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“…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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