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(R)apports textuels

Éric Athenot
Arnaud Regnauld

Textual intercourse in Springer’s Progress by David Markson

Françoise Palleau


Le roman Springer's Progress, de David Markson (publié en 1977), met en scène un narrateur écrivain, Lucien Springer, qui s'amourache d'une jeune écrivaine, alors qu'il est marié à un agent littéraire. Le contexte de l'écriture n'est qu'un indice de plus pour souligner à quel point ce roman explore le plaisir du texte de manière jubilatoire, dans un jeu érotique avec le langage. L'érotisme n'est pas tant thématique que l'objet même de l'écriture, qui ouvre un jeu de plaisir textuel dans son abus de la citation ou de l'érudition littéraire, invitant à décoder les diverses contraintes de fabrication du texte oulipien, dans une complicité accrue avec le lecteur attentif aux rouages de l'ouvrage textuel. Le vertige produit par la dextérité de l'entreprise mêle eros et thanatos dans une lecture/écriture tendue sur la corde raide, entre plaisir et peur du vide, la digression textuelle et intertextuelle marquant à l'infini la contradiction de l'écrivain, entre bonheur de la création et dépression devant la vanité de sa tâche : l'écrivain espère ainsi contrer sa finitude

Texte intégral

1David Markson’s novel Springer’s Progress (published in 1977), tells of the narrator Lucien Springer’s affair with a younger woman, Jessica Cornford, while married to Dana. He is an alcoholic writer with writer’s block as well as a philanderer, his younger lover is a budding writer and has other lovers, and his wife is a literary agent who copes with his lethargy and angst and pays the bills. What turns this basic plot into a wonderful novel is the playfulness and verbal dexterity with which it is handled. Surprisingly, in a novel claiming to be about sex, many of the sex scenes are incomplete, leaving a partner dissatisfied because of premature ejaculation, or illness. This should already be read as a hint that Markson is too clever to write about sex simply in pornographic fashion. Rather, to impart an idea of sexual pleasure in writing, he translates the notion of pleasure in the media he uses, and turns it into textual pleasure. How else does one actually give pleasure to a reader but in textual intercourse? His strategies to give pleasure and emotion through text are what our concern is here.


2The novel displays a problematic reading contract in its paratextual indications. It was published in 1977 and is dedicated to David Markson’s wife at the time, Elaine Markson, who still is his literary agent. Even if we knew nothing about Markson’s biography, the previous published novel, Going Down, gave the biographical indication clearly: “To Elaine, my wife, and to the memory of Malcom Lowry”. So that the abrupt dedication of Springer’s Progress tells a story of its own: “Elaine. How not?” is a compressed, elliptical autobiographical mention. Even if affectionate, the rhetorical question “how not?” may sound disabused, like a man shrugging his shoulders, throwing up his hands in a theatrical and demonstrative gesture. How could he not dedicate the novel to his wife when she is clearly involved in it, no matter how strained their relationship. This raises the question of exactly how she may be involved in it. Is it because she is the writer’s wife, praised in a private dedication (according to Genette’s distinction between private and public dedications) of the kind we so often read: to my beloved wife who held my hand, read the MS, the proofs, and coped with my moods throughout the excruciating labor of my creation? Or does it mean that, stepping outside the bounds of privacy, in a novel with autobiographical elements or at least toying with autobiography, she somehow enters the fiction as a character, the wife and agent of the narrator who is a writer? Or is this only a public dedication, stressing her involvement as an agent in promoting the writer’s work? So that this narrative dedication is titillating, inviting the reader to investigate the text for answers, to prick up his ears for gossipy fiction dealing with spouses’discontent with each other and their subsequent philandering. Such a reading would limit the text to a public washing of dirty laundry, which it is not, but the paratextual indication invites such gossipy raising of our readerly eyebrows: to what extent does the novel establish an autobiographical contract with the reader, even though the protagonist’s name is Lucien Springer, not David Markson? And why would David Markson publicly display ambiguity between fiction and autobiography in his dedication? These questions are raised more prominently in the last section of the book, numbered 5, when the narrator starts writing his novel with his wife and agent reading it. There may be no answer because we are limited to an ambiguous reading in the ambiguous contract the writer establishes with his readers. We are left to ponder over the hint of possible autobiographical intimacy, and evaluate several stylistic indications stressing a closeness between narrator and narratee, as if we were eavesdropping on Lucien Springer’s intimacy, looking over his shoulder as he writes his story, even as he takes us into his bedroom to witness his amorous sporting with his lovers.

3The epigraph which comes right after the dedication displaces the issue of autobiographical fition to the issue of a woman having a relationship with an older man, even if that older man is none other than Sophocles: “That Sophocles was old when Archippe lived with him is proved by what her former lover Smicrines wittily said when asked what Archippe was doing: “As the owls sit upon the tombs so sits she.” –Athenaeus.” (6th unnumbered page)

4This irreverential piece of gossip about the famous tragedian changes the focus from a historical character to an everyman, a paltry figure, only worthwhile as a nice piece of witty gossip. And conversely, since Sophocles can be laughed at as an old man doting on a younger woman, so may we consider the narrator Springer, enamored of the sex bomb Jessica Cornford. Ironically, hilariously, we are all the choices we make, be they public or private, and gossip seems to be elevated to the rank of major, if playful, news. With the dedication and the epigraph, the provocative tone of irreverence and tongue-incheek judgmental stemess is now set for the novel to unfurl. Provocation, calling forth our heated response, is one way of establishing a passionate relationship with readers, a rhetorical strategy Markson is a master of in this particular novel.

5With self-deprecating humor, the narrator explains that he is a writer with a very limited readership, as Jessica Comford “Admires Springer’s last, she’s said. Decided aura of wit about her for that alone, only nine or thirteen of the century’s other readers in accord. Calamity.” (3-4) So that we “happy few” readers are endowed with the same “aura of wit” as the sex bomb reading Springer’s novels, if we admit the playful and distorted parallelism between Springer and Markson.

6From the start, the implied reader is a man, like Springer, who lounges around at a bar his wife calls a “Prototypic loutish male enclave.” (4) His gaze follows what Springer draws our attention to, mainly women’s butts and boobs, their eyes and hair. He is shamelessly sexist, and shares his sexist humor with provocation: “Consider Norma Miljus, fleshly thirtyish feminist just now ramping by. Dour though dear friend of Cornford’s, in fact, and seemingly impregnable. Or until Springer’d strolled casually homeward with her once of an auspicious eleven p. m., and until the phenomenal mirthfully glandular three hours thereafter.” (5-6) The contrast between the precious, archaic diction and the bawdy topic is what establishes a complicity with the reader. If we cannot experience the narrator’s sexual prowess, we can share the playfulness of his language and the irony geared to himself as much as to his partner as in amorous foreplay. Sex is here called “the phenomenal mirthfully glandular three hours thereafter ” inscribing it precisely in the time of the story-telling with the adverb “thereafter” and inviting us to take linguistic delight in the succession of three long words to qualify the “three hours.” Time is lengthened lexically in the phonological feast of pronouncing “phenomenal mirthfully glandular” and the “three hours” stand for an elliptical delight of enviable duration.

7The implied reader is a sympathetic friend who sounds like Springer’s alter ego on the scene of Springer’s mind. We penetrate Springer’s intimate thoughts in the stream of consciousness narration, in the dialogue he engages with himself, with questions and answers, like a man talking to himself. Ellisions and contractions display the mental work in the character’s stream of consciousness. And these telegraphic notes or mental abbreviations could be ours, in a mirror image. As Lucian speaks to his other self Springer, so do we engage in an inner dialogue, questioning and solving conflicts, exposing our own lies on the scene of our dialectic imagination.


8Springer’s wife Dana, when she starts to read his novel, asks him: “Tell me why the telescoped style, correlative for his state of mind?” (203) Springer laughs off the question with a joke: “I suppose. Not much reason to reach for baroque cadences when all he himself is reaching for is the next drink.” (203) And his wife gets closer to a possible answer when she adds: “Or the next obliging derrière” (203) More than sex, the disjointed syntax may well mimick the uncertainties of love and the difficulty or even the impossibility to describe love. Sex one may describe, in pornography. But love, its unsayable, elusive figuration? One is left with the paltry means of language to try and figure out love syntaxically rather than in any attempt at description. Robert Creeley writes about what he calls “the syntax of’ love in his poem entitled “The Sentence”:

There is that in love
which, by the syntax of,
men find women and join
their bodies to their minds
--which wants so to acquire
a continuity, a place,
a demonstration that it must
be one’s own sentence. (The Charm, 1979, 95)

9This is one way to try and get the reader to grasp the relationship from within the text. If one may not write love, one may write around it, of it, about it, expressing it in the syntax as a form of linguistic figuration. It is a personal sentence, an expression that no other has had, “one’s own sentence” because rendering one’s own experience of love in a singular phrasing.

10Then it will also be “one’s own sentence” or condemnation, as expressing love frames it and condemns it, immobilizes it in a sentence, a death sentence from which love is forever escaping, being ellusive to formulation. Showing Springer’s distrust of lengthy professions of love, his sentences are truncated, elliptical and dense. After great oral sex, Springer the dispirited writer finishes the chapter on the following line: “Hunch, he’s getting. May survive.” (29) Or if we translate his telegraphic style: * He is getting the hunch that he may survive, on a literal level, he will overcome his aversion to his lover’s garlic breath and survive being bewitched by her charms. And also, survive both as a lover (cunnilingus) and as a writer writing with delight, because the expression “Cunnilinguo, ergo sum” (65) is put in parallelism with “Iamb, therefore I am.” (71) Oral sex is the best analogy for literature, if we follow Springer’s Descartian formulations. Or to put it ecstatically, like Springer: “Oh, labialization!” (87)

11There is masochism also in Springer’s shattered sentences, broken up to truncate time, hurting himself as he writes to foreclose hurt, possibly. If, according to Jean-Paul Goux, in La Fabrique du continu, the sentence enacts time (68), it therefore follows our finitude. To contract frantically as Springer does, to the limit of syntax, is to limit the present, to suspend expectation and suffering. But also, it denies any possible enjoyment of the present, in a hungry expectation of the future to look forward to and this drive brushes off the present which is only seen as an obstacle to future pleasure. Springer’s style shows his masochism in his present suffering, as his illusion of future enjoyment mars the moments of pleasure. The narrator is always eager to have a date with Jessica Comford, and often melancholy once with her, quizzing her about her other lovers, savoring his jealousy and torment more than enjoying the moment. Even in sex, he ejaculates prematurely, because he is so eager to see Jessica Cornford that he still anticipates too much once they are together, as he explains: “By now I’m anxious enough so that I half anticipated it before it was happening.” (138) His time frame is disjointed with his old lover Maggie Oldring too. He does not want to see her, but after her death, retrospectively regrets not having been a nicer lover to her.

12Guilty about the past, all too eager to jump ahead into the future, the only durable pleasure Springer experiences is when writing about his love affairs. He humorously likens this to the Romantic creed that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility” when he adds up his memories of previous lovers: “Composite he’s even toyed with, anatomy recollected in tranquility. Bosom from an old lay here, hip there, convexity of a calf from elsewhere still. Cornford’s just wiped out the lot of them.” (30)

13To give a texture of its own to his “anatomy recollected in tranquility,” Springer composes the body of his own text with bits and pieces of famous quotations from our literary heritage. At sentence level, his telescoped style gives his own sentences their inimitable mark to frame his difficulty to express love while figuring it all the same. And in his mode of composition, he uses all kinds of intertext to inscribe, no matter how ironically, his own expression of love in a crazy-quilt pattern of famous quotations, displacing, mistreating, even raping literature boisterously at times.


14The novel unfolds in five parts, like a classical tragedy in five acts. The knot of the drama occurs at the end of part 3 when Springer’s old lover Maggie Oldring commits suicide, leaving Springer clobbered by guilt and regret; and also when his younger lover Jessica Comford works on her novel, leaving Springer jealous and sick of his writer’s block. The fourth part deals with his guilt and his assessment of where he stands. And in the fifth part he starts writing the novel we have now almost finished reading. So that the last part recapitulates the previous ones, getting over the writer’s block and his disjunctions of all kinds. Or to misuse a famous quote in all high-school biology books, as Springer says: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” (102) Before he gets down to writing, he “doodles” (122) in various literary forms, writing scabrous poems with titles such as “On the Question of Jessica’s Ass” (45, 70) in classical verse, or he jots down several possible plots sounding like the most sloppy romance ever: “Honey, I’m sorry. I love you, I always have. But I can’t help myself. We’re using an inheritance Jessie just found out about and leaving for Tehuantepec in ten or twelve days. /Lucien, I don’t want to hear more. Just get out of here now, will you? Go. Please go.” (156) In this passage as in several others, he is mocking a novelist at work, trying several possible plots in short consecutive paragraphs, and here’s another: “Oh, dear God above, Lucien, how could you? And with a ski pole? You kept stabbing her with a ski pole?” (157) Then Jessica tells him to get started no matter what: “Lucien, stop moaning. Just sit down and scribble any old opening to goose yourself. Worry about making sense later.” (198) This triggers a chapter made up entirely of the first sentences of several major literary works spanning from Chaucer to William Gaddis, to name only two writers in the incredible gathering. In that chapter in particular, Markson wears out the old models in his use and abuse of textual references, leaving us buried in a heap of quotations to make sense of like Winnie getting things out of her bag in Happy Days. Quoting from the beginning:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. Now is the winter of our discontent. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’son. Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south. She waited, Kate Croy. Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. For a long time I used to go to bed early. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor. Of man’s first disobedience. According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoeniciens began the quarrel. Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades.... (199)

15And the last of the opening lines goes: “Once upon a time?” (200)

16This is textual intercourse to fight vertigo, scraps of literature to relish between bouts of hunger. Amazingly, all those first sentences or first lines coincide with Springer’s plight somehow, as if Springer’s progress was the sum of all our literary heritage, a life in letters, like a knight springing from one quotation to another on the chessboard of our canonic reading lists. Here is authorship as looting or reappropriating the tradition, a writer’s progress encompassing all other works in an endless and vital digression. That’s why he feels entitled to drop quotation marks, using other voices as his own, transposing them or punning on them. Lovemaking is as enjoyable as punning in the last line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (“If winter comes, can spring be far behind”): “If Cornford’s come, can Springer be far behind?” (33)

17He often misquotes famous authors, or applies the wrong author to the quotation he gives, in iconoclastic and violent contrasts that surprise and delight by the novelty and the irreverence of wrongly-applied quotations. When he ascribes a famous line by Robert Herrick to Martin Luther, this may in fact tell us more about the quotation: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Martin Luther?” (21) While Robert Herrick wrote that line, Luther should have written it. Protestantism is the backdrop against which hedonism dies. The end of the stanza is a chastizing, stern, somewhat Lutherian comment on the vanity of life whose end is death:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The third stanza bluntly brings together sex and death:
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
After sex, writing a recollection of it in tranquility
may be the only pleasure left to ward off death
Or Springer the writer enjoys giving the key to
other writers’textual intercourse, recalling Dylan
Thomas’s punning in his play Under Milk Wood:
“Llareggub spelled backwards” (151)

18Springer manages to rape even Shakespeare’s loaded innuendoes when he quotes Henry V (III, i) to illustrate his anal intercourse with Jessica Cornford. He only brings out the phallic power of war from the text, omitting literal meaning and only focusing on the connotations, quoting the beginning of the speech: “Just relax. Unto the breach, dear friends. Jessie, hold still. /Oh, dear. /Once more. Or close the wall up with our English dead.” (37) Read in that light, the passage becomes hilarious. The full quotation from Shakespeare, not given by Springer, goes:

King Henry (Alarums):
Once more unto the breach, dear friends , once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head,
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it,
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhand and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide;
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height!

19Springer does not need to quote the full passage, and prefers to rely on our memory, while he turns the breach in the wall into a metaphor for Jessica’s buttocks.

20Misquotations and intertextual recombinations for the sheer delight of doing irreverence to great texts may ward off boredom, precisely because descriptions of sex would only be futile attempts to capture a fleeting moment which by nature may not be penned down, love’s climax, like death, being inexpressible: “Write these moments and not induce boredom, eternal fugitive sameness of such? How many times the rose leaves die of grieving in a single book?” (182)

21To give impetus to writing, simulating a writer at work as in Tristram Shandy, especially when the narrator goes wild with jealousy, he asks “So which fucking fucker’s she fucking?” (186) and the following chapter shows a writer doodling over his typewriter (187-8). He is beginning to write again, at first only st sentences from manuels to see if the typewriter works properly, and making typos: “The quick brown fxo jumped over the lazy dog’s back.” (187) As Markson explains, such set sentences serve the technical purpose of checking the machine “because they presumably contain all twenty-six letters of the alphabet.” (Letter to F. Palleau, Oct. 7, 2003) And that particular sentence also enhances the sense that the dog feels betrayed and in a ridiculous position. At this stage Springer is not only jealous of Jessica’s other lovers but also of her writing her novel. Fucking in this particular case equates writing.

22Another great example of playing with famous texts in intertextual intercourse is when Springer abuses Shakespeare’s line that Brutus was an honorable man to describe his failure to raise it up to his pretension:

“Ah, Jessica. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
“Come on. Make sense.”
“He was my friend, faithful and just to me. But Brutus says he was ambitious.” (...)
“I’m obsolete. A third time’s pure rumor.”
“Everything was lovely. You’re the noblest rumor of them all.”” I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
“Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.” (41)

23Finally, sex is only a pretext for metaphysical questioning and for pondering over the vanity of our human condition and the absurdity of inscribing one’s mark on it. Part five opens on the disillusioned narrator who no longer looks to sex for a digression from depression and from his writer’s block: “Same for his leucorrheal brain. Examine it like a vagina and moths’d blink out.” (177) If there is hope, it lies in the book the reader has in hand, which materializes Springer’s recovery from his writer’s block. Markson’s as well, we may tentatively extrapolate.

24This is textual intercourse in five acts, both a drama and a comedy, with a sense of tragedy in the playfulness. The imbrication of eros and thanatos comes out particularity in the structure of the play as drama, with uncathartic, Beckettian sadness in the heart of pleasure. “Springer once finally about to laugh here, maybe? Wail? Or pursue some trivial impulse for catharsis, better, like drop by at the Frick and splash peroxide on the El Grecos?” (148)

25There is no catharsis, no resolution, no end to desire. Like the beloved, a work of art, a work of literature does not let itself be mastered. The reader, like a lover, may not own it, may enjoy letting go, drifting along with it, and may not even get rid of it. Because it echoes something in his own life, a question left unanswered, like some quotation forgotten yet still on one’s mind, a line which echoes one’s personal life story and public history, something both private and public, both intimate and social, as part of history (after Philippe Dagen commenting on Hubert Damisch). Our literary heritage is called upon the scene of Springer’s writing, making that text somewhat ours in the enjoyment of intertextual intercourse and abuse between narrator and reader. If, as Jean-Luc Marion explains, the lover gives the beloved his or her identity in lovemaking, an identity the lover does not own, then similarly there is lovemaking in the recognition of the intertext in the exchange. Simply, the delight of lovemaking with language comes forth in the climactic style Springer uses when he finally gets down to writing his novel: “Just get it down, oh terrific, erogenous, hunt in rhapsodies and peck in rigadoons, recollected foreplay of Jessica please nourish him, unforgotten fellatio of Jessica please intoxicate him, in saecula saeculorum, break off only once for one near masturbatory remembrance of his unfulfilled upside-down Archimedean dream.” (205) And Springer does call forth his readers’textual memory with great playfulness, inviting us to be the implied reader, or simply to be part of it all: “All eleven of his readers be positive this page’s a misprint?” (159)



Dagen Philippe, "Hubert Damisch, écrivain des images", Le Monde, dimanche 6-lundi 7 juillet 2003, 20.

Genette Gérard, 1987, Seuils, Paris, Seuil.

Goux Jean-Paul, 1999, La Fabrique du continu: essai sur la prose, Seyssel, Champ Vallon.

Marion Jean-Luc, 2003, Le Phénomène érotique: six méditations, Paris, Grasset.

Markson David, 1977 (1999), Springer’s Progress, Normal, II, Dalkey Archive.


Ancienne élève de l'École Normale Supérieure Fontenay-St Cloud (Lyon-LSH) et agrégée d'anglais, est actuellement maître de conférences à l'Université de Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle. Elle a écrit une thèse sur Willa Cather, et édité l'ouvrage Reading Patricia Eakins (Presses Universitaires d'Orléans, 2002). Elle est l'auteur d'une monographie sur Patricia Eakins pour la Review of Contemporary Fiction (automne 2003). Son domaine de predilection est la littérature américaine contemporaine (John Edgar Wideman, Russell Banks, Jayne Anne Phillips, Mary Caponegro). Elle est notamment l'auteur de nombreux articles sur David Markson, et prépare une monographie critique sur cet écrivain

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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