Wittgenstein’s Mistress

I recently finished David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and I thought the book was smart, beautiful, unique, and, at times, moving. At times I found it dull. As this novel is something I think I can safely call experimental, I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader. Or maybe I should leave the term “experimental” out of it, and just comment on the book itself and what the book tells me about my reading. This is probably the fairest thing to do.

So — I wouldn’t have minded if this book were a bit shorter, but I’m glad I read it anyway. It’s about a woman named Kate who either is, or thinks she is, the only person left on earth. Everyone has simply vanished, and all the animals have vanished too; houses and possessions are left just as they were before this vanishing happened, and cars are abandoned in the streets. Kate has taken possession of a house on the coast somewhere — we’re not told where — and she has begun writing. Markson’s novel is the manuscript she produces.

I’m tempted to say she has begun writing her story, but that’s not what she’s done at all; what she writes is what’s on her mind, with pieces of her story told now and then. We never learn all that much about her life before everyone disappeared, a few details about a husband and son are about it. What we learn is the contents of Kate’s mind — her thoughts about her surroundings, her travels (she has traveled all around the emptied-out world), her memories, and about the art she has seen, books she has read, and music she has heard.

But what’s really interesting about the book is Kate’s (Markson’s) writing. The novel is written in short, usually one-sentence, paragraphs, first of all, and these paragraphs cycle through a series of topics, moving from one to another to another, occasionally dropping some and introducing others. It’s repetition with slight changes each time — we get new information or sometimes contradictory information with each mention. It’s very hard to find an excerpt to give here because everything in the book depends on what came before to make any sense, but here’s a passage anyway, from near the beginning:

It was that winter during which I lived in the Louvre, I believe. Burning artifacts and picture frames for warmth, in a poorly ventilated room.

But then with the first signs of thaw, switching vehicles whenever I ran low on gas, started back across central Russia to make my way home again.

All of this being indisputably true, if as I say long ago. And if as I also say, I may well have been mad.

Then again I am not at all certain I was mad when I drove to Mexico, before that.

Possibly before that. To visit at the grave of a child I had lost, even longer ago than all of this, named Adam.

Why have I written that his name was Adam?

Simon is what my little boy was named.

The whole book is like this — it’s Kate’s mind pursuing thoughts until they lead her to other thoughts and then to other thoughts and others, and eventually around to the first thought again.

Nothing is certain in the book — Kate’s not sure if and when she was mad long ago, and the reader is not certain whether to trust Kate’s description of her world and her situation. Kate’s not sure of her memories and her facts; stories slip away and facts change shape. She’s trying to capture something certain in her writing, but instead she returns again and again to this lament:

What do any of us ever truly know, however?

Kate also writes about language and its strangeness; she frequently points out inaccuracies and ambiguities in everyday language:

Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm.

Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm.

One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.

And she writes about the relationship of objects outside the mind with representations we create of them inside the mind:

In fact the very way I was able to verify that I had ever even been to the other house, some few pages ago, was by saying that I could distinctly remember the poster.

On the wall.

Where was the poster when it was on the wall in my head but was not on the wall in the other house?

Where was my house, when all I was seeing was smoke but was thinking, there is my house?

A certain amount of this is almost beginning to worry me, to tell the truth.

So — and I think you could say that about many experimental novels, and certain about postmodern novels — this book is as much about language as it is about anything else. It’s about the way we depend on language to create our world for us, and the way language fails to deliver the kind of certainty and comfort we crave. But it’s also about the consolations of art — Kate is preoccupied with questions about art and history and ideas, and, of course, she turns to her own writing for comfort. We may in the end know very little about our world and ourselves, but we can find pleasure in exploring and experiencing the process of trying to find out.

The more I write about this book the more I like it. Have you experienced having your feelings about a book strengthened as you write about it — good feelings or bad ones? To echo what I said at the beginning, at times I wished the book were shorter, but I do recommend it for those of you interested in this kind of book or looking to try something like it — smart and philosophical and beautiful.


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Wittgenstein’s Mistress

  1. Dorothy – I do admire you for the way you are so ready to take on these challenging literary novels. I think the hallmark of the experimental is that it can be a chore and an obstacle to read, but that it is then wonderful to write about because it’s always attempting such interesting manoeuvres. So I’ll read experimental fiction for work quite happily, but I like it far less in my reading for pleasure. I enjoyed reading about this book very much in your post, and I’m now very grateful to you for having made it unnecessary for me to read it myself!


  2. What an interesting sounding book. I know what you mean about liking a book more the more you write about it. That happens to me sometimes too. Of course sometimes it backfires and you realized there wasn’t as much there as you previously thought, but that doesn’t happen often, at least for me. Usually it’s the other way around.


  3. Okay, you hooked me. I’ve put it on reserve. I’ve been reading almost exclusively nonfiction in recent weeks, so a novel, however experimental, would be a nice change.

    This book sounds like a mix of “The Brief History of the Dead” and “Hopscotch” (one of the banes of my college Latin American reading curriculum), with maybe a little of “Never Let Me Go,” in that it sounds like the author is trying a deliberately ingenuous voice and throwing out little clues, instead of direct exposition.

    Can’t wait to try it out.


  4. I’m so glad you feel that way Litlove! I mean, about the feeling that reading these books can be a chore. If you feel that way, I feel free to feel that way too. You see why I wanted to read this book in small chunks?

    Stefanie — it’s usually that way for me too, that writing about something makes me see new things in it. Sometimes I end up liking a book less than I originally did, but often I end up liking it more.

    Fendergal — I can’t wait to hear what you think! I’d love to hear other opinions. I hadn’t thought about the Ishiguro novel, but your comparison of the narrative voice does make a lot of sense — they are both telling their story, and not telling it at the same time.


  5. hepzibah

    Hello Dorothy, I really enjoyed your post! Your have a lot of great points toward the end and I learned a lot, so thank you! This book reminds me of Joan Didion’s style of writing, paticularly the book Play it as it Lays, I read it last semester, and I found myself asking the very similar questions. It is the structure that makes the text wonderful, right? Yes, at times things can be confusing and distorted and convoluted, but this is quite emblematic of the postmodern experience, of the postmodern world is it not?

    I thought you said it perfectly when you said, “but we can find pleasure in exploring and experiencing the process of trying to find out.” We spend our lives trying to accomplish just this.


  6. I meant to comment on this a few days ago–this looks like a really interesting book. I think I might go nuts though not knowing her history. Is this a British author? One quote mentions the Louvre, but then Mexico is also mentioned. If this is some sort of end of the world tale how did she get from one place to another unless she is thinking back in her history. I’m curious where the author is going with the story and wonder how something like this ends. My library owns it, so I will have to go look for it eventually and at least take a peek at it.


  7. Thank you Hepzibah! I will have to read more Joan Didion — or read any of her at all, because I haven’t read much except maybe a couple essays. This book would be a good example of postmodernism for a college class, as it really does capture the confusion and distortion you talk about.

    Danielle — the author is American — the mentions of various places around the world come from the narrator’s journeying after everyone disappears. She travels mostly by using abandoned cars — but as for how she travels across the ocean, I have no idea. There’s always the possibility that she’s insane and everything is made up! She describes traveling across Russia — did she cross the Bering strait? No idea. The uncertainty can be difficult to deal with! I think you’ll get a sense of it with a peek — it’s one of those books whose main idea you can get pretty quickly and then it’s just more of the same from there. There’s some story development, but not a lot.


  8. Dorothy–I did go and grab it yesterday off the shelf. It looks interesting, but it reminds me a bit of a book I tried to read called Defiance, which I eventually gave up on. Another book that is written in the stream of consciousness style. I did get the idea from reading the blurb and reading a little inside that the narrator’s sanity is a bit in question. It looked like reading the thoughts inside someone’s head, which are completely meandering (and perhaps not always rational?). I might give it a try, so I wrote it down, but I think I won’t try and tackle it now. Sometimes a little of this can go a long way and I think you really need to be in the mood for it.


  9. I think that’s exactly it — it’s like reading the thoughts in someone’s head. Thank heavens the novel isn’t that long, because it was getting a bit tedious! Yes, you really do need to be in the mood for it.


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