Category: Brian Dillon

Dublin launch for Brian Dillon’s Essayism

5 July, 6-8 p.m.
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Join us in celebrating the launch of Essayism by Brian Dillon at Hodges Figgis, 56-58 Dawson Street, Dublin 2, on Wednesday 5 July from 6-8 p.m. The book will be launched by publisher Jacques Testard followed by a reading by Brian Dillon and short Q&A with Sinéad Gleeson. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend.

Brian Dillon was born in Dublin in 1969. His books include The Great Explosion (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize), Objects in This Mirror: EssaysI Am Sitting in a RoomSanctuaryTormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize) and In the Dark Room, which won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. His writing has appeared in the GuardianNew York TimesLondon Review of BooksTimes Literary SupplementBookforumfrieze and Artforum. He is UK editor of Cabinetmagazine, and teaches at the Royal College of Art, London.

Sinéad Gleeson’s essays have appeared in Granta, Gorse, Winter Papers and Banshee. She is the editor of the award-winning short story anthologies The Long Gaze Back: an Anthology of Irish Women Writers (2015) and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland (2016). She is currently working on a collection of non-fiction and presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1.

An Extract: Essayism

From Brian Dillon's new book Essayism about the genre, its history and its contemporary possibilities
Essayism

An extract from Brian Dillon’s new book Essayism published today:

¶ On essays and essayists. On the death of a moth, humil­iation, the Hoover dam and how to write; an inventory of objects on the author’s desk, and an account of wear­ing spectacles, which he does not; what another learned about himself the day he fell unconscious from his horse; of noses, of cannibals, of method; diverse mean­ings of the word ‘lumber’; many vignettes, published over decades, in which the writer, or her elegant stand-in, described her condition of dislocation in the city, and did it so blithely that no one guessed it was all true; a dissertation on roast pig; a heap of language; a tour of the monuments; a magazine article that in tone and structure so nearly resembles its object, or conceals it, that flummoxed readers depart in droves; a sentence you could whisper in the ear of a dying man; an essay upon essays; on the author’s brief and oblique friendship with the great jazz singer; a treatise on melancholy, also on everything else; a species of drift or dissolve, at the lev­els of logic and language, that time and again requires the reader to page back in wonder – how did we get from there to here? – before the writer’s skill (or perhaps his inattention); a sermon on death, preached in the poet’s final days on earth, before a picture of his own shrouded person; the metaphoric power of same: the womb a grave, the grave a whirlpool, Death’s hand stretched to save us; a long read; a short history of decay; a diary’s prompt towards self-improvement: ‘To sew on my buttons (and button my lip)’; on a dancer arrayed like an insect or a ray of light; love, alphabetized; life, alphabetized; every second of a silent clown’s appearance on screen, dissect­ed: ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death’; on the cows outside the window: their movement and mass, their possible emotions; what happened next will amaze you; upon a time a dutiful thing, set and judged by teachers, proof because proof needed – of what? Compliance, competence and com­prehension, proper meanness of ambition; but later, discovered in the library and under the bedclothes: sparks or scintillations, stabs at bewilderment, some effort or energy flung at the void; and style too, scurri­lous entertainments, a writing that’s all surface, torsion and poise, something so artful it can hardly be told from disarray; an art among others of the sidelong glance, obliquities and digressions; an addiction to arduous learning; a study of punctuation marks, their meaning and morality; seven Dada manifestos, forty-one false starts, the writer’s technique in thirteen theses; an ac­count of what passed through the author’s mind in the seconds before a stagecoach crash, somewhere on the road between Manchester and Glasgow, ‘in the second or third summer after Waterloo’. The writing of the di­saster. Confessions, cool memories, a collection of sand. Curiosities. The philosophy of furniture. An account of the late eclipse. What was it like to fly high above the capital, through silver mist and hail, when flying was yet new? The answer: ‘Innumerable arrows shot at us, down the august avenue of our approach.’

Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name should be something like: an effort, an attempt, a trial. Surmise or hazard, followed likely by failure. Imagine what it might rescue from disaster and achieve at the levels of form, style, texture and therefore (though some might cavil at ‘therefore’) at the level of thought. Not to mention feeling. Picture if you can its profile on the page: from a solid spate of argument or narrative to isolated promontories of text, these composing in their sum the archipelago of a work, or a body of work. The page an estuary, dotted at intervals with typographical buoys or markers. And all the currents or sediments in between: sermons, dialogues, lists and surveys, small eddies of print or whole books construed as single essays. A shoal or school made of these. Listen for the possible cadences this thing might create: orotund and authoritative; ardent and fizzing; slow and exacting to the point of pain or pleasure; halting, vulnerable, tenta­tive; brutal and peremptory; a shuffling or amalgam of all such actions or qualities. An uncharted tract or plain. And yet certain ancient routes allow us to pilot our way through to the source, then out again, adventuring.

I dream of essays and essayists: real and unreal authors, achieved and impossible examples of a genre (it’s not the word, not at all) that would – what, exactly? Perform a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be. A form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal mea­sure. (Michael Hamburger: ‘but the essay is not a form, has no form; it is a game that creates its own rules.’) Does that sound like what one might want from art or literature in general, not from essays only? Perhaps one category stands for everything, defines what I want from all art forms. The boundaries of this thing, this en­tity or inclination I admire – these I’ll have to determine later. For now it’s enough, I hope, to acknowledge that what I desire in essays – all those essays named or al­luded to in the list above, almost all of which are real – is this simultaneity of the acute and the susceptible. To be at once the wound and a piercing act of precision: that makes it sound as though all I care for is style, that old-fashioned thing. It might well be true. But isn’t style exactly a contention with the void, an attitude or alignment plucked from chaos and nullity? Style as the prize, not a rule of the game. Style as sport in another sense too: botanical anomaly or innovation,avant-garde mutant. But don’t sports get assimilated in the end? Aberrations accommodated, rogues, freaks and rarities corralled and tamed? Curiosities neatly la­belled, safely immured in vitrines and cabinets.

I may have imagined all of this – I might be describ­ing a form that doesn’t (yet) exist. I have no clue how to write about the essay as a stable entity or established class, how to trace its history diligently from uncertain origins through successive phases of literary dominance and abeyance, to its present status as modest publishing revenant: the genre (please do not call it ‘creative non­fiction’) on which many writers’ and readers’ hopes are hung, many print and online columns filled with reflec­tions on whether non-fiction is the new fiction, the essay the new novel, confession the new invention. Or rather, I know too well how that particular essay on essays gets written, what are its touchstones, where its arguments directed, how circular the sense that the writer is ex­plaining a form to which he or she hopes to yoke the present text. I like circles and lines and symmetry too, more than is good for me as writer and as human, but in this case I cannot give myself to an elegant tale about the essay, neither to a pointed defence, rhetorical apology, psyched manifesto. (I find myself allergic to polemics, and so in the pages that follow some partisans of political essaying, or boisterous critical opinion, may find that their exemplars are absent. It’s not that I dislike a certain violence in the essay, but I can’t believe in a writing that is forcefully only itself – I want obliquity, essays that ap­proach their targets, for there must be targets, slantwise, or with a hail of conflicted attitudes. This too may be political, even radical. It will often look like something else: what used to be called formalism, or dismissed as aestheticism.) I will have to write, can only write, in fits and starts, in passages that aspire to something like an argument, but others too that will seem to come from the very confusion the first class exists to cure. There are many passages in the works of the great essayists, and perhaps also the less-than-great, that will sanction a failure or refusal to cohere. Here is the poet William Carlos Williams, in the essay that yielded an epigraph for this book:

Each essay rings the changes of its range, the breadth, the penetration moving inward about the fashionable brick of all styles, unity. Unity is the shallowest, the cheapest deception of all composition. In nothing is the banality of the intelligence more clearly mani-fested. There is no less significant matter for the attention. Every piece of writing, it matters not what it is, has unity. Inexpert or bad writing most terribly so. But ability in an essay is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness.

(…)

War, Love and Weirdness

A Matter of Life and Death - 70 years on
Dillon P&P

Writing for the Guardian, Brian Dillon revisits Powell and Pressburger’s strange masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death, seventy years after its original release. Brian Dillon’s Essayism will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in June 2017:

The opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death are among the most audacious and moving ever confected by the cinematic magicians Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. After the whump of arrow on target that announces a production by the Archers, we are pitched into the blue-black vasts of space – the film-makers had consulted Arthur C Clarke about the design of their cosmos – where a voiceover guides us past eerie nebulae and exploding stars to our own fretful corner of the universe. On Earth it’s the night of 2 May 1945, a thousand-bomber raid has left a German city in flames, and British pilots have turned for home. Fog rolls across the screen, radios crackle with the voices of Hitler and Churchill. “Listen,” says the narrator, echoing a line of Caliban’s in The Tempest, “listen to all the noises in the air.”

Cut to a red-lit control room, a sinister nest of Anglepoise lamps, and in their midst a young American radio operator named June (played by Kim Hunter) who is trying to speak to the pilot of a damaged Lancaster as it limps across the Channel. The bomber is on fire, its fuselage gaping, ruined instruments rattling around behind Peter Carter (David Niven) as he recites into the ether lines of poetry by Raleigh and Marvell. His crew have all bailed out or been killed; the plane’s undercarriage is gone, and with it any hope of landing safely. Will he jump too? Yes, he tells June; but there’s a catch: “I’ve got no parachute.” The exchange that follows between the Boston-born WAAF and the doomed English airman is absurdly (and knowingly) exalted: “You’re life, June, and I’m leaving you!” On the film’s release 70 years ago, some critics balked at the cardboard romanticism of the scene. But I’d challenge anyone to stay untouched to its end, watching Peter steady himself for a chuteless fall into the fog.

Miraculously, the young pilot survives, and is washed up on a beach in Devon, where he meets June cycling across the sands. But Peter was meant to die, and the authorities in the next world will not let him go, just because he has fallen in love. So far everything has been in ravishing colour, but suddenly we are in a black-and-white modernist heaven where the first bureaucratic mistake in centuries has set off celestial alarm bells. A heavenly “conductor” – Marius Goring as a French aristo fop – is dispatched to retrieve the undead man, but Peter resists, and a trial looms at which he must plead for more time on earth. A Matter of Life and Death is a self-consciously Shakespearean comedy of sorts, and a lurid experiment in cinematic colour and scenography. But it’s also an end-of-war reflection on the living and the dead, including those who have been missing for a time, stranded in between.

The film began as an expressly propagandist project. Jack Beddington, head of film at the Ministry of Information, asked Powell and Pressburger over lunch: “Can’t you two fellows think up a good idea to improve Anglo-American relations?” By the time they made “AMOLAD” (as all involved called it), the Kentish director and Hungarian screenwriter had twice exceeded their war-effort brief, with controversial results. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – whose star Roger Livesey returned in A Matter of Life and Death as the neurologist Frank Reeves – scandalised Churchill with its portrait of a good German and its mockery of a certain English bluster. And in A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger revelled in a twisted vision of old England at the near-gothic (but again comical) expense of the film’s message about Anglo-American cooperation before D-day.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions