Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia carries the subtitle Notes In The Margin Of My Time. Scribbling in the margins is a metaphor that recurs throughout the book, and I’m not sure metaphor is the right word because it seems to be literally true that James has built these essays around passages he has marked, and comments he has pencilled into the margins, of his prodigious library over a half century of reading.* For instance, in his essay on Egon Friedell he writes:
I own three copies of the handsome, single-volume post-war edition put out by Beck. My intention was to use one of them as a workbench, and put into its endpapers the notes that have gone into this book. But I ended up defacing my beautiful Phaidon edition, perhaps guessing in advance that my graffiti would be labours of love.
I have just received a vivid lesson in the benefits of writing in the margins, as I spent most of an evening hunting through the 851 pages of Cultural Amnesia for a half-remembered line about (to paraphrase) a lengthy book made still longer by all the notes the reader inevitably finds himself making in the endpapers. I couldn’t find it.
I never write in books, and I detest those who do. In another essay – I won’t try and search for it – James attempts to extrapolate, from notes in the margins, the politics of the previous owner of a certain German-language book he has acquired secondhand. The only thing I’ve ever gleaned from a marginal note is that the previous owner was too lazy to reach for a bookmark. But perhaps James frequents used bookshops with a more erudite clientele.
If you must write in the margins, you might as well do all your note-taking there; once the text has been violated, no amount of gentlemanly self-restraint can restore it to innocence. The lowest form of book-defacer is the one who marks a single passage in a book, then stops; this mark can easily be missed by the future browser as he riffles the pages prior to purchasing.
I own two books like this. One is Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful Of Dust. In an otherwise virgin copy, some fool has used a pen to bracket this paragraph, in which a character passes the time with a game of solitaire – “patience”, as the Brits call it:
Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backwards and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.
I assume the defacer was an English student; this passage is pregnant with symbolic possibilities, containing as it does the actual word “symbols”. But its significance to the larger story is obscure. Mrs. Rattery is a minor character, a bluff American aviatrix who wanders in at a vital juncture in the plot, then soon wanders out again. Her elaborate game of patience has no bearing on her relationship to the other characters; she’s not a schemer or an organizer. Nor is “order [growing] out of chaos” a theme of A Handful Of Dust – quite the opposite; like most of Waugh’s novels, it’s about the breakdown of the old social hierarchies. Perhaps my hypothetical English student intended to use Mrs. Rattery and her game of patience as a metaphor for Waugh-as-writer, although that would make for a rather generic essay; all writers, except the bad ones, establish “sequence and precedence”.
I also have a copy of Graham Greene’s The Ministry Of Fear in which someone has singled out this observation:
A police photograph is like a passport photograph: the intelligence which casts a veil over the crude common shape is never recorded by the cheap lens. No one can deny the contours of the flesh, the shape of the nose and mouth, and yet we protest: This isn’t me…
The mark was made in pencil, so I might attempt to erase it, though I’m sure a shadow will remain. Oddly enough, half-erased marginal jottings play a part in the story of The Ministry Of Fear. The hero, who stumbles into a Nazi espionage plot, spends some time in an asylum run by a pacifist doctor. On a bookshelf the hero finds a book of Tolstoy’s, and notices some rubbed-out pencil marks beside the following sentiment:
Remembering all I have done, suffered, and seen, resulting from the enmity of nations, it is clear to me that the cause of it all lay in the gross fraud called patriotism and love of one’s country…
The “ignoble” attempt to erase his approving checkmarks is enough to make the doctor a suspect: “This was an opinion to be held openly if at all,” thinks the hero. I wonder if some future owner of my copy of The Ministry Of Fear will think I’ve ignobly repudiated my opinion on the inaccuracy of police photographs?
* This is an awkwardly constructed sentence which I’ve chosen not to rewrite. Let it serve as an inside joke for those who’ve enjoyed James’ riff on Edward Gibbon, where he excoriates that learned figure for sentences even more awkward than this one.