David Markson dies at 82; postmodern writer

David Markson
Postmodern writer David Markson was celebrated for his insights and his singular way of expressing them.
(Johanna Markson / Associated Press)

David Markson, a postmodern author who rummaged relentlessly and humorously through art, history and reality itself in such novels as “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and wrote crime fiction, poetry and a spoof of westerns made into the Frank Sinatra film “Dirty Dingus Magee,” has died. He was 82.

Markson’s two children found him Friday in his bed at his Greenwich Village apartment, the author’s literary agent and former wife, Elaine Markson, said Monday. She did not know the cause of death or when he died, but she said Markson had been in failing health.

Little known to the general public, Markson was idolized by a core of fans who included fellow writers Ann Beattie and David Foster Wallace. He was celebrated for his insights and how he expressed them, often in paragraphs of just a sentence or two. “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” his most acclaimed work, and other novels were interior monologues on the state of the world and the author’s mind. “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like” was how he summed up his approach in the novel “Reader’s Block.”

Born Dec. 20, 1927, in Albany, N.Y., and raised by his newspaper editor father and schoolteacher mother, Markson received a bachelor’s degree in English from Union College, then a master’s from Columbia University. His thesis on Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” led to a long friendship with the author. Markson also came to know literary figures Dylan Thomas (a fellow patron of New York’s famous Lion’s Head Tavern) and Jack Kerouac.


Markson was ambitious and daring but also tethered to everyday needs. He edited crime fiction at Dell Books in the 1950s and wrote “entertainments,” detective novels — now cult favorites — including “Epitaph for a Tramp” and “Epitaph for a Dead Beat.” He reached commercial success in the mid-1960s with “The Ballad of Dingus Magee,” which became the 1970 Sinatra movie “Dirty Dingus Magee.”

Able at last to support himself, he completed “Going Down,” a thriller set in Mexico and the beginning of his increasingly unconventional style, continued in “Springer’s Progress” and mastered in “Wittgenstein’s Mistress.” That book was published in 1988 by Dalkey Archive Press after being rejected by more than 20 publishers, Elaine Markson said. The novel was narrated by a woman who may be the last human on Earth, severed from place and time.

Foster Wallace listed the novel as among the most “direly unappreciated” and called it “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.”

Later novels, including “Vanishing Point” and “This Is Not a Novel,” were increasingly interior and abstract, narrated by an “Author” or “Writer” or “Reader” and looping back from random thoughts about the outside world to the storyteller’s mind and the book itself.


“Markson does away with most narrative conventions — plot, colorful characters, dramatic conflict — to replace them with a collage of very short anecdotes, apocryphal legends, aphorisms, lurid gossip about writers and artists’ lives and deaths — as they run through the aging Novelist’s fragmented consciousness,” Catherine Texier wrote in the New York Times in 2007, referring to his aptly titled “The Last Novel.”

Elaine Markson said she and the author married in 1956 and remained close after divorcing in the 1990s. Besides their two children, the author is survived by three grandchildren.

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