The word serendipity was born in 1754 when Horace Walpole made it up for a fairytale he was writing. Today, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines serendipity as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” This I learned happily reading David Markson’s The Last Novel.
I had not known of Markson or his work until several weeks ago perusing a blogpost’s comment thread. I don’t recall whose blog, or whose rave endorsements of Markson prompted me to look him up on Amazon.com, where I downloaded the Kindle version of This is Not a Novel, and Other Novels, which is actually one long list of quotations, odd facts, and personal observations, broken into three parts, with the third part titled The Last Novel. I learned also that fish feel no pain, and that Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma, kept a twenty-year diary devoted to assassinating his character, and that upon her death he burned the infuriating thing.
I learned so so so much more in The Last Novel, which I almost abandoned after the first few pages, for which I am chagrined and embarrassed to the extent I feel an overwhelming pressure to confess—right here right now, in this very space. Some might find it mitigating that I had no idea what I was getting into when I downloaded This is Not a Novel, and Other Novels, thinking it possibly a sort of post-post modern crime novel because the blogpost discussion launching the adventure, which caused me to buy also a David Goodis crime novel, had mentioned that David Foster Wallace was a Markson admirer. (I have resolutely refused even to consider reading anything by David Foster Wallace on grounds he was a darling of the incestuous New York literati, yet his endorsement of Markson did attach a certain twisted cachet in the same vein as Einstein’s having kept a few Perry Mason paperbacks hidden in his Princeton University office.)
I suppose it is possible the Wallace connection, in addition to fancying something different, prompted me to open Markson’s book before Goodis’s. I started with Ann Beattie’s fawning introduction. They were friends, she discloses, and her lengthy literary tribute is “over the moon,” to borrow her phrase. But she pulled me in with this line: “Try to stop reading one of these three novels. Meanings accrue; mysteries arise; you laugh when you least expect to laugh.”
I took it as the challenge it was meant to be, read a couple of pages of each novel, resisting all the way because they weren’t what I’d expected, and clicked the book back into the library. I even opened the Goodis novel, Nightfall, knowing it would be good, but I delayed starting it, bothered by my disappointment with the Markson. Finally opened Markson again and re-read Ann Beattie’s intro. Then I skipped to The Last Novel and started reading again, and before I could again say “What the hell is this thing?” found myself over the moon and on my way to Mars. Beattie was right. I could not stop.
Novel: Wondering when and where the last casual streetcorner conversation in Latin might have taken place.
Novel: Dante will always remain popular because nobody ever reads him. Said Voltaire.
Novel: It Ain’t Necessarily So. In Danish. Which was piped into Danish radio by the underground whenever announcements were made of German victories in World War II.
[Catching the drift?]
Novel: Pietro Aretino died in the midst of a hysterical fit of laughter that apparently turned into an apoplectic stroke. As had the Athenian comic playwright Philemon — at ninety-nine. Or one hundred and one.
[Not only did I have trouble taking a break from reading The Last Novel, I’m having trouble restraining myself from copying all of its lines to this report!]
Okay, one more: Yasser Arafat was reported not to have read one book in the last forty years of his life. But to have spent innumerable hours enrapt by Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Somewhere along my rush through Markson’s astonishing collection of anecdotes, quotes, observations and personal opinions, the serendipitous element I mentioned above was taking shape just beneath the surface of my consciousness: Tangney.
|Tangney (second from left)|
William E. Tangney, interviewer of Hemingway, discoverer of Einstein’s Perry Mason books, founding editor of the York Town Crier (later changed to its more corporate-comfortable name Yorktown Crier), assembler of anecdotes, quotes, odd facts, and personal observations. Missing friend. I lost touch with Tangney nearly two decades ago after he left Virginia for Naples, Florida. He refuses to communicate online, rarely answers his phone, and never answers letters. Yet, a welcoming and genial host. I visited him regularly when he lived in a book-crammed Yorktown house owned by Mary Mathews, the Greek restaurateur he’d persuaded to pony up the cash to birth a weekly newspaper that’s now owned by a regional chain. Bill is a spellbinding storyteller, a constant reader and compulsive taker of notes. His grand strategy was eventually to publish his assemblage of quotes and quips and curious minutia in a book. I don’t know if this has come to pass. Two days ago I got his address from WhitePages.com and had Amazon.com send him a copy of This is Not a Novel, and Other Novels. It should arrive today. Bill may be piqued by such cheek, but he’ll have some laughs.
Novel: Anthony Trollope was once told by an acquaintance that one of his recurring serialized characters had become boring. Trollope killed her off in the next installment.
Novel: If it were up to me, I would have wiped my behind with his last decree. Said Mozart — after a demand by the Archbishop of Salzburg for more brevity in his church compositions.
Baldur von Schirach, one of the chief Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg, on the origin of his anti-Semitism: From a book about the Jews by Henry Ford.
If on a winter’s night with no other source of warmth, Novelist were to burn an Andy Warhol, qualms? Qualmless.
Pushkin’s beautiful seventeen-year-old wife Nathalie, whom he married at thirty-one — and whom he said was the one hundred and thirteenth woman he had been in love with.
1922. The Waste Land.
1922. Reader’s Digest.
There are four chances in 2,598,960 of being dealt a royal flush in a hand of poker.
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was? -- Satchel Paige.
Please return this book. I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers. -- Walter Scott’s bookplate.
No battleship has yet been sunk by bombs. Said the caption on a photograph of the USS Arizona in the program for the 1941 Army-Navy football game — eight days before Pearl Harbor.
Never having realized that there originally once was an actual troublemaking Irish family named Hooligan.
Or a military officer named Shrapnel.
The John Cage composition entitled 4’33”, in which the performer sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds — and plays nothing.
Wondering if there can be any other ranking twentieth-century American poet whose body of work contains even half the percentage of pure drivel as Wallace Stevens’.
A sort of gutless Kipling, Orwell called Auden.
I’m going. I find the company very uncongenital. Says someone in a Gypsy Rose Lee mystery.
The French government provides the Paris Opera a subsidy of roughly $ 135,000,000 each year. The United States gives the Metropolitan Opera less than $ 1,000,000.
[potato chips for the curious, good-humored mind]
Abject bottom-licking narcissism — Martha Gellhorn found in Hemingway.
Morningless sleep, Epicurus called death.
One would like to curse them so that thunder and lightning strike them, hell-fire burn them, the plague, syphilis, epilepsy, scurvy, leprosy, carbuncles, and all diseases attack them. Ignorant asses. -- Martin Luther, in a contemplative mood re the papal hierarchy.
A writer of something occasionally like English — and a man of something occasionally like genius, Swinburne called Whitman. A man standing up to his neck in a cesspool — and adding to its contents, Carlyle called Swinburne.
It is utterly impossible to persuade an editor that he is nobody. Said William Hazlitt.
Comedy aims at representing men as worse, tragedy as better, than in actual life. Says Aristotle.
Berlioz read every Fenimore Cooper novel as quickly as it appeared. And admitted that fully four hours after he finished The Prairie he was still weeping over the death of Natty Bumppo.
A dreadful old fraud, Edmund Wilson called Robert Frost. A sententious, holding-forth old bore who expected every hero-worshipping adenoidal little twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word, James Dickey would elaborate subsequently.
The eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield. Whose pulpit voice was so effective, said David Garrick, that he could make listeners laugh or cry by no more than pronouncing the word Mesopotamia.
Dear President George W. Bush: Herewith please find uncorrected proofs for the newly discovered rewritten version of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. Kindly limit your review to twelve thousand words. Thank you.
Remembering that Charles Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey.
For no reason whatsoever, Novelist has just flung his cat out one of his four-flights-up front windows.
[several pages later:
Novelist does not own a cat, and thus most certainly could not have thrown one out a window. Nonetheless he would lay odds that more than one hopscotching reviewer will be reading carelessly enough here to never notice these two sentences and announce that he did so.
I am no Einstein, once said Einstein.
Listen, I bought your latest book. But I quit after about six pages. That’s all there is, those little things?
[And I still have the first two lists of “those little things” to read!]