It’s frustrating! Rewarding! Brilliant! Difficult!
If you’re intimidated by the prospect of reading David Markson’s famous novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, maybe you should bring a friend along.
That’s what Kelsey Osgood did.
Kelsey is a contributor to The New Yorker, The New Republic, Salon, and Vice, but even she didn’t feel up to the task of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress alone. So she read it with Nemira Gasiunas, a Philosophy PhD candidate at Columbia University, whose qualifications for understanding a novel based on the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein include “a very sage-sounding British accent.”
Osgood / Gasiunas
Now you can bring Kelsey and Nemira along as you read Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Divided into five parts, their smart, funny, occasionally exasperated commentary will help you tackle one of the most enduring novels of our time.
Just grab the book and read along.
Part 5 of 5
Pages read: 200-240, so many times I lost track
At the end of the last column, I suggested that my appetite for knowledge of Kate’s past has not been satisfied. Well, in these, our last forty pages, it was, along with, as DFW promised it, attendant tears.
Kate doesn’t jump immediately into confessional mode; she slides into it unwillingly over the course of twenty-two pages. It begins with a playful reimagining of soap opera plotlines from Ancient Greece (As Troy Turns?) and during that time Kate naturally mentions Helen’s cat. Helen’s cat leads her to write about an episode that took place in her loft before the Fall, during which a number of friends may or may not have helped her write to famous people to enlist their help in naming her new cat. (In this section, facts slip through her fingers in more noticeable ways, perhaps because we’re more familiar now with the information she’s working with.) And that cat leads to the cat of many years ago, the one named Cat or Gato (recall our conversation about naming things) who belonged to her son, here called Lucien almost uniformly. And then the remembrance of the unutterable of Long Ago: Lucien’s premature death from meningitis, Kate’s infidelities (“one sometimes merely fucked, too,” she says, and that profane word seems to burst like a bullet out of the dispassionate, academic prose), Adam’s drunkenness, and the murky questions of cause-and-effect surrounding all these tragedies.
The whole book, in some sense, was a means by which to distract herself from this trauma, and yet all the book was naturally leading directly to it. In fact, after she talks about Lucien’s death, and sputters a bit, trying to regain her footing, she wonders if perhaps she could have avoided the topic all together.
Part 3 of 5
Pages Read: 100-148, then 100-150
Last time Nemira and I met, I was the one dominating the conversation, because I am the expert in writing about loneliness and melancholia (please forgive my bragging.) This session, she took over, telling me how she started to see all these parallels between the novel and her dissertation. This was frightening for me, because I am sort of pretending to understand the philosophical ideas she puts forth–there’s a lot of nodding and “mm-hmm”-ing and wondering if my facial expression belies my confusion. Anyway, at the risk of ignoring the plot for a moment–spoiler alert: Kate’s still in the beach cottage–let’s listen to Nemira tell us a bit about what she studies.
“My project is about how we represent perceptual properties–like colors, and sounds, tones, pitches, loudness, that sort of thing–and spatial properties, and how they’re more similar than people had thought. What I’m working on right now is an argument to the effect that one of the reasons people posit for thinking that we represent a space in which objects are located is to explain certain properties of spatial experience, right?”
I try to look like I understand. I obviously fail.
Part 2 of 5
Pages Read: 50-64, then 50-100, then 50-100 again
So, the plot: basically, our heroine Kate is the last woman––nay, living being––on earth. Or, she thinks she is, according to the summary on the back of the book. The doubt is borne of her recognition that for periods of time over the last decade, she was insane, but she doesn’t seem to think she is now, or at least she doesn’t mention it. Her speech is what I might call schizotypal, but nothing about the way she behaves––as far as a reader can tell––might qualify as crazy—that is, within the context of being the last person on earth.
It’s unclear exactly when everyone disappeared, but based on the information she releases in little bits over the course of the first one hundred pages, it seems that it just happened one day. Poof. Everyone was gone. She was living in SoHo, then in a loft, working as a painter. First she picked up and moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, burning paintings for warmth and coating giant canvases in gesso (is it color or the absence of color? Nemira asks) to pass the time. That whole section reads, to a relatively young person like me, who knows her idea of joyful solitude is the folly of her youth, like a grown-up version of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Leaning your own paintings against the wall like it’s your guerrilla art fair! Racing around the big entrance hall in a wheelchair! If hell is other people, then heaven… well, you get it.
Part 1 of 5
Pages Read: 1-50, David Foster Wallace afterword, and 1-50, again
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
This is one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous dictums; it’s also, without a doubt, his most easily understood, with just about everything else he wrote falling under the category of “WTF.” (Case in point: “An expression presupposes the forms of all propositions in which it can occur. It is the common characteristic mark of a class of propositions.” Duh.)
The aforementioned piece of Wittgensteinian self-help is perhaps something I should have considered before asking for a forum in which to write about my attempt to read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and try to say something meaningful about it. As to why I wanted to do this, I can only say that like many writers, I have always looked to books–fiction, non-fiction, travelogues, medical texts, whatever, really–to decode the world for me. It seemed that perhaps, and I’m fully aware that this sounds insane, if deconstructed and diagrammed painstakingly enough, certain texts actually could be stripped away to reveal guidelines to reality, perfectly self-contained and achingly clear. (The “magical book” trope, i.e. The NeverEnding Story, is, therefore, the closest I’ve ever come to understanding fantasy as a genre.) This same impulse to shred, re-assemble and endlessly comment on a single text until one finds the singular answer is nowhere more apparent than in the Jewish rabbinical tradition; David Foster Wallace–rebbe to many young writers, myself included, as well as a lover of Wittgensteinian philosophy and Markson’s novel–famously shared that same urge to cite his citations. So put a different way: beneath every good novel lies a complete and unique Shulchan Oruch. And if it kills me, I’m going to figure out what Markson is trying to tell me about life, if, in fact, it’s anything at all.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Read if you liked Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Midnight in Paris.
Status: Yours if you want it.
I LIKE TO THINK I HAVE PLENTY OF PATIENCE FOR EXPERIMENTAL FICTION. Even when it exceeds my capacities, I still like Joyce and enjoy Pynchon very much. The benchmark “difficult” novelist these days is David Foster Wallace, and there’s considerable evidence on this blog that I get a kick out of reading his work.
Wallace himself was a fan of another “difficult” writer, David Markson, in particular his 1988 book “Wittgenstein’s Mistress.” In a 1999 piece for Salon, Wallace called it “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” And on the book’s back cover he praises the novel as, “A work of genius…An erudite, breathtakingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal and whose voice rivets and whose conclusion defies you not to cry.”
What catches the eye here is the teasing of an ending with tear-jerking emotional resonance. For all its charms, experimental fiction is not often touted for its emotional resonance. The promise in this tiny blurb was something I returned to often while reading “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” as I regularly flipped to the back to see exactly how many pages I had left before reaching this allegedly thrilling conclusion.