February 28, 2003

a 1989 interview with Wittgenstein's Mistress author david markson.

from the interview:

JT: I was really thinking about [the rejection letters relating to] "Wittgenstein's Mistress."

DM: I know you were. I suspect it set a record. For years, the highest number of turndowns I'd ever heard of was thirty-six, on "The Ginger Man." Then I read in the Deirdre Bair biography that "Murphy" had about forty two. "Ironweed" had a dozen, as I recall, and I once jokingly told Bill Kennedy while "Wittgenstein" was going around that if rejections were any sign of quality, then mine was already twice as good as his. But then I left Donleavy and Beckett in the dust also.

JT: What sort of figure are we finally talking about?

DM: I almost hate to announce it. Fifty-four.

JT: For a novel that well thought of since? Wasn't one editor in fifty-four capable of seeing "something" in it?

DM: Obviously it wasn't all black and white. Oh, about a third of them didn't like it at all, and perhaps another third made it inadvertently evident that they didn't understand a word. And OK, you can't fault the totally negative responses--or the vapid ones either, since they pretty much correspond with the percentage of editors you know are C students to begin with. But it's the other third that really cause grief. I mean when the letters practically sound like Nobel Prize citations--"brilliant," "twenty years ahead of its time," "we're honored that you thought of us" . . .

JT: And?

DM: The predictable kicker, of course. It won't sell. Or worse, we couldn't get it past the salespeople. Actually acknowledging that those semiliterates don't simply participate in the editorial process, but dictate its decisions. God almighty.

JT: How long did it take?

DM: Something like four and a half years. It would have taken infinitely longer than that if the book hadn't frequently been submitted to several places at once.

JT: How did you maintain your sanity under such circumstances? Particularly when you yourself have to know what you've written?

DM: Sometimes you get to be damned near borderline, believe me. One reaction that helped "immensely" was Ann Beattie's. She'd been the first person I'd shown the manuscript to, in fact, mainly because I knew that if I'd fallen on my face anywhere she'd be tough-minded enough to tell me so without hedging. Instead she dialed me the next morning with what may be the most unforgettable telephone call I've ever received. Well, you've seen the blurb she wrote later on.

JT: "As dazzling as Joyce" and "an absolute masterpiece," yes.

three poems by markson:


Pontormo there, for anatomic truth,
was said to house cadavers 'neath his roof,
And Cosimo, disdaining meals, would stew
Four dozen eggs a once, while cooking glue.
Of doltish mold, Uccello could not sleep
For trying cruel perspective till he'd weep.
Young Durer, reading Luther, cracked, and raved —
Though unlike Michelangelo, he bathed.
Fra Lippi spoiled, but later wed, a nun,
And Raphael, for bawds, left walls undone;
Yet Van der Goes could only work when calm,
So friars shrewdly lifted voice in psalm.
Van Gogh, who shot himself, was long since vague,
While Titian died at ninety-nine, of plague.
El Greco thrived in dark, when all was stilled,
And Caravaggio once killed.

Each work of art is disciplined by laws,
Nor will they bend to idiosyncratic flaws;
As Leonardo doubtless would agree —
Who bought caged birds, and set them free.


My love she turned so harsh, so cruel,
She shied from sight of me;
I wept, I sighed, I played the fool:
I now write poetry.


What bile must rise within his throat
O'er all those books, not one he wrote!
Ah, let the wretch our spawn berate:
The bold make love; some masturbate.


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