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.