I’ve had only one personal experience with a fiction writer who hid himself away. He was a close friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, the novelist David Markson. He was the author most famously of Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), which David Foster Wallace described as “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.”
The odd thing about Markson was that, in person he was friendly and humorous. I enjoyed his company very much, and especially his unexpected phone calls when he thought of something he wanted to tell me about Kurt, and his postcards that would arrive every few months. But he rarely left his book-lined apartment on the corner of West 10th and Bleecker Streets in Greenwich Village. In fact, once Vonnegut encountered him in midtown Manhattan and blurted out, “What are you doing here?”
Earlier in his life, Markson had been a real rakehell, a regular at the Lion’s Head Tavern where he became a drinking buddy of Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac. In the 2006 memoir, Sleeping with Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties, the writer Alice Denham listed Markson among her celebrated bedmates. Markson, she wrote, was a “stud lover boy.” And that was repeated in David’s obituary sadly. God save us from that kind of reckless footnote added to the end of our lives.
But it brings up something I suspected about Markson and the reason for his hermitic last years. The feeling I got from him was regret.
In any conversation with him that lasted more than ten minutes, he was sure to bring up his former wife, Elaine Markson, a well-known literary agent.
We were sitting in his apartment talking— his writing space, a small desk was like a cubicle in the corner of a library. I was asking him about why the marriage of a mutual friend had ended in divorce.
“What happened in that relationship?” I asked. Without a pause, he sequed into his own divorce.
“I don’t know. Elaine Markson was one of the greatest women in the world, everybody loved her. Before she was an agent people used to call her the rabbi, because everybody came with their problems, and I love her, I love her still in certain ways, we have two wonderful children, but I don’t know, you get restless and I was not the most faithful guy and I drank a gallon and a half every day and….”
“You sound like a writer,” I said.
“Yeah, a writer,” he said bitterly.
It was said of young men a long time ago that they should guard against “wasting their substance with riotous living”— drinking, gaming, carrying on.
I find that phrase, “wasting your substance” very interesting. It’s as if we have a limited amount of “substance” for whatever we might do in life, whether it’s strength, creativity, health, or maybe even hope, for instance. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Fiction writers often speak of being burned-out or written-out, as if the ink in their veins has bled dry. Perhaps that’s why some writers are reclusive, or at least solitary. They’re conserving whatever mystifying energy they need to sustain their demanding art. It’s either that, or spend it on something else; but in any case, it’s not inexhaustible.
My impression of David Markson was that he wished he could have back the years he spent being a hard-drinker and skirt-chaser, and use them to write, with the help of his wife— who was his first and only agent, incidentally— instead of hurrying against death by staying in a room, at his desk, alone, like a penance.
On June 4, 2010 his two children found him in his bed. But Elaine, speaking to the press, said she didn’t know the cause of his death, or when he died.