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The Aptest Form

David O'Connor

Suppose a Sentence, by Brian Dillon, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1913097011

In their spring 2009 “Deception” issue, the arts and culture quarterly Cabinet published an open letter from the Irish writer Brian Dillon to his editors at frieze. Dillon came clean on having perpetrated a minor (though not unimpressive) literary fraud. After a vain search through Robert Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621) for an epigraph to his essay on charlatanry, “Is F for Fake?”, it struck Dillon “that with a little care regarding seventeenth century syntax and a few quaint capital letters”, he could contrive the quotation he needed. With Wellesian brass-neck, he mocked up the epigraph and attributed it to Burton. No one was wise to his “egregious deceit”. Not the first nor the last time Dillon would draw breath from another writer. In a recent appreciation of the music critic Ian Penman he wrote of “writers who rush at the empty page or screen without a thought for precursors, who don’t need to hear the intimate whisper of influence in order to get started. I’m not one of that independent breed.” Without Roland Barthes, Dillon says in his new book, Suppose a Sentence, “I would not have found the courage to start amassing sentences and paragraphs of my own.” Dillon’s early essays in friezeCabinetand Dublin Review, the book-length works In the Dark Room (2005), Tormented Hope (2009), Sanctuary(2011) and The Great Explosion (2015), and several of the pieces in the essay collection Objects in This Mirror (2014) were written “avowedly under the influence of WG Sebald”. In Dillon, the intimate whisper is everywhere audible.

Besides aspects of syntax, diction, setting and tone, Dillon adapted from Sebald (and the later works of Barthes) a blend of scholarly essay and discreetly impassioned memoir. In the Dark Room tells of his “complicated remembering” of childhood, adolescence, the lives and early deaths of his parents, and the final fraught abandonment, by he and his brothers, of the family home. In the opening pages of The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War, and a disaster on the Kent marshes, we see him walking the terrain in the company of his partner, their friends, and their friends’ young children, pushing a buggy, feeling a small hand in his. Then he disappears almost entirely into the archives, emerging much later, towards the story’s end, alone, in motion, tearing through webby clutches, sensing, in the gathering dark, “soon all will be lost”. Essayism (2017) found Dillon “in the wake of the disaster”. It is a sequel of sorts toIn the Dark Room (and an intimately entangled companion to Suppose a Sentence). There is the revelation: “that I had been sitting down to work each day for years with the conviction that I must kill myself, soon”. But Essayism is no naked wail. Look how “soon” steps out from behind that comma, to shock you rigid. Dillon avows a taste for “conscious and conspicuously worked evidence of distance and thought, transformation of the raw material”, a transformation that allows him write his way through to the book’s closing essay, “On starting again”. Recollection not in tranquillity but convalescence. This is Dillon on the writing (his own included) that has sustained him, offered “a passage out of the dismal place in which I found myself”: Sebald, Susan Sontag, Barthes, Thomas Browne, Virginia Woolf; newer loves like Maeve Brennan, Elizabeth Hardwick and Muriel Spark, the writers – many feature again in Suppose a Sentence – who made and continue to remake him. And in this “piloting through to the source”, this retelling of how he came to be a writer, something was loosed.

If the resilient affirmations of Essayism were borne out of a waste land, now, stepping clear of the ruins (a lesson from Chris Marker: to commune with spectres and then forget them), we have the diverse and several wonders of Suppose a Sentence. Dillon is, to filch one of his own phrases, “disporting himself”. Every muscle warm, supple, relishing its extent. Dillon loves essays that “pay the minutest or most sustained attention to the one thing, one time or place, one strain or strand of existence”. In each of these twenty-seven pieces, that strain or strand is a single sentence. Writing for the first time without a plan, Dillon is out for a work that is “all pleasure”. For all its fixation on loss and death, the book – with its airy, liberated tone and formal promiscuity – is something of a frolic: the “deliciously dismal effect of all this unceasing decease”.

In In the Dark Room (look again at that title), certain words would not relent: “a terrible, secret shame”, “shame, fear and anger”, “anger, fear and embarrassment”, “vast geometry of embarrassment”, “unconquerable shame”. Something was concealed. Twice, another word wriggled its way in; that word: “desire”. In an essay on the poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum, Dillon marvelled (in italics) at “the stuff he will not be embarrassed by”, at “a kind of criticism that excites and instructs … by the spectacle of its author being, himself, so obviously thrilled”. Koestenbaum’s delirious scholarship is an art of enthused appreciation, a model for writing, shamelessly, about what one loves.

Though the order in Suppose a Sentence is chronological, from Shakespeare to Anne Boyer (with some looped recursions in that closing essay), the earliest written of these pieces, “The Cunning of Destruction” – one of the book’s many enticing titles – is on Elizabeth Hardwick, and seems to slip into a space opened up by Koestenbaum’s short essay “Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sentences”. Dillon is keenly caught up in the writing of desire; he is in love with these sentences: “How to say, because this must be the word, what I love there?” Hardwick brings “the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor”; Barthes is “the most seductive writer I know”. The word “romance” appears; “romantic”; “the quirk of thought and word I love best”. “I am not ashamed to say …” Dillon announces, before recalling his tears to suggest something about emotion sprung from form. Of a translated text: “When I say ‘been relying on’, I mean ‘been wholly seduced by’.” When those other words resurface, they do not dominate: “This sentence – how else to say it? – embarrasses me.” Desire is both thrill and demand. One must – with the “proper loving attention” – be alert “to the subtle, voracious movement of another’s desire”. And that other may be a sentence or may be a style. Which takes us back to our opening paragraph and the confident modesty in that “little care”. How little care? Turns out, an awful lot of care indeed.

Dillon writes out of the fulness of his erudition. He is unashamedly learned, bred in the way of study, at ease with recondite sources and specialised or arcane vocabulary – medical history, architectural and art historical terminology, scientific research, geology, zoological and botanical classification, Gertrude Stein. In the essay on John Donne, we read of the shift at the turn of the seventeenth century from a Ciceronian to a less formal Senecan model of rhetoric in English prose, and of Donne’s quickening of that process. (Dillon never strays long though from the demotic: “Donne could do Ciceronion, for sure.”) An image in Virginia Woolf reminds him of a “medieval dream poem”. “A plain array of monosyllables” in a Browne sentence are – and this may be a lark given the extent of exegetical and theological contention – “of frankly biblical clarity”. (Though clarity need not shun diverse readings.) He is alert to etymological resonance and lexical affinity, to how a sentence coheres and extends: “Sublimates”, in Elizabeth Bowen’s sentence “is ideal, bearing here its chemical, or alchemical sense; the other verbs – ‘wetting’, ‘unweaving’, ‘liquefying’, ‘powdering’ – are all variations on this one, efforts to define its undefining energy.” He worries at the code word “ofay” in James Baldwin’s smooth take-down of Norman Mailer, at the ambiguity of “stem” in Beckett. He sees a shift to the “plain past tense” in the jazz critic Whitney Balliett’s piece on Charlie Parker as “clarifying or consolidating”. This cultivated close reading allows for acute summations of a writer’s style. On Joan Didion: “It is usually direct and declarative, it is filled with parallelisms and rhythmic repetitions, there is a wealth of concrete detail. Irony in her work consists largely of the plain statement of such detail, inflected by the innocent, mad or bad-faith language of the people or institutions she is writing about.”

Dillon is a shrewd teacher and a confident critic. An autobiographical anecdote in the piece on George Eliot tells of a turn from adolescent surety to a modest, vulnerable curiosity. The work makes claims: “Here is a sentence whose art as well as import demanded I become a more sympathetic reader – and person.” Calm riposte to presumption and prejudice, sly defence of the canonical (but not over the new), a lesson in sympathy, and in desire. Reading to find what you might become, as an unsettling. And Dillon is not afraid of uncertainty. “‘Eaten away by dust’ – this is a flummoxing formulation, no?” He is blissed out in confusion: “I’m not certain I follow, not even sure what ‘this’ consists of, never mind the ‘infinitely more’.” In Fleur Jaeggy’s telegraphic retelling of the life of Thomas De Quincey, Dillon detects “a subtle accent or peculiarity of image and phrase that remains quite mysterious”. He is not out to know, has no desire to get it; he is there to wonder, content to leave mystery be. To compass, not encompass. “Sentences should not shrink,” Dillon quotes Gertrude Stein, and no sentence here is diminished. This is close reading as amplification. Charlotte Brontë’s three-word sentence is an amiable polysemous mêlée: “All of the meanings are present, all of them complementing and contending with each other, inside this tiny, concentrated sentence.” Criticism as an act of love: the object not clasped, nor bent to the critic’s will. At the end of his piece on the artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, “everything is sliding and obscure”. Of Barthes’s sentence: it “has grown light enough for me to let it go”. 

Like Tertius Lydgate in Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dillon enacts “a constant movement between the panoramic and the microscopic, between concentration and expansion”. He attends to the minutiae, of individual words yes, and of punctuation. A semi-colon in Middlemarch is a “creaky little hinge”; an Annie Dillard sentence “with its central colon, feels balanced but loose, centrifugal and strange”; colons in Barthes “mark a transformation: inside the sentence, outside in the world”. Dillon situates a sentence in a paragraph, an essay, story, novel, or lecture; he draws on a writer’s biography, on other works, on literary and cultural history, social mores. The Charlotte Brontë essay combines a summative comment on her novel Villette with biographical details, a speculative aetiology of her suffering (“worsened by solitude and unfulfilled desires, writerly as well as romantic”), and a proliferating scrutiny of the word “wrought”. The piece on a Beckett radio talk swerves at once to a passage in Krapp’s Last Tape. Dillon ventures evocatively illuminating metaphors: A De Quincey sentence is a “phantasmagoric machine”; Woolf’s “a neat, paratactic excursion”; Robert Smithson’s “a container for the rubble of meaning”; Maeve Brennan’s “a miniature maze”. He conjures the occasion and drama of reading, how it feels to read and reread a sentence, how he has been impressed: At a Hilary Mantel sentence, he is left “staring at the screen, mouthing the whole thing aloud in wonder”. Like his Barthes, he is “analytic but entranced”, his enigmatic, susceptible response a reminder of how complex, varied and deceptive good writing often is: “not what it seems, nor how it sounds. But … raddled with irony.” 

Dillon obeys the contours of his own taste, making this book a summa of sorts, a show of just how much attention he lavishes on the writing he loves, how acute his ear is for those whispers of influence. He craves the intimacy of an individual voice, is drawn to those Woolf called “the keepers of the keys of solitude”. Putting off reading Elizabeth Bowen, Dillon “was afraid some page-long stretch of dialogue might bore me”. His solution: “start with the essays”. Claire-Louise Bennett, he writes, quit the theatre so as “not to have to listen to so many competing voices”. Dillon has fallen for her “strikingly soliloquizing fiction”. Yet each voice is an idiosyncratic composite. Dillon has spoken of his first encounter with Sebald, of hearing a voice both “absolutely alien” and “complicatedly familiar”, one that reminded him of Barthes, Walter Benjamin and De Quincey, of Giorgio Agamben, Julia Kristeva, and John Donne. Sebald brought them (and others) together, “cast them in a different light”. In Bennett, Dillon hears whispers of Beckett, Lydia Davis, and one of Annie Dillard’s “crank narrators”. He is attuned to what he called in a piece on William H Gass “the music of prose”. He admires the rhythm and cadence of Thomas Browne’s “sonic dramas”, hears the “consoling repetitions of sound and word” in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, loves the “alliteration – all those plosives … and sibilants” in Hardwick, the “neatly affianced sounds” in James Baldwin, sounds which are Baldwin’s own, but also “belong to the jazz musicians he is half quoting”. Dillon loves writing that mimics or figures its subject matter, that finds “the aptest form”. Charlotte Brontë’s writing on the (imagined) effects of laudanum is “stimulant and hallucinogen”; Woolf’s “On Being Ill” is enervated and drowsily melancholic as though suffering the effects of flu; Beckett’s sentence about war-ruined Saint-Lô is “a sort of syntactic Hotel de Ville with bombed out windows for clauses”. Dillon quotes Didion on the “affinities between words and things, between the structure of a scene and the shape of a sentence.” Above all Dillon longs for writing that risks (or brings on) its own disintegration. In “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”, Ruskin’s prose “is a rhetorical cloud, exquisitely formed and likely at any moment to turn ragged, dark, unruly”. Writing, like Bennett’s, that “stages its own contingency”, or Dillard’s, which plays out the “limits of description” and knows when to quit. Or Dillon’s own closing essay on Anne Boyer that loops back – with combative challenge – to the book’s hushed inception. 

We are left, as Woolf wrote in “The Modern Essay”, “basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure”. Pleasure, not as mere salve (though this too), nor respite from fear, guilt, embarrassment and shame, but as affirmation and delight, as something given and received, pleasure as its own, gorgeous, moral (if temporary) end. And in this end, as the poem goes, is a beginning. Ranking writers is silly; reading Dillon has taught me that. Affinity, love, allure; consolation, seduction, desire; want – these are the words. Yet I cannot resist: No one writes a more alluring, more seductive (or more desirous) sentence than Brian Dillon.

1/11/2020

David O'Connor is a reviewer and writer working in Dublin

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