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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Book of Margins

Edmond Jabès

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To purchase The Book of Margins

Title: The Book of Margins
Author: Edmond Jabès
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1975/1984 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 209 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Book of Margins - US
The Book of Margins - UK
The Book of Margins - Canada
Le livre des marges - Canada
Le livre des marges - France
  • French title: Le livre des marges
  • Collects two parts, originally published as Ça suit son cours (1975) and Dans la double dépendance du dit (1984)
  • With a Foreword by Mark C. Taylor

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Our Assessment:

B : typical Jabès, interesting (and revealing) collection of pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Book of Margins consists of largely incidental pieces; Jabès even writes:

     The texts gathered here are meant to stay in the margins of my work. We must leave them their marginal character, even emphasize it, for a freer reading.
       Including speeches, a text for a UNESCO anthology against apartheid, and, especially, varieties of homages to writers important to him, The Book of Margins is the rare Jabès-text where 'the book', the larger whole, is not the central (and ultimately sole) focus (though he doesn't let readers forget about it, noting, for example: "Leaving the book, we do not leave it: we inhabit its absence"). Yet the texts are also very revealing, and Jabès certainly does manage to address and consider his usual favourite preoccupations here.
       His refreshing emphasis on the visual, rather than the aural -- and the book as a whole, and all its elements, rather than merely the text -- is also reflected in these writings, especially in what he chooses to emphasise regarding the writers he discusses. Longer pieces on Michel Leiris and Maurice Blanchot are both deeply personal and analytic, using quotation and presentation (Jabès' typical space-filled, fragmentary style) to impressively convey what they (and their work) mean to Jabès.
       Jabès is often not immediately accessible (though, at least in some of these pieces, he is more so here than in most of his work), and requires some patience and probably indulgence on the part of the reader. Readers must be willing to follow a trail that progresses, for example:
     Marble, our broken mast.

     The universe is a fixed point. This point is God.

     Everything moves for having never moved. Write, write. Only writing is motion.
       Familiarity with some of his other work (or Rosmarie Waldrop's Lavish Absence) helps in understanding the pieces (so, for a relatively straightforward example, regarding his understanding of 'God'), but clearly not all readers will be receptive to his approach.
       The difficulty with Jabès can perhaps best be summed up by his jacket-copy for Maurice Blanchot's L'Arrêt de mort (Death Sentence), included here, a blurb to die for which includes the statement:
     From now on books will be divided into those written before L'Arrêt, which circle it, afraid and yet fascinated, and those written after it -- or at the same time ? -- which accept, assimilate, or, rather, apply it.
       Given that the general reading public -- and even most of the literati (save a few die-hard Blanchot fans, who we can practically see nodding emphatically and hear cheering: 'Hear ! hear !') -- is not even aware of Blanchot's book, much less consider it any sort of line of demarcation Jabès is clearly wrong (or, in the alternative: not very usefully correct). And so it is with Jabès: the world he's speaking of is a limited and separate (and, yes, self-important) one. Well worth visiting, mind you, but it would perhaps be more helpful if he tried harder to bridge his high-minded concepts with the common world -- as he actually does, to some extent, in some of these pieces (before losing himself (and, presumably, quite a few readers) in the clouds again).
       Those familiar with the writers Jabès writes about should thoroughly enjoy this collection. Those not familiar with Blanchot, Leiris, Max Jacobs, the Waldrops, etc. might have a bit harder time -- though much is still worthwhile, including a brief description of a last encounter with Paul Celan and many of the thoughts on writing. But Jabès is surely not everyone's cuppa, and though The Book of Margins is more accessible than many of his books readers should be aware that it's a very grab-bag mix on offer here.

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The Book of Margins: Edmond Jabès: Other books by Edmond Jabès under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Rosmarie Waldrop on Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès in Lavish Absence

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About the Author:

       French-writing Egyptian author Edmond Jabès lived 1912 to 1991.

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