WRITING / Driven to the edge of the page: Graham Greene did it; so did Coleridge, Blake, Beerbohm and Pound. Kevin Jackson considers a solitary vice

Earlier this week, Private Eye's 'Books and Bookmen' column claimed that there was trepidation in literary circles at the news that Graham Greene's personal library will shortly be coming up for sale. Anxiety may seem like an odd response to such a bland announcement. The alleged object of concern, however, is not so much the words printed in Greene's books as the words scribbled in them - that is to say, their marginalia. For example, Greene's copy of Evelyn Waugh and His World is said to inscribed with rude remarks about Malcolm Bradbury's contribution: 'How E W would have shuddered at the style]', ' Does this mean anything?' and so on.

Whatever the degree of accuracy in this report, it does serve as a useful reminder that the habit of defacing books is not a weakness exclusive to the semi-literate. True, most marginalia do have an air of pathos, since they are often the only means by which the scrawler can ever hope to preserve his or her words between hard covers (the note of frustrated self-assertion is just one of the ways in which they resemble graffiti). Victoria Wood is, as ever, acute on these humbler outbursts, complaining that the books in her local library are always full of comments like Oh, I agree or We washed everything by hand, too: 'I mean', she observes, 'it's a bit disconcerting to flick through a copy of Hamlet to find 'This happened to me' scrawled all over Act Four' (see Mens Sana in Thingummy Doodah).

Yet diligent students everywhere know that the act of reading is lazy and incomplete without a pen or pencil, and some of the world's greatest poets, novelists and philosophers were also inveterate writers on the side. Though the phrase 'a book to be read with one hand' is usually an arch euphemism for 'Porn', readers such as these will take up their book with one hand even when the pages in view are as chaste as Diana. The scrawls they add may be outraged, or pedantic, or witty, or simply incomprehensible. All of them mark an unresisted urge to make a noise in the white silence of the page's edge. Marginalia are the handwritten traces of imaginary conversations - above all, of imaginary arguments.

And should the scribbler achieve eminence, some of those jottings may themselves end up preserved in scholarly texts, ripe objects for yet further marginalia. Most modern editions of Blake include his annotations to Swedenborg, Bacon and Sir Joshua Reynolds' 'Discourses', in the recognition that many of them are as memorable and telling as anything in his poems: 'This man was hired to depress art'; 'To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit'; 'Genius has no Error; it is Ignorance that is Error.'

Coleridge was an even more unbridled annotator. His collected Marginalia run to five fat volumes and thousands of pages of the Bollingen edition. Though we do not know who introduced the word 'marginalia' into English, it was one of Coleridge's early editors, Henry Nelson Coleridge who, in a preface to the Literary Remains III (1838), offered one of the best descriptions of the process: 'His books, that is, any person's books - even those from a circulation library - were to him, whilst reading them, as dear friends; he conversed with them as with their authors, praising, or censuring, or qualifying, as the open page seemed to give him cause. . .'

Bar the words about 'dear friends', this account might seem to hold true of most marginalia. Its weakness lies in the failure to imagine that the comments may be addressed not to the author but, say, to subsequent readers of the same work. Sometimes these may be offered in helpful spirit - corrections to factual errors and the like. (Mr Douglas Matthews of the London Library notes that it is these scribbles which pose his colleagues the most ticklish ethical problem: should they apply their erasers if the correction is just?) More commonly, these defacers set out to annoy, to solicit agreement, even to impress.

It was this last thought which inspired Flann O'Brien, writing as Myles na Gopaleen, to concoct his ingenious scheme for a book-handling service, aimed at those rich enough to accumulate a private library but too busy, lazy or stupid actually to read it. Anyone wanting to make a favourable impression on those who looked at their books would simply have to call in O'Brien's team of expert maulers, who would not only crease, dog-ear, crumple and stain them with the signs of heavy use, but make smart annotatations:

'Suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink, and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:

Rubbish]

Yes, indeed]

How true, how true]

I don't agree at all.

Why?

Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151

Well, well, well.

Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l'histoire Universel has already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.

Nonsense, nonsense]

A point well taken]

But why in heaven's name?

I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.'

Caveat scriptor: even when such comments are quite genuine, the act of writing them may backfire on the perpetrator - especially in the pages of frequently borrowed editions in university libraries, where every snide or angry expostulation is likely to draw an angry or snide reprisal, which will then provoke another rebuttal, and another, until there is no white space left and the beleaguered librarians have to fork out for a new copy (Mr Matthews also points out that writing in library books is selfish vandalism, and that offenders should buy their own copies instead.)

Sometimes, too, these annotations record the reader's conversation with him- or herself. Take this outburst, found in the pages of a library copy of T S Eliot's After Strange Gods next to his notorious remarks about 'free-thinking Jews': 'YOU BASTARD. (Control yourself, remember you are dealing with a very sick mind)'. While the first words, five times underlined, scream at Eliot in impotent rage, those in brackets are more like angry muttering - a kind of marginal soliloquy.

It reads, or at any rate has been contrived to read, as wholly spontaneous - a fact which points to another defining feature of writing in what newspaper designers call the gutter. (As Oscar Wilde remarked, all of us are lying in the gutter. . . ) In May 1808, Coleridge noted that his habit of annotation was so ingrained that his left brain hardly knew what his right hand was doing: 'I write more unconscious that I am writing, than in my most earnest notes I talk - I am not then so unconscious of talking, as, when I write in these dear, and only once profaned, Books, I am of the act of writing'. That interesting phrase 'only once profaned' rightly suggests that most marginalia are prompted by first readings, and that subsequent perusals are calmer - though Saul Bellow has recorded one terrible occasion in which a friend, the poet John Berryman, picked up a copy of his own verses and went through it wildly scrawling 'crap]' and other self-lacerations.

In fact, the 'first readings' which are most likely to produce marginalia are those which happen before the book goes to press, and are offered by editors or friends by way of guiding the author towards a definitive statement. Like Blake's cries, these remarks can end up in print, too, either by being incorporated into the text or, as in the case of Ezra Pound's annotations to Eliot's The Waste Land, in a facsimile edition of the manuscript.

Since its publication in 1971, some of Pound's editorial ticks, nudges and yelps have become as familiar to students of modernism as anything he wrote: 'make up yr mind you Tiresias if you know know damn well or else you dont' (sic), and 'damn per'apsez'. The volume also contains one of the eeriest marginalia in literary history. In the drafts of 'In the Cage' is an early version of Eliot's ghastly portrait of a modern marriage, generally agreed to be an oblique memoir of the poet's own evenings with his mentally ill wife. Next to it, Vivien Eliot has written a single word: 'WONDERFUL.'

The distance between the pencilled maxims of Coleridge, Blake and Pound and the scrawls of your average library vandal is about the same as the distance between these poet's verses and the sort of couplets found on a lavatory wall. In most respects, that is. As opposed to impromptu doodles, shopping lists and quick memos, marginalia are always reactive and often rude. They bear something of the same relation to the printed texts as parodies do to their originals, which may be why a gifted parodist like Max Beerbohm was also an inspired marginalist.

As a result, the whiff of ribald insult that tends to hang around even the politest marginalia suggests that they have psychological affinities not just with lavatory epics but with the leering, vomiting, defecating clowns and monsters which teem around the edges of manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Art historians are beginning to come up with new and curious accounts of all those lascivious apes and bared bottoms. Perhaps it is time for marginalia to be given similar attention, and regarded as literary works within a distinct genre - albeit, to be sure, a marginal one.

(Photograph omitted)

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