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“…my gaze seemed to fracture.” #InTheDarkRoom @FitzcarraldoEds

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Back in 2020, I was happy to make the acquaintance of a new-to-me writer via the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight which I co-hosted with Lizzy. The author was Brian Dillon, and I read his wonderful book “Essayism” as part of that reading event; and I loved his take on the art of the essay, interspersed with autobiographical elements which really resonated, so much that I went on to cover his “Suppose a Sentence” (also from Fitzcarraldo) later in the year.

However, Dillon has a third Fitzcarraldo title, which has been lurking on my TBR since a mad flurry of purchasing during one of their periodical sales. It’s called “In The Dark Room”, a book which was first published in 2005 before being brought out by FE in (I think) 2017; and here Dillon delves more deeply into autobiographical territory whilst exploring memory, trauma and how we process the big events in our life.

Every life is rich with these hidden correspondences between things, submerged collusions between one time and another which are fully expressed only at the moment when one concentrates hard on the object, weighing its presence against the other, lost but still imaginable, things.

As I mentioned in my review of “Essayism”, Dillon lost both of his parents at a relatively young age; and that fact is pivotal to that book. In “Dark Room” Dillon looks back on those experiences to examine how memory works both culturally and emotionally, drawing on his on losses and the way he processes his past to look at the topic more widely. The book is split into sections, such as ‘House’, ‘Photographs’ and ‘Places’; in each of these, Dillon takes a particular lens to explore his past and how his memories of these elements work.

The result is a deep and emotionally complex book, which not only examines how we deal with our past and our memories, but also the effect such early losses can have. Dillon was understandably devastated by losing both parents so young, and only five years apart; and his references to later breakdowns and health problems of his own make it clear that losses like this cannot be easily processed or dealt with. It has to be added to this that there are cultural issues involved, both from the Irish Catholic milieu in which Dillon grew up (and which he seems to reject fiercely now) and also the time – back in the 20th century, we were not always so open with our emotions, or indeed in the way we communicated as families, and there is much which is repressed here.

The skin is a sort of screen on which are projected all the secret and unspeakable fears and desires which we would like to contain (but which we also long to express ). According to this way of thinking, all the psychic flow is in one direction: towards the surface, where the emotional slurry we cannot process is poured out onto this pristine surface, scarring it, discolouring it.

“Dark Room” is not always an easy read; the illness and final death of Dillon’s mother, from a rare and awful disease, when he was sixteen, is heartbreaking. Dillon, his two brothers and his father, seem lost afterwards and his father’s passing five years later leaves them even more adrift. Dillon never pulls his punches or shies away from saying things as they are; and this is a very honest piece of writing, where you’re never in doubt about his feelings or his beliefs. The title can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways, from a reference to the place where photographs (and therefore memories) are processed, and also the oft-felt need of humans to hide away in a darkened room when the real world is getting too much to bear…

So Dillon explores the objects left behind by his parents; the family photographs, capturing moments from his life and moments from before he existed; and deals with the places from his young life which now lodge in his memory with particuar resonances. He draws on Perec, Benjamin, Barthes, Bachelard, Proust and many others; and his meditations on what we carry with us locked in our memories are thought-provoking and fascinating.

I’m not quite sure what prompted me to pick up “In The Dark Room” just at the moment, although I did polyread it alongside the collection of Tove Ditlevsen’s short stories; and it seemed a non-fiction work would be a good choice to go with them. However, I’m very glad I did choose to read this right now; it’s a powerful, memorable, fierce and yet often beautiful piece of writing which, as well as making you think about our processes of memory, also stands as an emotional memorial to his parents. Another outstanding book from Dillon, which I highly recommend.

“…he became scribe and secretary to his mind…” #fleurjaeggy #thesepossiblelives

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These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor

Reading books is a dangerous thing. Not only does it keep your mind exercised and in a constant state of stimulation, it also tends to make you perpetuate that state by suggesting ideas for more books you might want to read… Well, certainly that’s the case for me when I read something like Brian Dillon’s excellent “Suppose a Sentence”. As I said in my review, it’s one of those perilous books which has a list at the end and sends you off in all sorts of interesting directions to explore other works and authors. One particular book which caught my eye was “These Possible Lives” by Fleur Jaeggy (a Swiss author who writes in Italian – so perfect for #WITMonth) Although I have a fiction book by her unread, this very slim collection of essays sounded impossible to resist – so I didn’t…

Every morning Mrs. De Quincey inspected the children, perfuming them with lavender or rose water, and then icily dismissed them from her presence until lunch. Dreams of “terrific grandeur” settled on the nursery.

“These Possible Lives” is just 60 pages long, and contains three short essays which look at the lives of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob. In short and strange sentences, Jaeggy manages to conjure a whole life, but in prose which is entirely individual and quite remarkable. Her writing is compressed and concise, her juxtapositions unexpected, and yet the book is incredibly lyrical.

Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street, coasting to a stop on the corner of Oxford Street in front of his little friend Ann.

De Quincey will, of course, be familiar as the author of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”; the poet Keats needs no introduction; however, Schwob, a French symbolist writer who influenced Borges and Bolano, is probably less familiar. Jaeggy’s pieces have no typical biographical structure, give no hard and fast details of dates and events and work; instead, they present impressionistic glimpses of the three men at points in their lives. Time jumps forwards with no warning and death approaches; in many ways, as Dillon has commented, this is as much about their deaths as their lives. There *are* facts, but not necessarily presented in a joined-up fashion. You could, I suppose, refer to them as precis of a life, but that’s doing them an injustice. Somehow, despite the brevity of essays, Jaeggy manages to convey the sense of a long and full life, well lived, even in cases such as Keats who died so young.

On the evidence of this work, Fleur Jaeggy is obviously a remarkable writer. I’ve seen her writing described as austere, but I think that’s not quite the word I would use here. Despite her concision, there’s an odd richness in her prose; and the rapid shifts and unusual connections she makes create a surprising depth in her narrative. And her sentences; they really are something else, as Brian Dillon made clear in his chapter on her writing in “Suppose a Sentence”! “These Possible Lives” is an extraordinary, brilliant and memorable book, with writing that quite took my breath away; and I really shall have to get to Jaeggy’s fiction work soon…

“… funny, learned, vagrant, strange…” @briangdillon @FitzcarraldoEds #supposeasentence

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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.

“I want obliquity…” #fitzcarraldofortnight @FitzcarraldoEds @briangdillon

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Essayism by Brian Dillon

As can be seen by the pictures I’ve shared of my Fitzcarraldos, I had a number of choices for our fortnight of reading; and I thought I had settled on the ones I would tackle during the event. However, despite being thoroughly involved in “This Little Art” (as well as polyreading “Fandango” alongside it), for some reason I was suddenly hit by the urge to pick up another of my pending Fitzcarraldos. The book in question is “Essayism” by Brian Dillon, and not only did I start dipping, I actually finished it in record time… 😀

Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is currently UK editor of Cabinet magazine as well as teaching at the Royal College of Art, London. “Essayism” was his first Fitzcarraldo, but he’s written a number of books, myriad articles and curated exhibitions; and rather excitingly has a new book out this year. However, on to “Essayism” itself.

The book is, obviously, about essays, and the latter is a form of writing of which I’m becoming increasingly fond. I have all manner of essay collections lying about in Mount TBR and I’m often drawn to them as opposed to fiction. Maybe it’s the shorter form – manageable in the shorter chunks of reading time I often have nowadays. Whatever it is, the older I get, the more I want to read them! And Brian Dillon seems to be inordinately fond of the form too; he’s a regular practitioner, and his book is something of an extended meditation on the essay format, as well as a celebration of some of its best practitioners.

Oddly, though, it seems that the essay is hard to define, perhaps because it can encompass so much. Is there a set length? A set style? A preferred range of subjects? It seems not, as many of the examples covered by Dillon demonstrate. The authors he cites are wide-ranging, from Sir Thomas Browne through Montaigne, Woolf, Benjamin, Perec and up to more modern practitioners like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. All of these writers have a very individual style and take on the essay form, yet all produce stimulating and fascinating pieces of writing which change the way you think about the world around you.

The essay, which in essence wants to wander, may pursue its adventure by the paradoxical means of an ordered stasis: all its elements arranged as if in a cabinet of curiosities, an elaborate microcosm that freezes in an image some version of the world outside the collection.

However, the book is not simply a contemplation of the essay in its multifarious forms; woven into Dillon’s narrative is a moving autobiographical strand, where he relates the effect that writers and writing have had on him at pivotal points in his life, as well as while negotiating a breakdown. Dillon lost both of his parents at a fairly young age, and close together; and much of his life seems to have been marked by depression, an afflication with which his mother also suffered. As someone who always turns to the written word as a necessary coping mechanism at times of deep stress, this element of the book particularly resonated.

And actually there were *so* many aspects of “Essayism” which resonated; the eye-opening effect of Paul Morley and Ian Penman’s writing in the NME of the 1980s; the soaring beauty of Virginia Woolf’s prose; and yes, that man again – Roland Barthes is a regular thread in the book, an author to whom Dillon keeps returning and one who seems to be constantly turning up in *my* line of sight.

I think what I wanted from writing – from Barthes in particular but others too – was a passage out of the dismal place in which I found myself in my mid-teens, but also some assurance that the world could not only be recast in words but had been made of language in the first place.

The unread white cover Fitzcarraldos at the start of this reading event….

One of the most interesting elements of Dillon’s dissection of the essay was the concept of these as fragments – anything from the works of Adorno to the idea of the list-as-essay (exemplified perhaps by Perec’s very wonderful “An Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Paris”). But what struck me most, I think, whilst reading this excellent book was how the essay reflects so much the personality of the author; and I realised I’m often looking for some kind of connection with an author when I read, a tendency which is more pronounced in the shorter form of the essay.

Essays, ancient and modern, can seem precious in their self-presentation, like things too well made ever to be handled. Touch them however they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing, and the essay reveals itself to have been less compact and smooth than thought, but instead unbounded and mobile, a form with ambitions to be unformed.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I read “Essayism” in the middle of also reading “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs; and interestingly, my response to each of these books was enhanced by reading the other. There are threads that connect them both, which I hope will become clear when I get to “Art”; however, I suspect I’ll only scratch the surface of this pair of remarkable works.

Anyway; “Essayism” turned out to be a quite marvellous and involving read; thought-provoking, moving, absorbing and, very dangerously, with a reading list in the back! (I *have* fortunately read quite of a few of the books suggested). I was reminded occasionally of Simon Critchley’s writings, with a similar mix of personal and meditative as featured here, though Dillon’s voice is very individual and his exploration of the essay quite fascinating. I’m very glad some kind of force impelled me to pick this one up for the #Fitzcarraldofortnight, and I suspect I may have to track down his other title from the publisher… ;D

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