Au Revoir

On this day in 2008, Marks in the Margins posted its first blog. Now, ten years later and after almost 1,000 posts, Marks in the Margins is saying goodbye.

Thank you for reading and commenting. I have appreciated knowing there have been a few readers of my remarks.

Marks in the Margin will continue to be online until the next deadline for renewing the server subscription, sometime later this year.

Best wishes to all of you,

Richard Katzev


On Rereading

In the “late season” of my life, I have been rereading some of my favorite books. Reading a book for the second or third time can be quite different than the first time. We are not the same, often view things differently and have forgotten a great deal of the book. From the Archives, here are Patricia Spacks comments about the rereading experience.

I am reading On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. It is the first time I’ve read it, although I have reread the first chapter that sketches Spacks’ views on the value of rereading and the reasons that motivate her to devote a fair amount of time to rereading literary fiction.

She suggests we reread for enjoyment, a way to evoke memories, a reminder of forgotten truths, as well as a source of new ones. But we also reread, she says, to measure how we have changed or even if we have changed. “…but for most readers, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of unexpected change.”

She cites a passage from an essay on rereading by Vivian Gornick:

 “When I read Colette in my twenties, I said to myself, That is exactly the way it is. Now I read her and I find myself thinking, How much smaller this all seems than it once did—cold, brilliant, limited—and silently I am saying to her, Why aren’t you making more sense of things?”

But for the most part Spacks suggests we reread fiction because we want to re-experience the pleasure we found when we first read a book, the enjoyment that can arise from an engaging story, stimulating truth or fine writing. 

The bulk of her text describes the various encounters she has had rereading books. She treats the books she read as a child, her favorite Jane Austen, those she read in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, the books she read as a professional teacher and critic, those she ought to have liked, but didn’t and the ones she has read as a member of a book group.

In the final chapter, Coda, she reviews what she has learned from all the books she’s reread. She wonders what the era of electronic books will do to reading and the experience of rereading and confesses she can’t begin to imagine what that will be. 

At the same time, she realizes how much she has “been shaped—personality, sensitivities, convictions—by reading.” She also comes to better understand how the extent to which her values and attitudes have changed over the years.

“If Herzog has meanings that I was earlier unable to detect; if The Golden Notebook, with large pretensions, now seems relatively trivial in import; if the facts of a book’s nature can shift in such ways, value judgments, too must be less stable than they appear.”

Most of the rereading I do is simply because I’ve forgotten so much, if not all, of what the book was about, why I liked it, and why it is (usually) still on my shelf. And then there are those special books that I don’t forget. Unlike Spacks, I know I don’t want to reread them again. I don’t want to do anything to alter the memory that I have of those days, the people in the book, their story and the great writing. None of it can ever be repeated. They were the best and I want to keep it just that way.

I’d rather not experience Gornick’s melancholy lament: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.”

Here is a brief video of Spacks talking about her book:



Each year I add to my Commonplace Book a section that I refer to as Briefs. Briefs are provocative comments, a word or phrase, a quotation from a random collection of almost anything I read—a newspaper, blog, journal, essay, book, etc. Here are a few of those I added last year.

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

Martin Luther King
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Pascal Mercier
The merciless decline of all living things.

Isaiah Berlin
Transplanted flowers decay in unsympathetic climates; so do human beings.

T. S. Eliot
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

Bernhard Schlink

There is no need to talk because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.

Donna Leon
She was a woman who lived in her imagination, who immediately turned what she saw into stories, who caught a person’s expression and made up what had happened to them, and she believed in tragedy.

David Sax

Why bother writing articles, mounting investigations, and uncovering facts if they had no discernible impact?

George Steiner
There comes a time when it’s too late for many things.

Richard Flanagan
It became hard to believe that all the things that had happened to him had ever really happened, that he had seen all the things he had seen. Sometimes, it was hard to believe he had ever really been to war at all. He understood that all this would go on, and of him nothing would remain, that even his memory, though held by a few family and friends for a few years, perhaps decades, would ultimately be forgotten and mean no more than a fallen bamboo, than the inescapable mud.

Walker Percy
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

San Shepard
The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

Anais Nin
We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospection.


Migration Crisis

Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food. Jenny Erpenbeck

Almost every day I read another story about the plight of migrants. A boat capsized in the Mediterranean, almost one hundred drowned. The government of X turned back several hundred migrants who had walked all the way from Syria. The people of country Y have erected chain-linked fences to keep the migrants from entering.

I sit in my chair and am appalled. What good are my feelings in the face of these stories? What good are my feelings if I do nothing? But what can I do? I read two novels about migrants to see if they have an answer.

In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid writes about a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an unnamed Middle Eastern city and fall in love. When violence erupts and Saeed’s mother is killed, the couple begin making plans to leave. They learn of magical doors that open to new lands.

The first door takes them to Mykonos, where they settle in a tent city. They meet a Greek girl there who helps them to another door that takes them to London. As more migrants arrive there, the hostility of the native-born convinces Nadia to leave through another door that opens in Marin County in California.

They seem welcome there, but in time they realize they no longer love one another and go their separate ways. Fifty years later they meet by chance again and Saeed offers to take Nadia to see the stars in Chile.

While I sympathize with Nadia and Saeed, Exit West has no answer for me, so I turn to another novel hoping it might.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck is the story of Richard, a retired, classics professor of comfortable means who, for reasons that are not entirely clear seeks to learn about the migrants he sees one day in a Berlin square. He wants to know where they are from, why they left, what they did before leaving, what their hopes are for the future.

They are from Nigeria, Syria, Ghana, Niger or Burkina Fasso. They are Awad, Rashid, Osarobo. They speak English, Italian, French and other less known languages. Richard begins talking to them, they begin to trust him and welcome his visits.

Richard starts to take them food, tries to teach them German and then invites them to his home. He teaches one to play his piano, another to cook meals and eventually allows a group of them to stay in his home.

In these ways, Richard begins to befriend and learn about the refugees he chanced upon one day in Berlin. He begins to understand their plight, the daily suffering they encounter and how they plan to avoid it.

In Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone I begin to find an answer to my initial question, to go beyond my feelings and translate them into action.

We are all migrants though time. Mohsin Hamid


Don't Save Anything

To write! What a marvelous thing!” Paul LĂ©autaud

Not long after James Salter died, his wife began rummaging through the boxes of articles and essays he had written. While most had been published in magazines and newspapers, they had never been collected in one volume. However, the best of them have now been brought together in his Don't Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles, Reviews. Here are passages from a few of them:

On Other Writers

The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.

He interviewed Nabokov at a hotel in Switzerland “amid tables spread with white cloth and silver as if for dinners before the war, an apt setting for a man who didn’t embrace the modern world.”

On Paris
The new La Coupole has everything the earlier one had—appearance location—everything except one small detail, the soul.

On Venice
Off to Torcello for lunch jolting across the wide lagoon the wind blowing the dark green water to whiteness past San Michele with its brick walls the island on which Stravinsky and Diaghilev lay buried—the real and the false glory one moving past the other though there are times when one cannot tell which is which.

On Mountain Climbing

We will all die and be forgotten but there is in climbing a mythic element that draws one on. Half Dome El Capitan the Dru: these are names we have given to things that will be here almost as long as the earth itself.

On Writing
You cannot teach someone to write any more than you can teach them to be interesting.

The act of writing, though often tedious, can produce extraordinary pleasure.

Describe he is continually reminding himself describe.

The cynics say that if you do not write for money you are a dabbler or a fool, but this is not true. To see one’s work in print is the real desire, to have it read. In the end writing is like a prison an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude the thoughts the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.

Latent in me, I suppose, there was always the belief that writing was greater than other things, or at least would prove to be greater in the end. Call it a delusion if you like, but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been. There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.

There is something called the true life, which I cannot describe and which perhaps varies as one sees it from different angles and at different times. At one point it is travel, at another a certain woman, at another a house somewhere with a view you will worship till you die. It is a life apart from money and to the side of ambition, a life lived in one way or another for beauty. It does not last indefinitely, but the survivors are usually not poorer for it.”


Ordinary Heroes

Principles are the main ingredient of courage. A man with principles can get the better of fear.

Scott Turow’s novel, Ordinary Heroes, is not what you might expect, one of his legal thrillers. Rather it is a saga of World War II, resulting in what Turow reminds us were 40 million deaths in Europe and 20 million in Asia.

The story begins as the son of David Dubin chances upon his deceased father’s account of his exploits during the war. What he learns stuns him: his father was court-martialed during the last days of the war. “Court-martialed! The last thing I could imagine of my tirelessly proper father was being charged with a serious crime.”

As a member of the Third Army’s legal team, Dubin was ordered to arrest Robert Martin, who was on an unauthorized mission for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency, the forerunner of the CIA. Dubin found the major, but then deliberately allowed him to flee.

At his court-martial Dubin was convicted and sentenced. But shortly thereafter, without any official explanation, the verdict and charges were withdrawn. Dubin was set free when it became known that Martin was on a mission that had it been successful would have benefited the Allies significantly.

Turow’s characterizations are one of best features of the book. There is the complex and bombastic General Teedle who ordered Dubin to arrest Robert Martin. There is Martin, himself, and the group of resistance fighters who followed him. Among them is the mysterious Gita Lodz who dispenses words of wisdom throughout the novel. There is also Biddy, Dubin’s side kick and best pal, who it turns out is a light skinned black man from the South.

Who are we, Dubin, but the stories we tell about ourselves, particularly if we accent them?

Turow’s depictions of Dubin’s combat experiences are vivid. Dubin suddenly finds himself put in command of a rifle company during the Battle of the Bulge. It's freezing, snowing, with the enemy across the way, the casualties and horror. As the Germans begin to overrun his troops, he tells them to lie down and play dead. After the battle, he was celebrated for a strategy that he knows was simply cowardice.

"I had given my men saving advice mostly because it was what I had wanted to do, to lie down like a child and hope that the assault -- the war -- would be over soon. True, it was the wiser course. But I had taken it because at the center of my soul, I was a coward. And for this I was now being saluted."

Whatever happened to Robert Martin? Who is Gita Lotz anyway? What was the mission Martin was planning to undertake that allowed Dubin to be set free? And what became of the high-spirited Biddy? The answers are in the pages of Ordinary Heroes.

So much of civilization, Dubin, is merely the recovery periods between wars. We build things up and then tear them down again. Look at poor Europe. Some moments I find myself thinking about all the fighting that’s gone on here and expect blood to come welling out of the ground.