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.

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

Paulo Coelho’s On Elegance (And me on standing up straight)

Winter, Yorkshire 2021

I might drive the Father mad with all my constant talk about sitting up straight, elbows off the table and can I please have a cake fork? He’s doing remarkably well given the circumstances; I cannot be an easy person to live with. I will most likely become one of those elderly folks who, having seen things and done things, have stubbornly decided that they know best. Although, I figure if our biggest arguments are about the butter knife, maybe with all these months of confinement in these walls, we’re doing pretty well.

I guess most readers will agree with the Father that the butter knife is not an essential implement and its use does not make our lives measurably better. I accept that my preference for the old-fashioned method for avoiding crumbs and jam in the butter dish is unpopular. The Midget probably doesn’t get why we’d use a butter dish, and I’m guessing she would hold the majority view on the matter.

I am similarly obsessive about posture

It’s not that I have perfect posture, far from it, I have somewhat flat feet, am pigeon-toed, a little knocked knee-ed, have a lordotic tilt to my pelvis which exaggerates the curvature of my spine, in addition to its minor curve of scoliosis, oh and my head tilts to the left. In other words, I’m pretty normal for a human being. I’m just a human being who has been measured and advised and told I was doing it wrong, then further confused and unexpectedly educated. Most of the postural education came from my Chilean yoga teacher who instructed me how to stand, but a significant proportion has come from the Mother who is nearly as obsessive as me.

I think that bad posture gives me migraines

The tension mounts in the back of my neck and shoulders and then bursts out in the form of pain in my forehead. Bad posture makes me feel tired. It’s a vicious loop, the more tired I am, the more I slouch and the more I slouch the more tired I feel. Bad posture feeds bad posture, ingraining it as habits, over-exerting some muscles while letting others get away with doing nothing and therefore cementing an in-balance.

I don’t know at what point I really understood that so much sitting down, desk work and a sedentary lifestyle was bad for my body and its posture. It’s knowledge I assume I have known forever, although obviously this isn’t true. It’s now embedded in our modern societies collective knowledge bank. We know things are bad for us and do them anyway because it’s what everyone does and doing differently would be hard work. Although I knew it and I complained occasionally about it, I did very little about it.

I sit down to write; not writing isn’t an option

Plus, when I was working part-time teaching, I was prancing about classrooms with occasional histrionic re-enaction of Guy Fawkes falling off the gallows which kept me moving. Already conscious of how I stood and making an effort to not slouch so much, I vainly felt my posture to be better than the average anyway.

The pandemic happened

I returned to my desk, hunched my shoulders and slumped. Sometime in the autumn, however, I had a bit of an awakening. One evening, the Father, wanting to talk about video quality, pulled up a remastered video of a streetcar trundling along the main street in San Francisco, filmed in 1906. I was surprised at the incredible amount of advertising along the street, in my imagination such advertising shouldn’t have existed in such ancient times, but I had been to Herculaneum and there you can see the evidence of old Roman advertisements painted on the walls, so I should have known better.

Mostly though, I stared at how people stood

They stood so straight that they looked like they had splints on their spines. I hadn’t known that a crowd could all be so upright, that people could run so elegantly and dart so graciously across the road between the horses and the trams.

Today my posture may be considered reasonable but take me back a hundred years, and they’d think I had some serious medical issues. I realized, in thinking about what my posture should be, I was comparing myself to the wrong groups of people. Of course, mine although not exactly an ‘unpopular opinion’ is an opinion that many people take decisive action on. They may supplement their day with a few stretches or take an occasional call while standing up instead of sitting down at their desk, but these are minor adjustments with minor impact.

A little is better than nothing.

Which takes me onto Paulo Coelho’s Like the Flowing River

Reading this book, I was amused to find an essay entitled On Elegance which spoke straight to me and my cake-fork-loving, posture-obsessive self.

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality and fashion. That is a grave mistake. Human beings should be elegant in their actions and their posture, because the word is synonymous with good taste, graciousness, balance and harmony.

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

Does moving in an elegant fashion not make you feel better about yourself and your body?

And please do not confuse it with arrogance or snobbery. Elegance is the right posture to make our every gesture perfect, our steps firm, and to give due respect to our fellow men and women.

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

I think it comes down to respect and dignity

How you carry yourself matters. My posture is a symbol of my self-respect and my sense of inner dignity. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I value it so dearly, I have had to work hard to repair the relationship between my mind and my body. Fundamentally, it’s what all the therapy came down to…  Was I caring for my body? Was I showing myself respect? With all I’ve learnt, I’m led to believe that if you stand up straight and move with grace then it’s much easier for all those difficult things like setting boundaries and staying true to yourself to fall into place.

This text was written and edited at a standing desk.


The video: [4k, 60 fps] San Francisco, a Trip down Market Street, April 14, 1906 – YouTube

Anecdotes and advent calendars

Winter, Yorkshire, 2021

I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.

As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.

His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.

Sometimes though a section sets off a spark

In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.

“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”

The following day, I went to her house.

The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.

“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.

I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.