I’m here to write about Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson because I need to return it to the library. I have no idea what to say.
The book is about a woman, alone on a beach, and nothing happens but what’s already happened, and her sporadic trips for laundry, water, and other needs. She is, or believes herself to be, alone in the world. A review in The Nation said this, “Suspense is generated not by action but by thought.” That’s excellent.
The story moves forward. Somehow. With lots of backpedaling and so much uncertainty that certainty becomes unnecessary. This is typical:
“In Madrid, I once lived in a hotel named after Azurbaran.
Unless perhaps it was named after Goya.
And was in Pamplona.”
The story isn’t what happened but what Kate, the narrator, thinks happened. And that might change from day to day, from writing to writing, from one sentence to the next.
She is concerned with language too, how we often misspeak but know nonetheless what we mean.
“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.”
Is there an order to madness? Kate used to be a painter and she catalogues the madness of many painters, and philosophers, and many others. Characters in Greek literature share time with Leonardo and Picasso and Rembrandt, the way they do and did in space, Leonardo in the ruins of Rome; the way they did in time – -painters could paint those character in their day, many days after the characters came to life in a different kind of painting – words – also representation, and also free from the confines by time and space.
Kate is fascinated by the fact that three thousand years ago soldiers died in the Greek wars, and then died in the same place again in World War II. Not the same soldiers.
One of her favorite quotes that are interwoven in and out of other thoughts, stories, memories.
“The world is everything that is the case.”
That’s Wittgenstein, though as far as I can recall she never says so. She then says, “I have no idea what I mean by the sentence I have just typed.”
A second is some variation of this:
“Doubtless these are inconsequential perplexities. Still, inconsequential perplexities have now and again been known to become the fundamental mood of existence, one suspects.”
She attributes it alternatively to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, possibly Heidegger.
I would recommend it to anyone interesting in writing or language. It’s unclear why it works, how it works, but it does. It’s so unconventional that it shakes the entire foundation of storytelling. It isn’t a story. It’s the inside of someone’ mind. Unreliable, recurring, full of accidental debris of a life lived, some thoughts you can’t let go of, some that won’t return, stray bits of songs. What are facts without context? What’s a mind without context?