We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
- Billy Collins, “Marginalia”
In one of a collection of essays by George Steiner, No Passion Spent, he writes that “marginalia are the immediate indices of the reader’s response to the text, of the dialogue between the book and himself.” I cannot agree with him more. But beyond that, I must say that marginalia are more complicated creatures: they not only chronicle the affair between text and reader, but guide us into a web-like universe of multiple texts and readers. I know this because I have lived intimately with marginalia my whole life.
I grew up tracking and receiving a trail of things my dead mother left me: a gold pendant, several trinkets in her wooden jewelry box, a stainless steel watch that a neighbor in his sixties found “cute.” But most treasured of all were the things she made with her hands: odd and vivid paintings, that battered old photo album where she left a spontaneous essay on the inside covers (philosophic questions and reflections written in staccato, the most beautiful thing I had ever read and the closest I had come to poetry), and lastly, the precious, frantic notes and studies on the margins and fly leaves of her novels.
I grew up reading my dead mother’s scribblings—the almost desperate, spidery red writing—lining the books that would later become my favorites: the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. And in that cozy, textual world I would imagine the three of us in my grandmother’s living-room where my mother’s paintings hang: Durrell with crossed legs, in rumpled, travel-worn clothes, smoking; my mother in her favorite polka-dot mini-dress, also smoking; and myself, in jeans and sandals, waving away their collective smoke and enjoying the conversation immensely. Now, that’s marginalia for me.
Like a tête-á-tête, there in the borders, written precariously, were the token notes, the intricate little clues she had gathered chapter after chapter, each discovery punctuated by an exclamation point as eloquent as her breathless “Wow!” Among the cream-colored pages I found tantalizing statements like “Pursewarden’s tendency?” I could almost imagine her raised eyebrow, as if any moment she might jab me in the ribs and ask her favorite author in a low whisper, “Is it true?” These breathed life into my first encounter with literature. I have, in fact, joined the fray, by adding my cautious and conservative blank ink next to her (flaming) red scarlet question: “This is Clea’s letter now so it pertains to Clea’s would-be affair,” as if to lightly chide her for her over-excited reading.
I share a conspiratorial smile when I read I read what my mother wrote: “This is me!” This, in reference to that awful, heartless woman who laughs at love—the original Justine (Hosnani), the defiant anti-heroine of the quartet. “Your mother was maldita” explained an aunt. (This was before she supposedly softened up with motherhood). I laugh at that and hear my mother’s laughter. Beautiful, gamine, free-spirited, vain, independent, intelligent, and above all, in possession of a self-deprecating humor…None of these descriptions had been volunteered by my father. These were things she left behind in her marginalia, in the generous light-hearted strokes of her handwriting, in her free and unique penchant for the lower-case. I have formed a kinship with her books. They offer me more than a voyeuristic glimpse into a private conversation between reader and text: they have opened their arms to me because they are places my mother walked. Somewhere in the corridors, she grabs my arm and brings me back to her girlhood home where we can huddle with Durrell and “talk art.” There it does not matter that I have craved her maternal tenderness all my life.
She writes, boldly underlined: “…shocking grotesquerie of purgated love.” And in another page, quite wisely, she states, “There is mystery after mystery but never for mystery’s sake. Mystification is one of the principal strategies by which Durrell communicates his sense of relativity. There are truths in abundance, but there is NO Truth.” Sometimes I imagine that she knew I would tread the same ground. But that is what we all feel when we read or write marginalia. It is a moment of tender revelation for us, or shocked discovery when we take our pen and dare to write our rage, our understanding, our sadness. They are written not only for ourselves but for the next reader. “I cannot help it, it must be said.” There is nothing shy, nothing restrained in the writing of marginalia. They are stories beside the story.
Dozens of stories wait with bated breath to be told along the invitingly blank spaces of a book leaf. Inscribed in a thousand and one varieties, these proofs of readership beckon to us, meriting more than a cursory glance. They awaken the romantic beneath our leathery skeptic selves. They teach us to grow away from the clean, freshly-cut leaves of new acquisitions toward the musty, ink and oil-stained appeal of a book with a past. Nothing compares to the serendipitous joy of discovering a musty, old tome that belonged to—what luck!—a favorite writer, a former professor. And also we find those rare ones, painful, lines crowded in a corner: “I bought this book when my mother died.” Beside it are dried teardrops, marked by three irregularly shaped, blue-edged spots.
Through the books my mother left me I have come to realize the weight of having been named. For names have so much to do with life. A book is not possessed until it is branded by the name of its owner, it gains its face from the stamp, and the bookplate that marks it purchased, given, received.
When I was small my yaya told me I was named after an Egyptian princess. That suited me just fine. And I was, in fact, quite proud. But the books in my possession always hinted at more. And then I finally understood later on: Justine was no Egyptian princess. She was a self-torturing Jewess who happened to live in Egypt. She was a wounded woman, a woman who could wish that love were another word, perhaps evol; part of “evolution,” inverted the way God can be reversed to “dog.” I could not understand why she named me after this woman. Much later, I realized that I was actually named after her stepdaughter (the offspring of Nessim, Justine’s husband, and Melissa, Darley’s mistress), the blank child, the one Darley chooses to name after Justine, as if to redeem her.
In the ritual of naming, of being hailed, I saw another facet of this woman: Ditas, my mother. A side I did not know and did not wish to know. For she was a wounded woman as well, a woman full of rage and sorrow, a woman capable of predicting her own death (I heard she only gained ire by this). A woman who quarreled with my father constantly and wallowed in self-pity. If I cringed at being named after Justine Hosnani, then I cringed even more at this dark side of my mother. She shared not a few things in common with the original Justine. My questioning was in fact a terrible accusation against her: How could you be this cruel, tortured woman?
I feel her answer. I feel it in the very desperation of her writing: the angry redness, the manic haste. It is the same desperation with which she sought to be loved. And there it shines, rising from behind the complex shadows of characters, the mystery of all that is written and left to be read: that she has loved, and this is what she has reaped. Imperfect as she was, I need no more explanations about her self-perceived failures. All is forgiven in the face of this love.
Alexandria has become my spiritual birthplace. Never have I lived more intensely than in the span of time it took me to read and countlessly re-read the favorite four books of my mother. I will never forget those first few lines read at four years old: “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind…a sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places…” I was forever enthralled and I knew that I would read these books relentlessly through life.
The colors, sounds, and textures of Alexandria are forever described in my mother’s voice, as though she were leaving me a metropolis as inheritance. And truly, I have inherited that city. Beside Cinderella in kindergarten I had Justine (on which you will still find my childish scrawl), believing them both to be princesses in the happily-ever-after. In between Nancy Drew books there were nights I silently grieved for an English schoolteacher hidden away on an island, remembering a woman with a low, harsh laugh. As I trudged through Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy in high school I began to realize, with shock, the true nature of my namesake. And in full-fledged understanding as a college student I began to appreciate the complexity, the amazing richness of a city as beautiful and ugly as its inhabitants. Throughout this life-long affair my mother greeted, me, talked to me, wept with me. I was led through Alexandria’s gates on the arm and under the aegis of an intensely beautiful woman, a woman from whom I inherited, both literally and figuratively, my eyes.
Durrell writes: “The central topic of the book is an investigation of modern love…it would be worth trying an experiment to see if we cannot discover a morphological form one might appropriately call ‘classical’—for our time. Even if the result proved to be a ‘science fiction’ in the true sense.”
And from Alexandria my mother found herself and harvested my name. Peering through the many fictions of truth and love that both of us have gained. And I am the luckiest, because in the last instance, my mother left me with a gift more potent than blood: in her marginalia she stamped her life—complex, rich, not without a great amount of pain…but always a surrender to love. Like the madmen and the prophets who have emerged from that ancient city we bear its searing mark.
I have met the beautiful girl who had written so poignantly on the margins of my favorite books; I have met her as my mother and myself. And how vastly my loneliness deepened because of the many spaces she filled in my heart and in my life! Paradox, yes, and wonderfully so. In the realm of marginalia there is no time.
It is a room in my grandfather’s house in Cebu where my mother’s paintings hang, where Lawrence Durrell points outside the window and says, “Ah, here comes your mother and Justine Hosnani! Look how dusty they are from walking in the market stalls!” and I sit smiling in anticipation of the watermelon ices I am sure they have bought for me.