of course my own style—the “voice” I fell into for Kate—is undeniably more supple. And yet the novel is at least superficially similar to the “Tractatus” by way of all those short paragraphs too and with the frequent sequences of variants that go through Kate’s mind on a single idea. So that if I’d wanted to be silly I could have borrowed Wittgenstein’s textual numbering system, even.
JT: Speaking of those paragraphs, “Wittgenstein” has been called a “minimalist” fiction. And yet it’s so heavily laden with what Kate herself refers to as “intellectual baggage.” How do you reconcile the minimalism with all of that essentially classical weight?
DM: I don’t reconcile it. Basically because I don’t think of the book as minimalist. That same “voice” I just mentioned is minimal only because Kate’s very life situation is stripped to its barest essentials—carrying in water, dismantling the house next door for firewood. All that stuff in her head is something else again, but I certainly couldn’t see dealing with it in Jamesian prose.
JT: Still, the book does remain open to a good deal of postmodern interpretation. How much contemporary theory did you know when you were writing it?
DM: I dismiss a good percentage of what I do know, I think, too often as old wine in new bottles. On the other hand that house I just said Kate was “dismantling”—she uses the same word in the novel—which I felt was probably a “little” more subtle than “deconstructing.” And as I remember, she at least toys with some Levi-Strauss and some Barthes now and again—and with an unidentified “Jacques” in one of the same contexts. In other words I won’t argue too vehemently with what might be picked up on.
JT: But people like Barthes and Derrida weren’t in any way influences?
DM: I really feel not. Things do run parallel in cultural flow. So that it’s quite possible to become a minimalist or a postmodernist or what you will by way of Wittgenstein just as readily as by way of those who use the labels.
JT: By way of Beckett also?
DM: That’s interesting, because practically every review of “Wittgenstein” mentioned him. And yet it’s really a sort of quick surface reference response. What I’ve written is a monologue, yes, but even forgetting that it’s a woman who’s talking, does the comparison go any farther? Those short paragraphs we’ve mentioned—open any better Beckett book, certainly that central trilogy, and you’re confronted with solid blocks of type making just an opposite point from mine, so much compulsion that there’s no time for questioning any of it. But then too there’s all that intellectual baggage again, hundred and hundreds of references, from music to art to Greek myth to philosophy. Or even to Casey Stengel. Is there any of that in Beckett? The isolation there is in some ways almost outside of “culture,” whereas my own woman bears the full burden of it. Writing the last volume of history the way Herodotus wrote the first, I let her say. I admire the hell out of Beckett, but I doubt I gave him three stray thoughts in doing that novel.
JT: What about other influences? Or even other writers you simply admire?
DM: You know, I should interrupt to say that with one exception I don’t really read the people we’ve already mentioned any longer. Even Lowry, not since I finished that study of “Volcano” back in the 1970s. In fact I was asked to an international conference on him in Vancouver not long ago, and I half expected not to understand anything anybody was talking about.
JT: The one you still do read?
DM: Oh, well, Joyce. In his case I don’t think six months pass that I don’t go back to either “Ulysses” or at least to some recent book about him. Or more truthfully it sometimes seems that I take something or other off the shelf for a minute or two practically every other day. There are times when I feel I “breathe” the man.
JT: I had asked about the other writers, even if they weren’t influences? Or individual books?
DM: “Moby Dick” and “Wuthering Heights” are high on the list. “The Stranger,” the early Celine, “The Sot-Weed Factor.” We mentioned “Nightwood.” And “The Ginger Man.” Well, and some Beckett, as I said. And don’t let me forget Raymond Chandler. Oh, and while it’s not fiction, I know the universe was a better place when you could pick up Red Smith five mornings a week. Did I leave out Hermann Hesse?
JT: You don’t mention any younger people? Or too many nearer contemporaries, for that matter?
DM: That’s because of something I never in this life expected to hear myself saying, but I honestly don’t read much fiction of any sort, these days.
JT: Any explanation?
DM: Too many disappointments, maybe. Though most often I’m up to my neck in other sorts of books altogether. Some while back I must have spent, oh, two full years reading and rereading all the Greek and Latin stuff, not just the authors themselves but any number of commentaries, cultural histories, and so on. Then I spent some years doing the same thing with philosophy. Which doesn’t leave too much time for Jay McInerney. I also seem to take in heavy doses of criticism and critical biography.
JT: Has there been time for Pynchon?
DM: I’ve got an odd bias against him. Possibly in good part because of Dick Poirier calling “V.” the most masterful first novel in the history of literature, or something as silly. Not only ignoring that the book practically couldn’t have been written at all if Pynchon hadn’t devoured “The Recognitions,” but then forgetting that “The Recognitions” happened to be a first novel itself. Which as I say probably colored my response to “Gravity’s Rainbow” too. It’s major, but I think somewhat cartoonish.
JT: Nonetheless, I would have thought that at least the intellectual content would have attracted you?
DM: It’s intellectual content from another galaxy. I’ve always believed that it’s a serious reader’s responsibility to pick up on virtually any valid literary allusion—even though a shrewd novelist tries to bury such things too, of course, so that the context makes sense even if the resonances are missed. But in either case you shouldn’t need a doctorate in Max Planck to solve things. The choice is Pynchon’s privilege, surely. But I think it’s a mistake.
JT: How about the critics you say you read? Or used to?
DM: Kenneth Burke would probably be number one when I look back. In fact when I said something just now about old wine in new bottles, I suspect that half the time the old wine is Burke’s. It’s astonishing how often he was there first, whatever the new jargon the Yale Mafia utilized. Though I think I read just about everything William Empson ever wrote also, and “Seven Types of Ambiguity” was a really seminal lesson in how to read when I was first waking up to language. Meaning, ultimately, a lesson in how to write—the responsibility to think through the dozen different possibilities of meaning in every phrase. On a different level I used to practically bow down before Gilbert Murray too; the creative scholarship in a book like “The Rise of the Greek Epic” can still make my head spin. Stanley Edgar Hyman’s “The Armed Vision” was another education. More recently, I appreciated George Steiner for years, though in the last few books he’s gotten sort of clotted—as if he’s translating himself from nineteenth-century German. I’ve probably also read at least ten Hugh Kenners, who’s got the sense to make you grin even when he’s sometimes being infuriating. Though of course the way he whitewashes Pound is inexcusable.
JT: Trilling, whom you mentioned a while ago?
DM: “Extremely” overrated. Who am I to say?—but I honestly cannot figure out how anyone that narrow could have achieved that sort of reputation. In fact I sat in on some of his classes, and God forbid something came up that was a little out of his ken—he was so inadequate it could be embarrassing.
JT: Now you’re staring into space?
DM: It’s not a criticism, or not strictly, but I’m addicted to the Goncourt “Journals.” And I should bring up some of the Shakespeare people, certainly Bradley, G. Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson. Schoenbaum, maybe. And can I also toss in Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”?
JT: We haven’t spoken of any poets. Are there any to whom you’d give the same importance as some of the novelists you were listing?
DM: Outside of Shakespeare again, I’m pretty positive there’s more buried Eliot in “Going Down” and “Springer’s Progress” than anyone else by far. I find him inescapable, in fact. Though it dawns on me that in a lot of these answers I’m showing my age.
JT: Speaking of that, you mentioned William Kennedy earlier. And Union College, in Schenectady. Though you’re from Albany originally yourself and roughly Kennedy’s age.
DM: Almost exactly. But we never knew each other as kids at all. Though we’ve been friendly for twenty years or so, now.
JT: I was thinking about the way you’ve never written a word about that sort of background—whereas Kennedy can’t get away from it.
DM: Even with what have to be shared experiences, yes. Maybe it’s a question of external influences versus internal, my inclination toward all that subjective intellectuality.
JT: This is hardly a matter of shared experiences in that same sense, but I’m reminded that Barthes says someplace that a text is a “fabric of quotations” that stem from virtually any number of cultural sources. Meaning of course that nothing is original with the author. How well might this describe a good deal of “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” where the narrator keeps evoking cultural sources almost in spite of herself?
DM: You’ll have me under that influence yet. Actually you could very well read Kate as illustrating that, sure. A friend of mine once referred to her as “an intellectual bag lady,” which delights me. But the crucial point remains that what’s in that bag is what I chose to put there. Which incidentally almost means that you could call this one an autobiographical novel of a certain sort, too.
JT: Is that perhaps the first time a male author has ever referred to a novel written from a woman’s point of view as autobiographical?
DM: Again, it’s all hyperbole. I merely meant that what Kate knows is what I know. In fact, I could very easily rewrite the whole novel with a different set of intellectual references entirely. But I suppose to certain people reading this I’ll sound like Samuel Johnson kicking the rock, probably.
JT: How much of a challenge was it, by the way, to do all of that from a woman’s perspective? You’ve been complimented for bringing if off?
DM: Truthfully I felt pretty confident I could. In part because I’ve always believed that the scenes in Fern’s consciousness in “Going Down” were as convincing as anything I’ve ever written.
JT: But at the same time you have three separate female characters in “Springer’s Progress” who are all seen from that other, external angle, and all three of them are autonomous, fully drawn creations too.
DM: Thank you. Possibly it’s simply because I “like” women. In fact wouldn’t that be a lovely statement with which to end this?

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