Highlights of the week…

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Life before the pandemic. The Netherlands, 2017.

Other than the fence blowing apart, the water dispersing across the kitchen floor and the flashing antics of the oven, I’ve had a reasonably quiet week. Buried in grammar books, my mind remains settled and content. It has problems it can mull over: little things that keep it occupied. And for me at least, immersed in literature, the dullness of reality doesn’t seem so bad. I fear though that the lack of novelty in my life doesn’t make my writing particularly exciting. And that the lack of input results in a regurgitation of the same small thoughts. Despite normally being able to conjure an emotional calamity wherever I place myself – and thereby excuse myself from clear thinking – my moods remain mundane, and I fear my thoughts boring.

Literature fills a gap, but it can’t replace the excitement of screwing up.


It’s not all doom and gloom. Note the dummy variable. If anything, I tend to be an optimist. And these thoughts (about adverbials and complements, relative adjectives or attributional nouns) do make me professionally more competent. There is no doubt that my understanding of the grammatical differences between Spanish and English is helpful to my students. That was an example of a cleft sentence. No doubt I’m also developing a deeper awareness of the prejudice that obnubilates the distinction between how I speak, what my father considers correct, fustian language, beautiful language, clear language and phrasing that compels action…

Bonus points for guessing which of the above words I learnt this week.

My favourite new word is ‘pratfall’, which is American (but let’s not be prejudiced), and ought to be used by football commentators both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Now I’ve written it on the blog I shall wait for my parents to throw it into some dinnertime conversation. Thanks to the pandemic, they are learning grammar whether they like it or not. Accidental language awareness helps too. I was pretty chuffed when a student mistakenly wrote ‘to probe’ meaning ‘to try’ and I suddenly realised the connection between ‘probe’ and the Spanish ‘probar’.

Such highlights I have in my week.

Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

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Suppose a Tulip. The Netherlands, 2017

Suppose a Sentence starts, in the way many books do, with a list of nice things intelligent people have said about the author and his work, but because this is an unabashedly intellectual book (a book for people who proudly think of themselves as being intellectual) then this fawning includes words like ‘erudite’, which to me looks like it means something inappropriate for polite company; ‘elegiac’ which I don’t know how to pronounce has little to do with the Spanish verb ‘elegir’; and ‘edifying’, which to me initially reads as closer to the word ‘edit’ than ‘educate’, like the book is one that will edit your mind, perhaps.

Some of these words strike me as fanciful.

This very good book (I’m paraphrasing) “…serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in life.” I think Maggie Nelson is saying here that the book is a record of some things the author has read… but alas, as she’s using words not in my dictionary, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fancy words; I just may not understand them. Suppose a Sentence invokes a lot of shoulder shrugging.

I don’t know. Or I don’t know exactly. These apologetic phrases crop up all the time in my classes. I often teach with the dictionary open in one tab and WordReference in the next, pre-empting my students’ questions. I don’t trust my pronunciation or my spelling, and so I invariably refer to dictionaries and phonetic transcriptions to guarantee that the words my students are learning are standard, ‘correct’. It turns out that a lot of words have many meanings; sometimes sifting through to identify the writer’s intent is an intense challenge. Sometimes my students think they know what a word means, and I have to push them to reassess.

The bright light. The intelligent look. Her bright eyes …?

Careful listening, close reading, real, acute attention… these moments of deep focus can reward us with a new perspective, an insight, a fresh appreciation. And I guess that’s what this book, Suppose a Sentence, is all about. When the pandemic has bound you to the house, your social endeavours have fallen apart, all plans disintegrated, then don’t fret: one can always suppose a sentence.

If only I knew what it meant to suppose a sentence…


The quotation’s attribution reads:  Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.

‘Suppose a sentence’ is a Gertrude Stein phrase.

On the stylistic choosing of words

Flowers. Style. Flowery style. Styled flowers. Tulips so stereotypically the Netherlands, 2017.

Today, when reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, I learnt that the title structure, such as mine here, starting ‘on’ was typical of Montaigne, who I haven’t read, and was played with by Virginia Woolf, who I have read, creating titles such as ‘On Illness’. Dillon writes about the introductory sentence of Woolf’s essay On Illness, which I feel I have read, although maybe I have merely read that oft-quoted first sentence. I say oft-quoted meaning I’m sure I’ve seen it quoted before and therefore assume that it’s the sort of sentence that people who have sentences to hand for demonstration frequently choose to show.

If my words are wandering today, it’s because at some point, I took a turn off the main path, followed a goat track, tripped over an unexpecting branch and left my life in a pickle trying to carve a route all of its own. Sometimes this route is carved with a machete, sometimes the butter knife. At the moment – pandemic and all – it’s definitely the butter knife style of progression I’m witnessing. In other words, I’m feeling a little disorientated. Slow even.


I am being chased by the word ‘obdurate’. Yesterday I had to look it up in the dictionary. Today I find Dillion uses it. As does the article I read in the London Review of Books this afternoon. The same thing happened fifteen years ago with the word ‘altruistic’, which followed me around until I wasn’t sure whether it was a normal everyday word, and I was dim, or it was a poncy word and better left unsaid. ‘Altruistic’ makes it into a video on elephants I’m studying with one of my students. Selfless elephants are good at caring for one another.

My writing is undoubtedly, or indubitably, mutating (albeit in a butter-knife fashion of progress). I’m reading so much and writing so much it can hardly do anything but change; yet I’m doing so ploddingly, we can hardly call anything here machete action. That said, I’m pretty stubborn – or shall I say obdurate? – about writing. It’s like a compulsion: an addiction to unravelling a language that refuses to be pinned down, my mongrel tongue, idiolectical phrasing, use of words like ‘happenence’.


But my writing mutates to what exactly? And my life is wandering where? And are the two irrevocably connected. And for a woman who spends so much time putting words on the page, why is my spelling so atrocious sometimes? And…


In addition to Dillon’s book on sentences, I find myself reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which throws you on the first page with its ‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ entrapped in two em-dashes, giving you no guidance as to what you’re reading and leaving you pretty much confused until a third of the way through the book where you settle down praying that dear Mrs Woolf will keep the surprising cauliflowers out of her prose and instead give you something that resembles a story.

‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ such a line would have been better placed in Terry Pratchett. I’ve just finished the father’s copy of Moving Pictures and that has a section referring to cabbages. Cabbages, cauliflowers… Although Pratchett most loved to use his em-dashes to end a line of dialogue. Thus the phrase might need a slight stylistic rearrangement… “I prefer men to cauli—”

And then The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano

My notebooks are black. All except the one bought from the stationery shop in Valparaiso which is bright yellow. There wasn’t much choice. Not unless I was willing to deal with squares, and I wasn’t. Unlike the protagonist in Modiano’s novella – can you call something shorter than two hundred pages a novel? – the protagonist who writes lists of names – people, streets, buildings or really anything that will fit into an unexpected list – I have failed to record many of the names that illustrate my days in my black notebooks. The yellow notebook does worse than the black ones. I bought it at a point where I had time on my hands and its records fall in the crack between truth and lie. This is not important. What I’m trying to write about is Modiano’s The Black Notebook and in all honesty, even though the notebook is mentioned every few pages or so, the notebook itself is irrelevant to the book. The book is an excuse for Modiano to write Modiano.

Jean, the protagonist – who is Patrick in Family Record or whichever of the other French-named Modiano protagonists who wander through Paris overly late at night in their youth and later become a writer – Jean could never be a woman. This, in the same way as how Cortázar’s Horacio Oliveira in his novel Hopscotch could never be a woman. We women have to be taken out late at night and escorted home. If, in the film, Midnight in Paris, the male protagonist, Gil, had been a woman, then his fiancé (assuming still a heterosexual relationship) would have questioned her walking the streets of a foreign city past midnight, alone. As he is a man, nobody seems all that much concerned.

To walk such streets alone as a woman is irresponsible. Especially poorly lit city streets. And yet it’s exactly such streets that hold a certain literary charm. It’s the edge, the faded light and the blurred shadows which make it so fascinating. Modiano writes what Edward Hopper painted in his 1942 painting, Nighthawks. It’s a world just past closing time. It’s not a world of busy bars and nightclubs, but the public bus station at two o’clock in the morning when few people are around. You’ve begun to sober up. You’ve been elsewhere, perhaps eaten, or not eaten, although even if you’ve not eaten much, you don’t notice the sensation of hunger because your mind is elsewhere. Floating. Life stretches out in front of you; there’s a long walk home.

Reading ‘Family Record’ by Patrick Modiano

The French countryside, Autumn 2016.

In the northern-hemisphere autumn of 2020, in the few weeks we had where the bookshops were open, I walked into the spacious old textile mill at Saltaire and purchased a book entitled Family Record. An impulse buy. I’d run my fingers down the book’s spine, let it fall open in my palms and felt the quality of the thick paper it was printed on. I hadn’t heard of the book, but I’d heard of the author – a Frenchman by the name of Patrick Modiano – and I like a nicely printed book.

The first Modiano book I read, and fell in love with, was a collection of novellas, published together under the title Suspended Sentences. How I came to own Suspended Sentences or even when I read it is a mystery to me. My copy is a version translated by Mark Polizzotti and printed in 2014 after Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature; Family Record has the same translator, publisher and a similar shiny mark of a prize-winning author on the cover. I think I bought Suspended Sentences in Leeds on some shopping trip that had led me to seek comfort in Waterstones, but it could have been anywhere. I know I had it sitting on my shelf for some time before I finally read it, and I’d bought it because it was modern and French and therefore like nothing else I was reading, but although I am certain that I have read it – an impression remains – I cannot be sure when. I wrote no review and appear to have recorded it on no list.

 I took the book, Family Record, to the till so that I could pay, and the masked man behind the counter gushed with enthusiasm for my choice. He hadn’t read Suspended Sentences – which I recommended to him – but he had read other books by Modiano and been enthralled.

If you are one of those people who like to be pulled through a novel, dropped from one cliff-hanging chapter decisively into the action of the next, then Modiano is not the author for you. If he plots, there remains no evidence. Nor does he tie up any loose ends. In fact, he seems to go out of the way to make the threads of his stories fray, their threadbare fabric might be full of character, but these characters don’t necessarily do anything. I read his work hoping for demystification and close the book mystified as to how I can be so in love with the clarity of his writing and yet endlessly disappointed by its obscurity.

In introducing the novellas of Suspended Sentences, and reflecting on his work translating the stories, Polizzotti states “Generally speaking, and despite the ambiguities in his narrative strategy, Modiano’s prose style is straightforward and clear – by which I do not mean simple – and I have aimed above all to preserve that limpid quality in this translation.”

I look at a page at random and I try to work out what it is that I like so much about his writing style. He would be, if one were running a writing class, an eloquent example of the power of varying sentence length. Watch the full stops and you find short sentences embedded in longer sentences, snuggled in the middle of them, pretending simplicity without ever being simple. But that’s not it. There are staccato moments, especially perhaps when we’re in the mind of a boy who’s dealing with what’s laid out in front of him one step at a time. It’s memory, but like when you’ve lost your keyring and you’re trying to piece back together where you’ve been, vocalizing the options, wondering what you could have possibly been doing with your hands that led to the abandonment of the door key. Which surface did you drop them on?

Then there’s a great repetition held in the verbs. By which I don’t mean that the verbs themselves seem to repeat, they don’t. Or well, sometimes they do, but not excessively so. But that verbs are used to build up the scene, give the texture of the scene. They don’t tend to be complex or flowery verbs. They tend to be quite common verbs. Yet they build up gradually, one after another, acting to give weight to a character.

As an example, take a look at these verbs, used in a scene opened at random from the novella Afterimage to describe a man’s movements.

… stationed, waited, crossed, planted (himself), crossed, standing, blocked, turned, following, stopped, folded, stood out, stood, shrugged, strode off…

Suspended Sentences pg 29-31.

 So I’m left feeling that although there’s something ethereal about the overall pattern of Modiano’s fragments, each individually is weighted and solid. Through some hard-working verbs, his work grounds itself in the names of people and places, dates and ages, car models and the patterns of wallpaper.

Either way, I’ve two more of his books ordered and shipped and I’m hoping they’ll be gracing my front door in a day or two.

February: the shortest month, the longest month

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Somewhere near San Pedro de Atacama, January 2020
[Written earlier in February]

I am unsettled. Uncomfortable with myself just sitting here. I’ve placed myself in front of the computer as if expecting that some miracle of composition will spring though my fingers, across the keyboard and with a twist of logic express something meaningful onto the screen.

It doesn’t happen like that. Any time I think about the product of writing I run into a wall. I know that I can only write by burying myself in the process. Settling down into the process isn’t always easy. Right now, I’m tired, despite sleeping what all the textbooks describe as enough hours. It’s not a physical tiredness but a sense of being worn away. The threads are a little too thin. And I’m overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed although it feels like nothing much is going on. I didn’t know that overwhelmed was the word until I hit out the letters.  It’s these surprises which force me to keep writing. I trust my fingers to speak more truthfully than my mouth. I rely on my fingers to speak, as if their decisions are the voice within.

I’ve been tracking my thoughts, listening to my fears and another truth I’m hesitant about admitting is that it’s February. At this time of the year, I feel like I’m staring at my feet and hoping the ground beneath them stays put. I find it a difficult month. My mind traverses downward, as if weighed down by some great anchor embedded in the past, and I have to persuade myself to come back to reality.

I’m reminded of the elderly colonel in Nobody writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez who in the beginning of the book is uncomfortable with it being October since he knows October is a month which his frail body despises. He approaches the month with knowing and familiar anxiety, his mind struggling to look beyond the rains of October to a dream of December sunshine. His explanation for feeling under the weather is that it’s October.

It’s February. It’s fair to say that February heightens my anxiety. This time last year I picked up my bags, and headed into a realm of quiet. Somehow I had known from the outset that February was going to hold a challenge, that it would creep under my sky and disrupt my sleep, and wanting to stay afloat, I chose to give myself what I needed: quiet and space, a long hot shower and apple cake.

This year, as usual, I watch my thoughts with caution. I’m trying to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s probably too late. I believe February, especially these later weeks in February, to be difficult. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which works in two directions. Once we get past past International Women’s Day on March 8th, I’ll feel a sense of relief. call it irrational if you want, it will make no difference to me. I believe I’m much more likely to have a flashback or have a haunted dream in February than any other month. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, anything might happen, yet it happens to be what I believe. Belief is a powerful thing.

This year, I am in a different situation. I can’t simply take the time off and hide away. I have ambitions for the coming year and so I need to work and (both practically and legally) I need to stay put. I can’t wrap myself in sunshine, my go to anti-depressant, because… England.

It’s all tough work. Instead of hiding from myself I need to continue with myself and somehow, hand-in-hand with my discomfort, keep going. It’s invisible work. Hidden work. I wonder how many people live with such a rhythm as mine with the past and present wrestling with each other whenever any anniversary comes to pass.

Part of me wants to have the time alone with my emotions so that I can unravel them and do a spring clean. This isn’t an activity to be undertaken with an audience, although it may lead to more writing which may, or may not, have an audience. I’m not scared of being alone with my emotions, whether those of sadness or of anxiety and fear, but I despise drama and do not want to create it in the presence of others.

I promise myself that at some point I’m going to take myself somewhere sunny and quiet and give myself that much needed time-less space.

People are people because of other people

An unknown flower, Madeira 2017

People are people because of other people.

Ndebele saying

I love this quote. It comes from the Ndebele tribe in the north-eastern part of South Africa and was quoted by Bryce Courtenay in his story in the Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction travel writing collection.

Courtenay goes onto explain that ‘Translated, this simply means that we only recognize and get to know ourselves, who and what we are and may become, by the presence, experiences and observations of other people.’

The other night, my father poured me a glass of whisky

And amid a longer conversation, he expressed his discomfort with correcting my writing, and I found myself wanting to laugh at him. Because of my work, I find myself constantly providing corrections to people’s language. I have done a fair amount of red penning my father’s texts. Heavy-handedly. I tend to ignore his ego and get on with stating my thoughts. If he’s asked me for my opinion, then I’m going to give him it. Obviously, there’s a difference between criticizing and providing constructive criticism and I wouldn’t want him to feel that a criticism of his word choice was a criticism of him.
Sometimes, of course, we get a bit defensive and blur the distinction between the criticism of our work and ourselves. This isn’t unusual. Some people aren’t ready to receive criticism of their work because they have confused the two and need to first develop better recognition of the value of themselves before they can embrace feedback. Sometimes in teaching, corrections are ignored because accuracy isn’t the imminent goal. There are times when, as a teacher, I will encourage a student to keep producing language regardless of its accuracy because they need to build confidence and get used to the sound of their own voice.

When my father expressed his discomfort at correcting my writing, I smiled at him and tried to explain that his feedback (even when it was negative) was valuable to me. I wasn’t going to be offended because he points out I’ve used a word entirely wrongly or that my sentence doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to hold it against him if he provides criticism constructively.

Providing feedback that’s actually helpful isn’t always easy

What doesn’t work is a vague adjective describing what isn’t likeable about my personality, anything that comes from a place of defence rather than care, anything that comes from a place of jealousy – and pointing out my spots. That much I’m sure of. Some cultures are more direct about feedback, others create indirect ways of getting the message across, but we have to get feedback from each other to grow. Imagine a student whose teacher never provides feedback. How much are they ever going to learn? How well are they going to be motivated?

People are people because of other people

We grow and learn who we are through the interactions we have with the people around us. We need people to learn from and understand ourselves through. Other people show us who we are, and I’m a firm believer in the value of being self-aware.

Feedback wholeheartedly welcomed.

Piggybacking on The Mother’s self-discipline (or how I stay in shape)

On a lockdown walk with the Father (while the Mother was doing yoga), Yorkshire, February 2021

We all wondered what the Mother would do when she retired, but none of us imagined that she would become an exercise fanatic. It was inevitable that she would become a fanatic of something, she isn’t someone to do things by halves, but exercise… It’s not that the Mother didn’t exercise, she used to cycle to work every day, but it wasn’t an obsession like it is now.

I am very grateful for the Mother’s current enthusiasm. If I lived alone, or with just my father, I would probably be a lot less fit than I currently am. It’s not my great self-discipline. It’s not my immense will-power. Nope, it’s down to the presence of the ever-yogaing Mother.

By the time I wake up in the morning, she has done three yoga routines

This is because instead of occasionally changing up her routine, the Mother merely adds to it. She started, reluctantly, with a single yoga class when she was still working a normal everyday kind of job, in a normal fashion, as normal people who get advised to strengthen their body or tackle their inflexibility or posture… and then time passed until now, in lock-down, she has become an index of yoga classes and other Eastern traditions.

Overlooking the village, Haworth, Yorkshire , February 2021

Me, however…

I have this great idea that one day I am going to wake up energetically and do ten sun salutations as I used to when I lived in Spain, and it rarely ever happens. But I mention it to the Mother and lo and behold, she does them. When I mention them again three months later, she’s still diligently doing them.

It’s very important to not constantly compare oneself to other people

We all have different bodies. We have different skills and abilities and strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes though, I look at the Mother and instead of thinking ‘I hope I’m in as good a shape as you when I’m your age’, I think ‘why can’t I do that?’ as sometimes I’m the one on my knees in a plank arriving to it late and leaving it early, while she’s holding a beautiful full plank, looking the picture of serenity.

But I am seriously grateful that she’s there, enthusiastically suggesting more videos to do and coming up with stretches and activities that I find myself doing, and therefore find myself becoming capable of.

At the age of 12, I couldn’t touch my toes

And I mean by some considerable distance. But under the Mother’s influence, I can sometimes get my hands flat on the floor. That’s with my legs straight. It’s amazing what you can change with a huge amount of persistence (or a mother like mine).

But seriously, I ache.

Journal reflections: Portugal and the Rota Vicentina

Photo by the Grump. Portugal, March 2017.

Having no travels to go on other than to the dentist or the supermarket, I am occasionally flicking back through the past, jealous of the sunshine that once pinched my skin. I have kept a journal for many years and I vary in what fascinates me enough to be worth writing about. On my walk in Portugal along the Rota Vicentina with the Grump for company, it’s clear that there was one thing on my mind: food.

These extracts are taken from my journal covering March 2017. They begin early into our trip when I still had faith that the Grump knew how to navigate. He’s an excellent walking partner as he’s always willing to carry more than 50% of the weight, is willing to walk at my slow and steady plod and tolerates me even when my feet hurt and I’m blaming him for everything going wrong. He’s also much more organized than I am.

Italics are my commentary.


Breakfast was very enjoyable

… bread, ham, tomato chutney and apricot jam. I presume I didn’t consume the jam and the chutney together. The coffee machine provided a little challenge but a kindly lady provided assistance and I had both an americano and an espresso, making up for the previous day’s lack of coffee. Today I would be more adept at the coffee machine, I have learnt a few tricks over the last four years. I would also be better prepared; how did I get myself into a situation where I didn’t have coffee for a whole day?

It is wonderful to be surrounded by green

We debate the benefits of being out here in the open in contrast to the grey city and its pollution. I bite my tongue and try to say: The environment which surrounds you is your own choice. Sometimes my tongue becomes quite sore. I eye-roll too. With age, you might have thought I’d grow more tolerant of the human tendency to ‘gruntle’ along rather than act. I haven’t.

Walking along the irrigation channels. Don’t fall! Portugal, March 2017.

The evening is recorded in food

Salad, bread, olives, bread, pate. Beef, rice, grilled pineapple, black beans and homemade vegetable crisps. But the account is written as a backwards glance the next day during a breakfast of a croissant and a half, coffee and orange juice. In the village, nobody seems to have realised that it is morning. The shops have not yet opened. Time wanders free, only occasionally called to attention by the chime of the bells in the church tower. Maybe we should have asked for toast. The lady sitting near us has toast and a latte or something similar. Although the croissants were brioche, not pastry. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a proper lunch in Rogil.

Rogil doesn’t fulfil all my desires

… a long, straight and uninspiring street. We bought bread, ham, fruit and a replacement packet of biscuits since I’d almost finished the packet I’d bought in Faro. No doubt this is a true use of the singular pronoun and it was I, not we, who ate all the biscuits. Normally I’m reasonably controlled about my diet, but when I’m walking I tend to simply eat. If pudding is on offer, chances are that I’ll want it.

The way out of Rogil continues along the irrigation channel and so we stepped up from the path into a crop of pine trees and sat ourselves down on a trunk of a fallen (or felled) tree to make and eat our sandwiches. We’d upped the quantity to three each which was probably a good thing seeing as how long it was before we got to the hostel.

Cows. And what’s going on with that cloud? Portugal, March 2017.

From Rogil we walk to Aljezur

You might think that this meant that I ate nothing until I reached the hostel, but no. In Aljezur, I had a sweet potato and coconut roll. Somewhat like a jam roly-poly. And I drink coffee and we visit a supermarket. Then we took a walk up to the castle to admire the view before finally setting off to Arrifana at 4 pm.


At this point, it’s worth pausing because the map and the address for the evening’s accommodation didn’t all add up and things got a little stressful…

Portugal’s stunning coastline. March 2017

Conjunctions and Disjunctions by Octavio Paz

I went to my Italy photos to look for something religious. Instead I found this slightly disorientating image. Verona, Italy, April 2018.

If I had been in a bookshop, I wouldn’t have bought this book. I might have picked it up off the shelf, but if I had looked at the language, and tried to understand any paragraph at random, I would have felt stupid and popped it straight back on the shelf.

As it was, I was looking for something by Alejo Carpentier in an online second-hand bookshop and typed in the name ‘Octavio Paz’ because I’d come across the name a few times and knew that he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew he was a poet, but I wasn’t sure what else he’d written. I wanted to just check and see if there was anything cheap going that would give me a taste for his work and tell me if I would like to read more of it, after all, I was already making an order and one more would do no harm. On reflection, one couldn’t exactly describe the blurb as the most faithful depiction of what was to come – it suggested a history of humankind, and so I expected a history book.

Then again, having read the book, I still couldn’t write an accurate blurb

Furthermore, even though I have now read this book, I have no more idea whether or not I like his writing. I’m not even sure how to describe what the book was about. I had expected something about Mexico and instead I found myself reading about the contrast between Asian religions and Christianity. Mix this with some of Freud’s ideas and a surrealist infatuation, and you get a history of mankind which is quite unlike anything that I have ever come across before.

Sometimes, I felt completely lost, like he was trying to make a point, but I had lost the starting position and couldn’t quite step beyond my own perspective into the wider one he was offering. Like trying to walk on clouds. The language wasn’t exactly easy going. There were philosophical or historical references which I could make no connection with. What would make this book better, I concluded, would be a detailed glossary of the terms and individuals referenced in the book. A version heavy with footnotes could guide the modern ordinary reader through the jargon and possibly more accessible for the ordinary reader. But would the ordinary reader really want to read this?

Yet, something made me continue reading

I found the second half of the book much easier going than the first, although maybe that was because, by the time I was reading the final two essays, I was also investigating who exactly this Octavio Paz chap was.

I headed to the London Review of Books and searched through their archive for references to the poet. First, I came across a recent article (November 2019) which talked about the problems resulting from the fact that when they died, neither Octavio Paz nor his wife had a will or a clear descendant.

The article outlined the couple’s romance, from their meeting in India where Paz was stationed as the Mexican ambassador, until he left diplomatic service following the October 1968 massacre in Mexico City. Hundreds of protesting students were killed by soldiers and police. Paz and his wife first went to Cambridge, where he worked at the university, and then Mexico.

Knowing that he lived and worked in India and took interest in the cultures and religions of the region, gives a context to the writing of Conjunctions and Disjunctions.

I continued my research

Real isn’t real, an article by Michael Wood in July 2013, reviews the translation of The Poems of Octavio Paz edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. This article shares some of Paz’s poetry in both languages, and it was interesting to get a taste of how clear his poetry reads in comparison to Conjunctions and Disjunctions. But mostly it was useful to comprehend the relationship Paz’s work has with the surrealist movement. Wood talks about how ‘the ghosts of literary otherness never quite go away’ and mentions how the unconscious and the dreamworld shape the poet’s work.

My reading helped me understand the context for the book but gave little illumination regarding the actual content. I find myself unable to describe quite what I read. There were sentences impossible to comprehend followed by lines which hit you and made you think.

The truth is that contemporary art has not given us an image of the body: this is a mission that we have turned over to couturiers and public-relations men. This is not a defect of today’s art, but of society.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz

Couturiers, for anyone like me who doesn’t use this word every day, are the people of the fashion industry who design and sell clothes, especially high-end women’s fashion.

Then there is the popularity of sports, which has created a confusion between vigor and beauty, physical skill and erotic wisdom.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz

And touching on the art of writing:

Tantric metaphors are not only intended to hide the real meaning of rites from intruders; they are also verbal manifestations of the universal analogy that is the basis of poetry. These texts are governed by the same psychological and artistic necessity that caused our Baroque poets to build a language of their own within the Spanish language, the same necessity that inspired the language of Joyce and the Surrealists: the conception of writing as the double of the cosmos.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz

So it’s a book which I wouldn’t have ordinarily read

And yet, somehow it has sunk its strange claws into me. It’s a different sort of read, one which I can’t entirely follow, but which feels like it stretches my brain a little in a way that is good for it. I wonder if The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, which is supposedly about Mexico, would be quite as challenging.


Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz, translated by Helen Lane, 1969

Real isn’t Real, Michael Wood, London Review of Books, 04 July 2013

On Octavio Paz and Marie-José Tramini, Homero Aridjis, translated by Chloe Aridjis, London Review of Books, 21 November 2019