Those of you with longer memories will recall that #ReadIndies grew out of Fitzcarraldo Editions Fornight, an event Lizzy and I co hosted back in 2020. So while we have expanded our remit for #ReadIndies, I always like to fit in a Fitzcarraldo book if I can; and I was delighted that this month sees the release of a new essay collection by one of my favourite essayists, Brian Dillon. Entitled “Affinities”, it explores a series of visual images, mostly photographic ones, which have occupied the mind of the author over the years, and perhaps took on more importance during the COVID lockdowns. The result is a fascinating book which takes a look of those works of art which inspire us and the resonances we find between them.

I suspect it might have been sensible to have my trusty notebook to hand when reading “Affinities” – so many interesting quotes and ideas to remember!!

Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is currently UK editor of Cabinet magazine as well as teaching Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. “Essayism” was his first Fitzcarraldo, and he’s written a number of books, myriad articles and curated exhibitions; “Affinities” is his fourth work to be issued by the publisher and it carries on the high standard of the earlier books (the other two titles are “In the Dark Room” and “Suppose a Sentence“, which you can read about if you follows the links to my previous posts!)

Affinity is a mood. A temporary emotional state, yes – but also something close to the musical or grammatical meanings. A mode, that is…

Dillon’s previous books have ranged far and wide over autobiography, essays and the point of them, the sentence as a work of art and much, much more. A regular subject is art and photography, where he often references such luminaries as Sontag and Barthes, and so it’s particularly interesting to see him explore mostly the visual in this work. The book features a series of pieces on specific works or artists, interspersed with essays of varying lengths on the whole concept of affinity itself; it’s an often nebulous word which can be interpreted in many ways, and Dillon is not only exploring the affinity we as viewers might feel with a particular piece of art, but also the affinities which we might perceive as existing between different artworks. These are subjective judgements, but can really affect our appreciation of a photograph or, say, a piece of performance art, and that very personal relationship between humans and something another human has created can be remarkably powerful.

The subjects of the essays run in broadly chronological order which adds a fascinating element to the reading of the book. Early photography features, from the very first images captured by artists such as the pioneering Julia Margaret Cameron; and it’s interesting to note through Dillon’s explorations that much of what we perceive now as atmospheric blurring, which is so effective in the photography of the time, was in fact down to technical issues.

The affinity…is a kind of crush, and like a crush it tends to mark one out for the moment as faintly mad. The one who feels an affinity embraces knowingly, eagerly, his or her own madness and stupidity. Idiocy. Affinity exiles us from consensus, from community.

Dillon moves on through artists such as Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Beckett and Warhol; but he also looks at other ‘non-artistic’ images, such as scientific studies of sea creatures, visual representations of the auras producted by migraines, and even illustrations created from dreams. All of these works have come more into focus (hah!) for Dillon during lockdown, when the enforced silence and solititude forced us back into ourselves more than usual; and their importance in helping relate to other humans and find those affinities when we most needed them was significant.

Moving to more modern works, Dillon looks at contemporary creations from a fascinating array of artists, most of whom were new to me; that’s the danger of a book like this (and in fact all of Dillon’s books, with their lists of sources/references/recommended reading at the end, have left me with notebook pages full of things I want to follow up…) Of the modern creators featured, John Stezaker and Tacita Dean were particularly interesting; and as the books features a monochrome illustration to go with most of the essays, there was a useful opportunity to glimpse the works of the artists.

As for the ‘Affinity’ essays, these range across general discussion to more personal explorations the affinities reveal. Inevitably, one of the photographic images which moves Dillon most strongly revives memories of the early loss of his mother from a rare disease, an event which has so obviously marked his life. That photo triggers a look back to her life, to events which he feels drawn to revisit and yet will never truly be able to understand; it’s a poignant read and Dillon himself says “To write means to find reasons to tell you about my mother, about my ordinary orphanhood and ordinary grief.” Though I think it’s worth stating here that no grief is ever ordinary…

It has to be said that Dillon is a powerful essayist and his writing is always beautiful; he’s also an erudite author, drawing on the influences of those commentators of the visual I mentioned earlier. And the overarching concept for the book is a fascinating one; the original meaning of ‘affinity’ was an attraction of opposites, but nowadays it’s a word used more to indicate a close similarity between things, or an attraction to, or sympathy for, something. Certainly, we all sense our own personal affinities, whether with other people or with music or with art or with writing; and that’s the joy of a book like this, which is intensely personal, yet sets you off on so many trails when you feel an affinity with the works or artists Dillon is writing about.

As you probably know if you’re a regular visitor to the Ramblings, I love a good essay; and Dillon is one of my favourite modern purveyors of the form. “Affinities” was a joy from start to finish; fascinating, thought-provoking, often very moving, it made me re-see some of the artists of whom I was aware, create a list of those I want to explore more and also made me re-evaluate the resonances I sense amongst those creatives who are my personal favourites. A wonderful book by a favourite author, and another excellent release from Fizcarraldo!

(“Affinities” is published on 16th February; many thanks to Fizcarraldo for kindly providing a review copy).