Saturday, February 22, 2020

Two by Brian Dillon (#FitzcarraldoFortnight)

I first read Brian Dillon's Essayism (2017) just under two years ago. I didn't blog about it, but I did feel it was one of the best things I read that year. So when I saw In The Dark Room late last year, I picked it up. I read it this week and then reread Essayism.

In The Dark Room (2005) is Dillon's first book, and the Fitzcarraldo Edition is a reprint with an introduction by Frances Wilson.
"...a reflection on memory might also be a reflection on my memory..."
-p. 235

That quote is a bit of an aside in context, but gives a strong sense of the way the book (I suspect) came into being for Dillon. He had a sad and (what has fortunately, in the West at least, become) a rare childhood: he was orphaned at twenty. His mother died when he was fifteen after a long bout with a painful disease, scleroderma; she was also afflicted by depression. Then his father died of a heart attack five years later. So when he started thinking about memory as a topic, it's understandable he might not want to include an examination of his own. But what memories do any of us have more readily available to examine?

So he centers his study of memory around his memories of his own childhood, and of his parents. There are five organizing areas in the book, hooks that memory often gets hung on: the house he grew up in, the things that survived his parents, photographs of his parents, their actual bodies, and revisiting the places associated with his childhood. What does it mean to look at a photograph of one's parents together before one was conceived? What can you say about them, though knowing them well, but not in that moment?

Dillon is forthright about his own battles with depression, and 'The Dark Room' alludes more to that than to the process of making photographs. He writes with deep reference to other literary investigations of memory, with Augustine's Confessions and Proust being particularly important, but also Joe Brainard's I Remember, Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Virginia Woolf, Sebald. A fascinating investigation.

Then I went back to Essayism. Dillon takes the word from Musil's The Man Without Qualities. The title of chapter 62, in the Sophie Wilkins translation, reads:

I remembered Essayism as a wonderfully insightful book about the glories of reading essays, sometimes (and especially for Dillon) a melancholic pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. And it is very good on a number of essayists. When I first read it, I was so overwhelmed by his (judicious, but real) praise for Palinurus' (Cyril Connolly's) impossible masterpiece The Unquiet Grave I immediately went and reread that. He was equally good, I thought, on Sontag, on Sir Thomas Browne, on Elizabeth Hardwick, on Montaigne. Less time was spent--but still it was quality time-- with Didion, Benjamin, Barthes, Cioran, Gass. For instance he says of first volume of Sontag's diary, (from when she was a teenager and in her early twenties) that it is 'quite endearing in its pretension.' Which is exactly what I thought when I read it, though without the wit to phrase it so well. He was so good I wished he'd told me about essayists I already loved, Hazlitt in particular.

I remembered from that first reading there was an autobiographical component as well, but it was only in reading it immediately after In The Dark Room that I realized how important that was to its conception. That old black dog had been hanging around again and Dillon needed to work. For Dillon, essayism, to essay, to look closely at things and write about them, is a crucial part of maintaining who we are. Good thoughts for a blogger.

I think both of these are very good. Essayism is a little more outward-looking, and I prefer it, probably for that reason, but In The Dark Room is also very good, and especially if your tastes run more to autobiography or memoir.

I also have a copy of This Little Art by Kate Briggs and I'm hoping to read it this week. I earlier read Flights and actually as a Fitzcarraldo book; it was later released by Riverhead (Penguin) and the Fitzcarraldo isn't distributed here anymore. I liked it, but it did occasionally make me squeamish, I admit. I very much liked Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of Dead, but read that in the Riverhead hardback and didn't blog about it.

Thanks to Kaggsy for the great idea of hosting this!

Side note: I'm forever fascinated by the vagaries of my spellchecker. Didion and Barthes are famous enough that my spellchecker approves. Cioran and Gass, enh, not so much. I think of Palinurus as a pretty important character in the Aeneid, as well as being Cyril Connolly's pseudonym, but that's not good enough. Aeneas himself checks out OK, unsurprisingly. Anchises yes, but Achates, however faithful he might have been, no.


  1. i've fairly often clutched Dr. Browne and got half way through "Urn Burial" once, but my ambitions have stultified in that direction... i get along with Macaulay a lot better, and Steele, Addison and their tutelary god, Johnson...

    1. He doesn't so much as mention the great Augustan essayists, nor Macaulay as well. Not somehow to his temper, I guess.

  2. Lovely post! I read and loved "Essaysim" recently but I now wish I'd read his other book and will most certainly have to get a copy! Will look forward to your thoughts on This Little Art - I've just been trying to draw mine together. It's an extraordinary work!

    1. Thanks! I'm looking forward to your thoughts on the Briggs and also on Essayism? It seems like you haven't blogged it yet, though I saw you acquired a stack of Sontag in its hono(u)r I think...

  3. Nice to see another Dillon review this week! ITDR is a really interesting book. And you're in for such a treat with the Briggs!

    1. Yours on Dillon was also fascinating. Thanks! I'm enjoying the Briggs.