“Next to the originator of a great sentence is the first quoter of it.
Said Emerson.” p.12
With only twenty pages left to go in this slender but not slight novel, I was sure I knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t hard to guess that the narrator, Novelist, was likely to commit suicide by leaping from the roof of his apartment building. Figuring out the why wasn’t difficult either. He is, as he reminds us more than once, “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Most of the novel, some may balk at even calling it a novel, is taken up by quotes and anecdotes about various artists and creators that Novelist has culled from his long life of reading and writing. Mostly he fixates on the lives of great artists who like him have ended up “Old. Sick. Tired. Alone. Broke,” or have committed suicide as he is clearly contemplating.
A coworker walking by my desk was attracted to the graphic design of the cover, on which a blank book is open with the title and author names floating over the page. I explained the book to him and he looked skeptical, as if to say, that can’t be a book. He picked it up, and flipped through a few pages and said first, “there is a lot of white space,” and then secondly, “how do you know what’s going on?”
The Last Novel is, aside from a meditation on death, a meditation on what minimally constitutes the category of Novel. Largely a collection of anecdotes pasted together, one is forced to read Novelist’s character and story through the filter of these references, making him and the story itself almost pure reference and allusion.
The anecdotes move from the mundane to the comical to the tragic to the enigmatic to the gnomic. Some of them worth sampling include:
A man standing up to his neck in a cesspool- and adding to its contents.
Carlyle called Swineburne.
Life is a long process of getting tired.
Say Samuel Butler’s Notebooks.
Artists are the monks of the bourgeois state.
Said Cesare Pavese.
Jean Genet was arrested for the first time- for theft- at the age of ten.
The reader discovers the Novelists other preoccupations and tantalizing hints of his life through his selection of anecdotes and quotations. The literary relationship, with all its codependency, camaraderie, jealousy, and antagonisms, is one of the key themes:
“I am not an orphan on this earth, so long as this man lives on it. Said Gorky re Tolstoy.”
Markson follows immediately with an entry from Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia’s diary to undercut Gorky.
“He doesn’t have a drop of love for his children, for me, or for anyone but himself.”
So is critical reception:
“Venomously malignant. Noxious. Blasphemous. Grotesque. Disgusting. Repulsive. Entirely bestial. Indecent.
Being among the critical greetings for leaves of Grass.
Not to omit ithyphallic audacity.
On page 79, Novelist reveals this rare, personal detail, “Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing.” At times, the line between a literary anecdote and potential gossip from his own life becomes blurred, a technique that speaks directly to the question of how the stuff of small lives, of petty people becomes Art with a capital A. Markson chooses to dig at this question in a funny way, by illustrating the all-too-human, petty vices and jealousies and injustices that plague all artists. Novelist, like all artists, “the monks of the bourgeois state,” want to be rescued from a human fate, from pettiness, from injustice, ignominy, and death. Markson’s gives us a portrait of the artist as an old man. “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Everything else disappears into the Art.