It’s the opening stark sentence of Camus’ The Outsider that comes to mind when I hear or speak the word ‘mother’. It was the most powerful opening sentence of any book I had read. ‘Mother died today.’ So cold and formal, as were the sentences of detached narration which followed. Authors can take such firm command of words and language. If it is true that a photo can tell a thousand words, then it is also true that a word or sentence can conjure a thousand more words and an uncountable number of associated thoughts and images.
Words can be taken hostage by those places and forms where we first came to feel their real potency. They can be stolen from one context and divert our thinking towards something else. They can seem to belong to this other place. They can travel so quickly and forcibly to that place without our bidding. In my head, there are words which I find it impossible to disassociate from these linked places; words patented by the creative consciousness of another.
The word ‘spiral’ brings Pessoa’s beautiful multiple definition to mind, which begins as ‘a circle that rises without ever closing’. Pessoa takes words and thoughts and feelings apart and puts them back together unlike anyone else I know, but spiral is the word which belongs to him the most. The phrase ‘go on’ will forever reroute my thinking to Beckett. And to be taken back to Beckett is always a joy: I know of no-one else who reduced language into so concentrated a form, so utterly black against white. Only two days ago, I wrote the word ‘ceiling’ and was paralysed into recalling the only line of Paul Eluard’s poetry that will not budge from my memory. Eluard wrote of sadness, ‘You are inscribed in the lines of the ceiling,’ and his description has haunted me for more than a decade.
In life as in literature, there are words in which we invest meaning or memories and these too can hijack us unawares. The word ‘expectorate’, for instance. An ugly word, onomatopoeic even. It’s a word I recall reading for the first time about 15 years ago. On finding its definition, an image formed immediately of being with my father, as a young boy, and watching him cough and ball phlegm and then shoot it onto the pavement as we walked: three of my steps to every two of his. Frothed green, grey and white pools of his spit marked every walk we ever went on together. Returning home once, along Bosworth Road, I recall him spitting before climbing into a skip at the side of the kerb, to remove sticks of wood to chop for the morning’s fire. Back home, he had an orange cup stationed at the side of the settee into which he would fire those same filthy pellets. My father was tall and very thin. He owned a grey suit made up of a dull trouser half – the fabric shining at the knees through wear – and a jacket top half that was in better condition but slightly too big for his skeletal frame. Yellow and grey streaked through his white and thinning hair; yellow tinged the ends of his fingers too.
Yellow would always remain the most sickly of colours to me. Whenever I notice the jaundiced fingers on a smoker, or that same awful colour streaked through ageing hair, I see my father. Images, after all just like words, can be abducted by memory. That yellow will remind me of him, prone, on the settee, with the orange cup on the floor below. It will return a memory of me perched at the opposite end of that settee, watching snooker on the black-and-white television with him. And when I read the word ‘expectorate’ I am back there, at his side, looking up to him as we walk, his gaze and focus forward, or shifting towards the road and finding kindling for the fire.
For all the transporting and transcending strength of such words, it’s only a small sadness that the word ‘dad’ doesn’t return his image to me. His purchase on that word was too short and too slender. Instead, I rely on yellowed fingers, on watching snooker, and always an orange cup, to bring bits of him back.
‘Most people are afflicted with an inability to say what they see or think. They say there’s nothing more difficult than to define a spiral in words; they claim it is necessary to use the unliterary hand, twirling it in a steadily upward direction, so that human eyes will perceive the abstract figure immanent in wire spring and a certain type of staircase. But if we remember that to say is to renew, we will have no trouble defining a spiral; it’s a circle that rises without ever closing. I realize that most people would never dare to define it this way, for they suppose that defining is to say what others want us to say rather than what’s required for the definition. I’ll say it more accurately: a spiral is a potential circle that winds round as it rises, without ever completing itself. But no, the definition is still abstract. I’ll resort to the concrete, and all will become clear: a spiral is a snake without a snake, vertically wound around nothing.’
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet