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Wittgenstein's Mistress is a novel unlike anything David Markson?or anyone else?has ever written before. It is the story of a woman who is convinced?and, astonishingly, will ultimately convince the reader as well?that she is the only person left on earth.
Presumably she is mad. And yet so appealing is her character, and so witty and seductive her narrative voice, that we will follow her hypnotically as she unloads the intellectual baggage of a lifetime in a series of irreverent ...
Wittgenstein's Mistress is a novel unlike anything David Markson—or anyone else—has ever written before. It is the story of a woman who is convinced—and, astonishingly, will ultimately convince the reader as well—that she is the only person left on earth.
Presumably she is mad. And yet so appealing is her character, and so witty and seductive her narrative voice, that we will follow her hypnotically as she unloads the intellectual baggage of a lifetime in a series of irreverent meditations on everything and everybody from Brahms to sex to Heidegger to Helen of Troy. And as she contemplates aspects of the troubled past which have brought her to her present state—obviously a metaphor for ultimate loneliness—so too will her drama become one of the few certifiably original fictions of our time.
Dalkey Archive Press
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street
Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.
Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum, being what they would say when I was still in New York.
Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.
To tell the truth, perhaps I left only three or four messages altogether.
I have no idea how long ago it was when I was doing that. If I were forced to guess, I believe I would guess ten years.
Possibly it was several years longer ago than that, however.
And of course I was quite out of my mind for a certain period too, back then.
I do not know for how long a period, but for a certain period.
Time out of mind. Which is a phrase I suspect I may have never properly understood, now that I happen to use it.
Time out of mind meaning mad, or time out of mind meaning simply forgotten?
But in either case there was little question about that madness. As when I drove that time to that obscure corner of Turkey, for instance, to visit at the site of ancient Troy.
And for some reason wished especially to look at the river there, that I had read about as well, flowing past the citadel tothe sea.
I have forgotten the name of the river, which was actually a muddy stream.
And at any rate I do not mean to the sea, but to the Dardanelles, which used to be called the Hellespont.
The name of Troy had been changed too, naturally. Hisarlik, being what it was changed to.
In many ways my visit was a disappointment, the site being astonishingly small. Like little more than your ordinary city block and a few stories in height, practically.
Still, from the ruins one could see Mount Ida, all of that distance away.
Even in late spring, there was snow on the mountain.
Somebody went there to die, I believe, in one of the old stories. Paris, perhaps.
I mean the Paris who had been Helen's lover, naturally. And who was wounded quite near the end of that war.
As a matter of fact it was Helen I mostly thought about, when I was at Troy.
I was about to add that I even dreamed, for a while, that the Greek ships were beached there still.
Well, it would have been a harmless enough thing to dream.
From Hisarlik, the water is perhaps an hour's walk away. What I had planned to do next was to take an ordinary rowboat across, and then drive on into Europe through Yugoslavia.
Possibly I mean Yugoslavia. In any case on that side of the channel there are monuments to the soldiers who died there in the first World War.
On the side where Troy is, one can find a monument where Achilles was buried, so much longer ago.
Well, they say it is where Achilles was buried.
Still, I find it extraordinary that young men died there in a war that long ago, and then died in the same place three thousand years after that.
But be that as it may, I changed my mind about crossing the Hellespont. By which I mean the Dardanelles. What I did was pick out a motor launch and go by way of the Greek islands and Athens, instead.
Even with only a page torn out of an atlas, instead of maritime charts, it took me only two unhurried days to get to Greece. A good deal about that ancient war was doubtless greatly exaggerated.
Still, certain things can touch a chord.
Such as for instance a day or two after that, seeing the Parthenon by the late afternoon sun.
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.
Time out of mind. Meaning that one can even momentarily forget the name of one's only child, who would be thirty by now?
I doubt thirty. Say twenty-six, or twenty-seven.
Am I fifty, then?
There is only one mirror, here in this house on this beach. Perhaps the mirror says fifty.
My hands say that. It has come to show on the backs of my hands.
Conversely I am still menstruating. Irregularly, so that often it will go on for weeks, but then will not occur again until I have almost forgotten about it.
Perhaps I am no more than forty-seven or forty-eight. I am certain that I once attempted to keep a makeshift accounting, possibly of the months but surely at least of the seasons. But I do not even remember any longer when it was that I understood I had already long since lost track.
Still, I believe I was soon going to be forty, back when all of this began.
How I left those messages was with white paint. In huge block letters, at intersections, where anybody coming or going would see.
I burned artifacts and certain other objects when I was at the Metropolitan Museum too, naturally.
Well, I had a fire there perpetually, winters.
That fire was different from the fire I had at the Louvre. Where I built the fire in the Metropolitan was in that great hall, just where one goes in and out.
As a matter of fact I manufactured a high tin chimney above it, too. So that the smoke could drift to the skylights high above that.
What I had to do was shoot holes in the skylight, once I had constructed the chimney.
I did that with a pistol, quite carefully, at an angle from one of the balconies, so that the smoke would go out but the rain would not come in.
Rain came in. Not much rain, but some.
Well, eventually it came in through other windows as well, when those broke of themselves. Or of the weather.
Windows break still. Several are broken here, in this house.
It is summer at present, however. Nor do I mind the rain.
Upstairs, one can see the ocean. Down here there are dunes, which obstruct one's view.
Actually this is my second house on this same beach. The first, I burned to the ground. I am still not certain how that happened, though perhaps I had been cooking. For a moment I walked to the dunes to urinate, and when I looked back everything was ablaze.
These beach houses are all wood, of course. All I could do was sit at the dunes and watch it burn. It burned all night.
I still notice the burned house, mornings, when I walk along the beach.
Well, obviously I do not notice the house. What I notice is what remains of the house.
One is still prone to think of a house as a house, however, even if there is not remarkably much left of it.
This one has weathered fairly well, come to think about it. The next snows will be my third here, I believe.
Probably I should compose a list of where else I have been, if only for my own edification. I mean beginning with my old loft in SoHo, before the Metropolitan. And then my trips.
Although doubtless I have lost track of a good deal of that by now, as well.
I do remember sitting one morning in an automobile with a right-hand drive and watching Stratford-on-Avon fill up with snow, which must surely be rare.
Well, and once that same winter being almost hit by a car with nobody driving it, which came rolling down a hill near Hampstead Heath.
There was an explanation for the car coming down the hill with nobody driving it.
The explanation having been the hill, obviously.
That car, too, had a right-hand drive. Although perhaps that is not especially relevant to anything.
And in either case I may have made an error, earlier, when I said I left a message in the street saying that somebody was living in the National Gallery.
Where I lived in London was the Tate Gallery, where so many of the paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner are.
I am quite certain that I lived at the Tate.
There is an explanation for this, too. The explanation being that one can see the river, from there.
Living alone, one is apt to prefer a view of water.
I have always admired Turner as well, however. In fact his own paintings of water may well have been a part of what led to my decision.
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.
Actually, the story of Turner being lashed to the mast reminds me of something, even though I cannot remember what it reminds me of.
I also seem not to remember what sort of a fire I had at the Tate.
At the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, I removed The Night Watch by Rembrandt from its frame when I was keeping warm there too, incidentally.
I am quite certain I intended to get to Madrid around that time also, since there is one painting at the Prado by Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, that I had wished to see again. But for some reason, at Bordeaux, I switched to a car that was facing back in the other direction.
Then again perhaps I had actually crossed the Spanish border as far as to Pamplona.
Well, often I did unpremeditated things in those days, as I have said. Once, from the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, for no reason except that I had come upon a Volkswagen van full of them, I let hundreds and hundreds of tennis balls bounce one after the other to the bottom, every which way possible.
Watching how they struck tiny irregularities or worn spots in the stone, and changed direction, or guessing how far across the piazza down below each one of them would go.
Several of them bounced catty-corner and struck the house where John Keats died, in fact.
There is a plaque on the house, stating that John Keats died there.
The plaque is in Italian, naturally. Giovanni Keats, it calls him.
The name of the river at Hisarlik is the Scamander, I now remember.
In the Iliad, by Homer, it is referred to as a mighty river.
Well, perhaps it was, at one time. Many things can change, in three thousand years.
Even so, sitting above it one evening on the excavated walls, and gazing toward the channel, I was almost positive one could still see the Greek watchfires, being lighted along the shore.
Well, as I have said, perhaps I did not really let myself think that.
Still, certain things are harmless enough to think.
The next morning, when dawn appeared, I was quite content to consider it a rosy-fingered dawn, for instance. Even though the sky was murky.
Meanwhile I have just taken time to move my bowels. I do not go to the dunes for that, but down to the ocean itself, where the tide will wash in.
Going, I stopped first in the woods beside the house for some leaves.
And afterward went for water from my spring, which is perhaps a hundred paces along the path in the opposite direction from the beach.
I have a stream, too. Even if it is hardly the Thames.
At the Tate I did bring in my water from the river, however. One has been able to do that sort of thing for a long while, now.
Well, one could drink from the Arno, in Florence, as long ago as when I lived at the Uffizi. Or from the Seine, when I would carry a pitcher down the quay from the Louvre.
In the beginning I drank only bottled water, naturally.
In the beginning I had accouterments, as well. Such as generators, for use with electrical heating devices.
Water and warmth were the essentials, of course.
I do not remember which came first, becoming adept at maintaining fires, and so shedding devices of that sort, or discovering that one could drink any water one wished again.
Perhaps becoming adept at fires came first. Even if I have burned two houses to the ground, over the years.
The more recent, as I have noted, was accidental.
Why I burned the first one I would rather not go too deeply into. I did that quite deliberately, however.
That was in Mexico, on the morning after I had visited poor Simon's grave.
Well, it was the house we had all lived in. I honestly believed I had planned to stay on, for a time.
What I did was spill gasoline all over Simon's old room.
Much of the morning I could still see the smoke rise and rise, in my rearview mirror.
Now I have two enormous fireplaces. Here in this house by the sea, I am talking about. And in the kitchen an antiquated potbellied stove.
I have grown quite fond of the stove.
Simon had been seven, by the way.
A variety of berries grow nearby. And less than minutes past my stream there are various vegetables, in fields that were once cultivated but are of course now wildly overgrown.
Beyond the window at which I am sitting the breeze is frisking with ten thousand leaves. Sunlight breaks through the woods in mottled bright patches.
Flowers grow too, in great profusion.
It is a day for some music, actually, although I have no means of providing myself with any.
For years, wherever I was, I generally did contrive to play some. But when I began to get rid of devices I had to give up the music as well.
Baggage, basically, is what I got rid of. Well, things.
Now and again one happens to hear certain music in one's head, however.
Well, a fragment of something or other, in any case. Antonio Vivaldi, say. Or Joan Baez, singing.
Not too long ago I even heard a passage from Les Troyens, by Berlioz.
When I say heard, I am saying so only in a manner of speaking, of course.
Still, perhaps there is baggage after all, for all that I believed I had left baggage behind.
Of a sort. The baggage that remains in one's head, meaning remnants of whatever one ever knew.
Such as the birthdays of people like Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock, for instance, which I am convinced I might still recite if I wished.
Or telephone numbers, from all of those years ago.
There is a telephone right here, actually, no more than three or four steps behind where I am sitting.
Naturally I was speaking about numbers for telephones which function, however.
In fact there is a second telephone upstairs, near the cushioned window seat from which I watch the sun go down, most evenings.
The cushions, like so much else here at the beach, are musty. Even on the hottest days, one senses the dampness.
Books become ruined by it.
Books being more of the baggage I got rid of, incidentally. Even if there are still many in this house, that were here when I arrived.
I should perhaps indicate that there are eight rooms in the house, although I make use of only two or three.
Actually I did read, at times, over the years. Especially when I was mad, I read a good deal.
One winter, I read almost all of the ancient Greek plays. As a matter of fact I read them out loud. And throughout, finishing the reverse side of each page would tear it from the book and drop it into my fire.
Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, I turned into smoke.
In a manner of speaking, one might think of it that way.
In a different manner of speaking, one might declare it was Helen and Clytemnestra and Electra, whom I did that with.
For the life of me I have no idea why I did that.
If I had understood why I was doing that, doubtless I would not have been mad.
Had I not been mad, doubtless I would not have done it at all.
I am less than positive that those last two sentences make any particular sense.
In either case neither do I remember where it was, exactly, that I read the plays and burned the pages.
Possibly it was after I had gone to ancient Troy, which may have been what put me in mind of the plays to begin with.
Or would reading the plays have been what put me in mind of going to ancient Troy?
It did run on, that madness.
Excerpted from Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson. Copyright © 1988 by David Markson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted August 20, 2002
i don't normally do this, but i just HAD to write a review when i saw that no one else has reviewed this. okay, people, this is about a woman who is either the last person on earth or she's crazy and thinks she's the last person on the earth and this book is the journal she's keeping. since he included wittgenstein in the title it's safe to assume that he was primarily interested in what happens to language when there's no one around to communicate with (wittgenstein felt that the rules of language are determined by actual participation, so if you're the last person on earth the rules would break down). honestly, when i read it i don't concern myself with that, though. i consider it a much better work if you ignore the linguistic aspect of it, which i consider a little pompous.
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