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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Shapely Religion: On Maso and Markson

Is there a common concern in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Carole Maso’s AVA that goes beyond the superficial? Each is a long series of short fragments, only occasionally more than one sentence long. The relationship of each fragment to those surrounding it is constantly made ambiguous, leaning sometimes towards clearly ironic disjunction, other times towards hesitant continuity, such that, while reading, you are continually kept on your toes.  There is a downside of having to stay on ones toes all the time, though: the format swings between addictively compelling and unendurably frustrating. Markson starts with a curiousity-sparking mystery written in a language that dissects itself one razor-thin layer at a time, and Maso’s sentences are hypnotically pleasing to read as the images and phrases snowball into scenes and characters, but by the end of both books, I had been ready for them to be over for at least a few dozen pages.  Even so, I found them both interesting and, well… thought-provoking, as you may see if you continue reading.  That’s the short version.

The long version is that putting the books next to each other makes for a curious conversation (which I am not the first to notice).  Markson’s book was the first book I read after leaving England, and there is probably no better book to read to cleanse the palate of graduate school.  It is good to be reminded that “shapes do not have religion” (p. 117) after you’ve spent a year debating aesthetics.

Yet how can we reconcile, on the one hand, the fact that shapes (and letters) indeed have no religion and, on the other, our unending obsession with what we suspect they testify to?  I will always be confounded about why I turned to books and words and, specifically, writing, why they became the thing I am most interested in.  And that will always be, I think, what I am trying to figure out through reading, and writing, more so than the question of “How does one make a character believable or a plot gripping?”  I could of course trace various semi-causes, possible reasons: circumstances during youth that demanded much time be spent alone or waiting, time well spent reading; my best high school teachers having been in literature, language, and theatre; the religious reverence with which I was raised for The Book irrationally metastasizing to all books when that particular one became just a book (I still only mark in pencil, even in books I know I will never resell!).  But whatever the reasons, it became the brute fact of ink or graphite on paper, of marks connected and arranged in a particular manner and the desire to arrange them so, which fascinates me  (of course, I started with poetry).

As such, the tradition to which I have found myself drawn is the one that investigates exactly why someone could be so entranced by something like art and language.  Why is it that some of us spend so much time parsing sentences and discussing shapes, in the hope that it may lead us further on to the more important questions?  It is a tradition that reminds the reader of the inherited mythology of the book and language and art, a mythology which is too easily forgotten to be a mythology.  It is a tradition which, in a way, reduces writing (not unlike, maybe, the transition from The Book to a book) to the mere fact of its arbitrariness, the unreality of its implicit claims, a tradition which shows up as mythology the mythology that, for instance, Proust elucidated by example and Beckett obliterated by example.  But also, per these instances, in doing so, they demonstrate its brute power and immeasurable influence: that it is a mythology which can very nearly eradicate its appearance as mythical is indisputably yet ironically worthy of being made myth.

And this is perhaps why I find Markson’s book to be slightly more successful than Maso’s.  Markson’s narrator is struggling to reconcile herself, through others’ art, to her circumstance.  It is an intense interrogation of what art is and is not capable of doing, and how we can even begin to talk about art’s capabilities without deluding ourselves about what they actually are.

Now the painting does appear to be of this house.

As a matter of fact there also appears to be somebody at the very window, upstairs, from which I watch the sunset.

I had not noticed her at all, before this.

If it is a she.  The brushwork is fairly abstract, at that point, so that there is little more than a hint of anybody, really.

Still, it is interesting to speculate suddenly about just who might be lurking at my bedroom window while I am typing down here right below.

Well, and on the wall just above and to the side of me, at the same time.

All of this being merely in a manner of speaking, of course.

Although I have also just closed my eyes, and so could additionally say that for the moment the person was not only both upstairs and on the wall, but in my head as well. (p. 40)

One can scarcely speculate about a person when there is no person to speculate about. (p. 55)

Throughout Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the narrator continues referring to this ‘abstract brushwork’ as a she.  She posits for a brief time a few other things it could possibly represent, but a woman like her, watching the sunset, is what she continually returns to supposing it does represent, even as she obsessively reminds herself that paint is paint, not a person, and that, more than ‘ought not,’ one is incapable of speculating about the activity and identity of paint.

What I saw was that painting by Jan Vermeer of a young woman asleep at a table in the Metropolitan Museum.

There I go again.

Obviously the young woman is [not] asleep at a table in the Metropolitan Museum…

The young woman is asleep in a painting in the Metropolitan Museum.

There is something wrong with that sentence too, of course.

There being no young woman either, but only a representation of one. (p.116)

Unquestionably, where the young woman is asleep is in Delft, which is in Holland, and which is where Jan Vermeer painted.

Nonetheless, what has now struck me is that there is undeniably a way in which the young woman is likewise asleep in the Metropolitan Museum after all.  (p. 120)

The narrator, apparently the last living human, repeatedly finds herself enticed into imagining a world that is not so lonely as hers— if there is, somehow, a woman asleep in the Met, there may be someone out there to see her scrawled message that “Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum”— and to guard against the delusion that such imagining can bring about change, she repeatedly reminds herself of what it is that art cannot actually do.  The clandestine messages evolve into something greater, though, and she begins to consider writing a novel whose futility (why write if there is no one who will read?), like her messages, becomes its motivation.  But she is nevertheless hopeful that it would have been more than useless to write, that it would have made sense:

Would it have made any sense whatsoever if I had said that the woman in my novel would have one day actually gotten more accustomed to a world without any people in it than she ever could have gotten to a world without such a thing as The Descent from the Cross, by Rogier van der Weyden, by the way?

Or without the Iliad? Or Antonio Vivaldi?

I was just asking, really.

As a matter of fact it was at least seven or eight weeks ago, when I asked that.(p. 232-33)

This is a kind of reflexive guide to reading the novel itself, which takes the form of the unedited and continuous journal of a woman who by her own admission has suffered periods of madness (an elusive and anti-Romantic madness that I might call the madness of creation, the narrator having once been a painter).  Like the abstract brushwork which she takes to be a woman, we can only read the lines, not their history or provenance or intent, nor even their temporality.  What appears to be a continuous scroll of thoughts, one per paragraph, is in fact divided into invisible days, is divided exactly and invisibly into an immeasurable time.  In the section I last quoted, we first read ‘just’ as ‘only.’  But the next sentence tells us as a matter of fact that what precedes it was written some time ago, emphasizing the temporal meaning of ‘just’ even as it disallows it.

It is AVA’s problematic relationship to time that I think reveals the denial operating at the center of the book, and while I cannot state with certainty that this denial is not exactly what Maso is implicitly critiquing (that the action occur over one day was, after all, one of the unities), it certainly does not feel that way to me.  Markson’s narrator is constantly reminding herself she is being duped, by language, by memory, by art, and nevertheless continuing.  Ava, thoroughly convinced that language is masculine and violently divisive, seeks (to find or found) a language that heals instead of separates.

There are two formal aspects which generate the most interest in AVA. First, the discreet relationship of each thought-sentence with those surrounding it, like Markson’s; second, and more prominent, the reader’s disorientation due to the achronological presentation of the title character’s life.  The language that Ava seeks, though, is defeated by the same static-ness of which Markson’s narrator keeps reminding herself— there is no woman in the Met, or on the page.  It is the activity of language, of reading and writing, of its use which allows for a potential healing even as it divides.  That the nature of a “healing language” is paradoxical is something Ava is aware of, and yet she continues to hope that a language which is healing may one day be had.  Such denial is not something from which Markson’s narrator suffers, and language’s shortcoming reveals its importance through the narration’s relationship to time.  The aforementioned “just,” which affirms its meaning of ‘only’ while it gestures towards the factually impossible meaning of ‘moments ago,’ reveals that life lived is more than can be accounted for within language.  Though language and art are perhaps intrinsic to recognizing ourselves as human (after all, the character in the narrator’s novel gets more accustomed to a world without other humans than a world without representations of humanity), it is not all there is to life and living.  Non-creative language, the language of facts and deductions, is the only resort that Markson’s narrator takes to make herself her own company— and yet it leads her to the desire to write a novel, to use language, a use that proves itself ‘use’-less and shockingly insulting in its confession of a preference for art over humans.  (I think of Barthes, always preparing to write that novel.)

Maso, on the other hand, resorts to what struck me as an arbitrary measure taken to anneal the novel’s lack of time by inserting the section headings “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Night,” headings which are supposed to serve, we assume, as a synecdoche for a lived life, “Birth,” “Life,” and “Death.”  Yet the chronological localization of Ava herself is not what is happening with these headings, whose proximity to the presumed death which follows “Night” has no discernible effect on the form or content of each section.  These headers are instead a localization of the reader.  They replace, surreptitiously, something which the narrative itself attempts to do away with.  The almost arbitrary relationships of each thought-sentence with those that surround it aim at a cumulative, instead of a progressive effect, yet the progressive nature of experienced time is necessary to language. And progression implies division, however mutable the dividing lines may be.

The summary on the back of the book makes a claim, verified by Maso’s comment before the citations that end the book, that this is Ava’s last day of life.  Such a claim, though, requires extra-textual knowledge of  time’s stopping with the last page of the book, knowledge provided at best implicitly by the headings and their temporal localization of the reader, yet assumed to be a given in everything written about the book that I’ve encountered.  For Ava, and anybody, it is impossible to know “This is my last day alive.”  The achronological presentation of a lived life ultimately must reach outside of its own parameters, to the reader (or the author), for verification and for the meaning it attains through the importance of its chronological placement as “last.”  The reader must be situated, and that act of situating must itself be progressive, moving forward through time.  That such situation must occur outside of not only the narrative, via headings, but outside of the text itself, seems to reveal the problem at the heart of the book.  Though we may achronologically roam our own memories, jumping swiftly from association to association, our experience is firmly situated in a moment that moves progressively forward, a moment which the achronological structure of AVA attempts to deprive us of.  Externalizing that moment-ness, separating such chronological situating from Ava by making the effect of progressive familiarity occur in the reader, while Ava is already familiar with all that the reader experiences in reading, undercuts the very desire for a language that heals, by denying the temporal, that is, the active aspect of language.  “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Night” become unwitting capitulations to the very divisions which Ava futilely hopes to push language beyond.

Of course, one could maybe say that this is exactly Maso’s point, the brutality with which such capitulations are enforced.  But in the search for “healing,” for cohesion or unity, the necessary caveats made to the activity of reading (by indicating, from outside the narrative, the position in time which a narrator would be aware of without indication— a time which Markson makes us so suddenly aware of) demonstrate how the book’s own requirements for unity (namely that it be brought into effect by language) make meeting those requirements ultimately impossible.  One cannot ignore time, nor can it be retroactively added, if what one seeks is something that exactly does not need to be added to.  The “feminine language” which heals relies on a divisive opposition to the “masculine language” which divides. (Symptomatic of such a denial is Ava/Maso’s reading of Beckett’s Company as a meta-lullaby that a restless humanity missing its Daddy-God sings to itself, an interpretation which Beckett unfortunately only rendered moot for one of his works.  God is merely a myth with which Becket engages in his engagement with myth-making; it is not The Myth, and is, as myth, no more or less important than the belief that your companion loves you or that a vocabulary and syntax will heal you.)

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is, finally, a book that tries to carry language forward by accepting that language cannot carry itself or us forward.  AVA seems to hold out hope that language can come from outside and heal us of our separateness from it, that we may swallow art like a pill to cure our disease of the blood.  If I fault the book, it is because its content and form preemptively deny the unity which it purports to seek.  But that is not to say you should skip it.  A strident failure is more interesting than a tepid success, and I am curious about Maso’s other work. I find it interesting that in the essay I linked to in the second paragraph, R. M. Berry appears to concur that Markson’s book is more successful, and yet to a certain extent less enticing than Maso’s. Hers is certainly a more sensuously pleasing prose than Markson’s cold dissections.  But Markson feels to me to be saying something important about representation, and how we so easily let it seduce us and shape our actions; AVA is… a pleasing if intense read, which is less than I had been led to believe it had to offer.

—————————————————————

Well, so much for less…  César Aira’s Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter should be up next, unless I get sidetracked by the Roubaud, which I honestly have to fight to keep from writing about. Being so concerned with time, rhythm, memory, language, and literature, it very nearly stole this post in several places.

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Filed under: Markson, Maso

5 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    Very interesting. Having not yet read AVA, I had been bothered by the “back of the book” material telling us that it is Ava’s last day, as I am generally bothered when we are things that cannot necessarily be gleaned from the book itself.

    I’d be interested in knowing what you would think of Ghost Dance. I read it many years ago and was quite taken with it. It’s her first novel, not nearly so self-consciously “experimental” as her later work.

    It’s interesting, too, that you write about these books together, since I’ve always thought of them together. In part, I am sure, this is because of their physical proximity on my bookshelves (not kidding). But I was always struck by the considerable white space in both books, the visual similarity, and noted that Maso’s appeared first. I wondered if Markson was aware of it. I note, also, that, perhaps inevitably, Markson, the male, is much better known.

  2. Richard says:

    in the first paragraph, that should be “when we are told things” etc….

  3. Ste says:

    Maso does step in in the brief paragraph preceding the list of sources for some (but not all, oddly) of the thoughts that “flood the mind of Ava Klein on her final day.” So one’s opinions on authorial intervention would certainly be tested here. I begrudge authors’ providing necessary information, but at least the idea is from the author. The back summary of WM makes it sound as if whether or not the narrator is insane determines whether or not she is actually the last person alive, and while her sanity is doubted in the book, her isolation is not. (I always think of the back of Banville’s Book of Evidence when I run into these issues, which states that the narrator dumps the body of his murder victim in a ditch, though it is the painting of a woman he dumps, not the woman. You wonder if they even read the book sometimes.)

    Maso is much more well-known among the readers I know, I guess. Several have foisted her on me over the years, and several have asked me what I thought about AVA, having seen it lying around while I was reading or writing about it. One started running an amusing defense as soon as I expressed less than devotion to the book. None have batted an eye at Markson, though. ‘Course, being name-dropped by DFW sort of does wonders for your reputation these days.

  4. Richard says:

    “Maso is much more well-known among the readers I know, I guess.”

    I keep forgetting that my sense of things is not necessarily typical. Since I didn’t study lit. in school and none of my friends are readers of the kinds of books I read, I base it entirely on blog chatter and the like.

    “‘Course, being name-dropped by DFW sort of does wonders for your reputation these days.”

    Yeah… have you seen his paper on WM? I haven’t had a chance to read it. Apparently Markson appreciated it… I guess he name-dropped AVA in passing. I forget where I first came across Maso… it may have been in the list of Dalkey paperbacks they publish in the back of each book.

  5. Ste says:

    Well, the occasional classic and Maso are pretty much as overlapping as it gets with my friends who read, and Maso is there really only because I’m on the margins of academia, living with someone getting an MFA, and academia seems to be her main audience. Those are the people who recommended it to me.

    I haven’t read the Wallace essay; I’d be curious to, but it appears it’s in the RCF further back than 1994, which is as far back as I can go with the online access my roommate’s university grants him (and he, god bless him, grants me). Just googled the AVA mention and my lord, it’s DFW quoting a friend but Dalkey needs to get “Carole Maso’s Ava is just — a friend of mine read it and said it gave him an erection of the heart” as a blurb if there’s a reprint.

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