Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

I first explored the writing of Brian Dillon back in February when I co-hosted the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with Lizzy. His collection “Essayism” was a highlight of the event for me; a marvellous meditation on the art of the essay, blended with autobiographical elements, it was compelling reading and one of those books which resonates and stays with you long after finishing it. So when I discovered that Dillon had a new book coming out in September, with the intriguing title of “Suppose a Sentence”, I was naturally very, very keen to read it!

Beautiful sentences, Gass wrote, are ‘rare as eclipses’. I went chasing eclipses: those moments of reading when the light changes, some darker lustre takes over, things (words) seems suddenly obscure, even in the simplest sentence, and you find you have to look twice, more than twice.

“Suppose…” (which draws its title from Gertrude Stein) takes an intriguing approach to its subject, which is, fairly obviously, the sentence. Working chronologically, Dillon gathers together groups of words he’s recorded in notebooks over the years and explores what makes them so special. They’re sentences which resonated with him for one reason or another, lodging in the brain and demanding to be recorded; and the authors range from Shakespeare at the start (and in many ways I suppose, he *is* the start of things) to a final piece on Anne Boyer. In between the two, in pieces ranging from less than a page to several, Dillon takes in a dazzling array of writers. Donne, De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, Ruskin, Stein, Woolf, Bowen, Didion, Barthes, Sontag – well, you see why I was so keen to read it.

The sentence demands patience; it is like waiting for a photograph to develop.

Dillon’s angle on his sentences varies a little from piece to piece; but one thing this isn’t is a book about only about the structure of a sentence. He does dip lightly into linguistics, but he’s really more interested in exploring the context of his particular choices and the effects they have on the reader. Often the sentence will stretch outside its proper structure, testing the bounds of grammar and how a sentence is *supposed* to be constructed; and as I dislike regimentation in writing I found that refreshing. The sentence can be such a varied form – which is quite clear from this book – and although Proust is not present here, the book did set me off thinking about the complex and labyrinthine structure of his writing which really is an art in itself

Maybe the world of the novel – and maybe the world – is like a densely woven fabric, and the best we can do is pick at its pattern in one place, hoping thereby to comprehend the whole.

Like all good essayists, the personal is present as Dillon explores his relationship to the authors and the sentences, and when they might have appeared in his life. He’s always an engaging narrator, throwing out clever and provocative ideas, and the book ended up being a wonderfully stimulating read. It’s fascinating how focusing on just one sentence can be used to bring such insight into that author’s work; but each set of words, whether short or long, is distinctive and deserving of such close study. The book is riddled with references to favourite writers and their work, making it impossible to pick out favourites; it has to be seen as a whole. I was, however, particularly struck by his reaction to Elizabeth Bowen; her writing about her trip to Italy was for him, like me, a recent discovery. And I had a ‘yes!’ moment when Dillon pointed out how like Montaigne was Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill“; which I hadn’t realised at the time, not having yet read Montaigne himself. However, it also introduced me to some new authors, which will necessitate a little exploring…

… ‘phrase-maker’ ought to be an admiring term of art, not an insult reserved for writers who are judged insufficiently robust, altogether too transported by language.

I have to confess to being someone who is seduced by the power of words, and I love nothing better than a good sentence. To me, much current writing suffers from the loss of a decent sentence; short, staccato phrases don’t usually have the same effect and this is probably why I find a lot of modern books thin and unexciting. I suppose the question has to be asked – how do Dillon’s sentences stand up to scrutiny? Well, I found them to be a thing of great joy; he really knows how to string a good one together himself. And in the same way that Dillon picked out his sentences over the years, I found myself marking his to be saved in notebooks (as you can see from the sheaf of post-its…); a good phrase or expression is always worth recording.

Suppose a Post-it….

So “Suppose a Sentence” was everything I wanted it to be; snapshots of the work of a fascinating range of writers (several new to me); a book about words and their meanings and the effects they can have on you; and a wide ranging look at the sentences our fellow humans have felt the need to pen over the centuries. It’s also very brilliantly structured in a way about which I shall say no more… And it’s one of those very dangerous books which you finish reading with a whole list of works you want to check out (and the notes at the back help with that…) It sent me running off to check I still had some of the below lying about and also is responsible for one of these arriving to swell the tbr…

Suppose an Influence… I had a minor panic when I thought I’d donated De Quincey, but luckily hadn’t. The Hogg I already owned. The Schwob was a gift. The Jaeggy is new…

I’ve read quite a number of Fitzcarraldo Editions this year, and I haven’t been disappointed once. “Suppose a Sentence” comes with a number of (well-deserved) plaudits for its author (and I would agree with John Banville’s description of Dillon as a ‘literary flaneur’). It’s very much a book for lovers of words and reading; and if you like essays, writing, books, language or simply to have your thoughts provoked, then I highly recommend “Suppose a Sentence” – a wonderful read!

“Suppose a Sentence” will be released by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 23rd September; many thanks to the publishers and Clare Bogen for kindly providing a review copy.