Sunday, September 4, 2011

18 Wittgenstein’s Mistress-David Markson

There is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” -Leonardo
Allow me to introduce you to the crazy intelligent Kate: as unreliable a narrator as you’ll ever find. She begins her story by acknowledging her search for another living being (the cover holds the first sentence of the novel). Believing she is alone in the world she tells her story of living in museums around the world, traveling to the battlegrounds of ancient Greece, and revisiting locations of personal history. Along the way she leaves messages in the hope that somebody else exists.
The problem for the reader: is she the only living woman, or is she mad? The writing style is stream-of-consciousness, and it’s as good as Joyce on crack. She is sitting at a typewriter, over the span of several months, writing an autobiography. Where a day’s worth of writing ends you have to be told by Kate. She offers that she was mad during many moments of her solitary journey, but her honesty seduces the reader to trust what she is writing now. Much of her surroundings appear tangible: clothes dried in the sun, a jar to fetch water from a stream, a canoe, the beach, and the forest. Many of the objects she describes in her house must be real, an atlas, a painting, and half empty bookshelves:
“There is space. Many of the shelves up here are half empty.
Although doubtless when I say they are half empty I should really be saying they are half filled, since presumably they were totally empty before somebody half filled them.
Then again it is not impossible that they were once filled completely, becoming half empty only when somebody removed half of the books to the basement. I find this second possibility less likely than the first, although it is not utterly beyond consideration.”
These philosophical questions pepper the novel, but Kate seems to have an answer for each of them, and you start to trust and understand her point of view. Logical impossibilities that she answers in her madness:  
“Once, when I was listening to myself read the Greek plays out loud, certain of the lines sounded as if they had been written under the influence of William Shakespeare. One had to be quite perplexed as to how Aeschylus or Euripides might have read Shakespeare...Finally it occurred to me that the translator had no doubt read Shakespeare.”
Her actions also seem quite realistic. She travels around the world in any car that still has gas and a working battery. Early in her search she carries baggage and objects, transferring them each time a car runs out of gas. At one point she drops hundreds of tennis balls down The Spanish Steps. Sounds fun, but  she stops carrying things and begins leaving things, forgetting.
Kate makes countless classic allusions to Greek dramas, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. More of her allusions are to artists and paintings: Van Gogh, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, De Kooning, Magritte, and El Greco. The facts she presents, alongside possible encounters of individuals that lived in the same town during the same time periods, lose value as she tries to connect the lives of masters, apprentices, students, and offspring. At many points you think she is just showing off her knowledge of obscure details about artists, the name of Rembrandt’s cat for example. But she can’t remember the name of her own cat, and obviously “one does not name a seagull.”
She claims to have lived in the Met, the Tate, and the Louvre. While in these museums she burned frames of paintings to keep warm, but also hung her own paintings between the masters. Kate clearly has knowledge of art history, but she offers small truisms that you believe until you can no longer trust her sanity. The reader’s trust turns to sympathy. And with that sympathy you question everything she says. Kate has some facts, but they are not remembered accurately. According to Kate the following was said by Leonardo, sadly, it was not:
There is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” -Michelangelo  

p.s. What happened to 10-17? number 9 was read so long ago and the post so horrible...I'll try to keep up. 

1 comment:

Christopher said...

This sounds pretty interesting.