Vanishing Point by David Markson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Well, someday I will get around to the author’s masterpiece, Wittgenstein’s Mistress—as well as to those other books that are listed with wry self-reference in this book: “Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Wittgenstein’s Nephew. Wittgenstein’s Poker. Wittgenstein’s Ladder.” Until then, I have read this, my second of Markson’s late quartet of assemblage-novels; this is the third in the series, and I am so far reading them backwards.
These books belong to what we might call “the fun avant-garde.” Like the works of Borges and Calvino, Anne Carson and César Aira, they imply a whole raft of theoretical verbiage on the slippage of signification, the inadequacy of representation, the fallacies of plot and character, and all the rest of it, but are nevertheless so pleasurable to read—often more pleasurable than conventional fictions—that the implied museum tags spelling out the works’ conceptual premises come to seem irrelevant.
Markson’s late “novels” are collections of facts, generally focusing on the lives of artists, with occasional interpolations by the fictive compiler. They are not mere lists, however. Motifs emerge, patterns form, and a portrait of the arranger coalesces from the tiny marks of each fact-freighted sentence in a kind of informational pointilism. While Markson seems to have worked only with notecards and a typewriter, these fictions nevertheless feel like very Internet-era artworks, recreating the experience of “the stream”—a cascade of disparate but interrelated bits and bytes of narrative and controversy from which it is difficult to turn away, difficult to turn to narratives and arguments in patiently logical sequence, or to more languorous and meditative aesthetic experiences. That Markson did not use computers at all, and even died before “the stream” reached its present force and flow, suggests that “artist’s intuition” deserves to be proverbial.
The social status of artists is Vanishing Point‘s main preoccupation. Again and again, the novel lists the indignities suffered by artists and thinkers (and sometimes also scientists and athletes), badly remunerated and insulted during their lives, often not born to the upper classes but to illiterate workers or impoverished peasants or enslaved people, then celebrated once they are dead by hypocritical institutions:
Dostoievsky wrote The Eternal Husband in Dresden.
And had to borrow the money to mail it to his publisher in St. Petersburg.
Two years earlier, while writing The Idiot:
They demand from me artistic finish, the purity of poetry, and they point to Turgenev and Goncharov. Let them take a look at the conditions under which I work.
Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread.
If this were all, it would be awfully self-serving. And there is another strain in the book, a focus on the Holocaust and slavery and misogyny and the present depredations of political Islam, which perhaps might represent the author’s (whether Markson’s or his fictional surrogate’s) attempt to ally artists with the victims of oppression. Sightings of The Wandering Jew recur throughout the book, suggesting an alliance of the artist with this figure (a hallmark of modernism, as readers of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood will recall).
However, the work is saved from self-celebration by a third vein of facts, representing artists and intellectuals at their notorious worst: Schopenhauer making misogynistic pronouncements and Degas painting misogynistic pictures, Chopin and Dostoevsky spouting anti-Semitic slurs, Chaucer settling a rape case and Milton abusing his daughters, Heidegger and Hamsun praising Hitler, Burroughs living as a phony radical on family money and Marx enjoying bourgeois comforts and hypocrisies without having ever seen the inside of factory; and artist after artist after artist hurling the most base insults at their peers (sickly, ugly, impotent; bum, pig, toad, etc.).
In a way, the novel champions artists by recording every aspect of their frailty and vulnerability, including their moral weaknesses and political misdeeds. So fragile, so miserably human, so in need of more support. But also, this salacious gossip, delivered with these novels’ prevailing deadpan tone of drolly surprised terseness, simply makes Markson all the more entertaining. It is hard to overstate how much more of a page-turner Vanishing Point is than some kind of door-stopping fantasy would be; and it is blessedly short too:
A good book is twice as good if it is short.
Said Baltasar Gracián.
In one respect, Vanishing Point is more traditional than it appears: it really does have a protagonist and a plot. A set of scattered reflections about “Author”—left like breadcrumb clues through the forest of information, presumably by Author himself—reveal that we are reading a collage assembled by an aged writer as he slowly succumbs to some kind of degenerative neurological disease terminating in dementia, the “vanishing point” of the novel’s title. Like Eliot’s or Woolf’s or Beckett’s work, Markson’s is less ideological than are the theorists about the inadequacy of language and representation: these potentially dry and arid post-Niezschean philosophies become occasions for the deepest pathos.
The minimal tools and maximal restrictions of this sort of fiction make its elementary narrative (“I can’t go on. I must go on,” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” not to mention “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”) almost more moving because readers have to discover the story for themselves. And, in tracing the patterns in the information that Author has assembled, we discover his character just as it is about to be lost in the haze of illness and death. What comes through is his resentment at his neglect, but also his amusement at his faults; his anger at violence and exploitation, and his awareness of his complicity in them. It is a final self-portrait of a dying artist, created under great duress. Vanishing Point summons the most advanced technique on behalf of the most old-fashioned heroism.