REVIEW by John Barnie

NWR Issue r19


by Brian Dillon

It is easy to recognise an essay when you read one in a magazine or journal, but not so easy to define the essay as a genre. Start thinking about it, and you soon come to realise that it is protean, many-faceted, almost limitless in subject matter and style. The Irish writer Brian Dillon has thought about this more than most, and Essayism is an extended essay on the form and meaning of a genre which is sometimes declared to be dead but which has a remarkable ability to reinvent itself.

The book is also a kind of cabinet of smaller essays, titled ‘On…’. For example: ‘On origins’, ‘On the detail’, ‘On talking to yourself’ – in the manner of the great essayists of the past. Each is self-contained, yet contributes to the larger essay which both explores and exemplifies a literary form which, for Brian Dillon ‘aspires to express the quintessence or crux of its matter, thus to a sort of polish and integrity, and it wants at the same time to insist that its purview is partial, that being incomplete is a value in itself, for it better reflects the brave and curious but faltering nature of the writing mind.’

Some essays discuss the rhetorical and structural ploys used by essayists – the list, for example – while others illustrate a point through close reading. ‘On the detail’ examines the value of the particular over the theorist’s generalisations, illustrating this with a perceptive analysis of the way the writer Maeve Brennan recreated New York’s street life through an expressive use of detail in a series of essays published in The New Yorker between 1958 and 1981. At times Brian Dillon provides a very close reading indeed, as when he analyses this sentence in an essay on Dylan Thomas by Elizabeth Hardwick: ‘He died, grotesquely like Valentino, with mysterious weeping women at his bedside,’ where that first comma is so carefully and significantly placed.

There are critical reassessments, too, as in ‘On melancholy’ where he examines Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, arguing for it as an early example of the potential for ‘an elegant, unruly form’. Having just come from an abandoned reading of Enemies of Promise I might need more convincing here, but the essay, like all good criticism, makes you pause and think, as does the essay on Susan Sontag, ‘On talking to yourself’, which discusses her career and achievement as a critic while at the same time reflecting on the nature of style. For Sontag, as for any writer, how to achieve a style was the question. Yet she came to distrust the style of her writings in the 1960s and ’70s which brought her to prominence. In her diaries she wrestles with the problem of how to evolve a style that is more expressive, never realising that the diaries themselves, with their vibrant use of the fragment as a form, did just this, and that they were among her finest achievements.

Five essays have the same title, ‘On consolation’. Scattered through the book, they form a biographical framework for the collection as a whole. Brian Dillon’s mother, who was clinically depressed, died of a terrible disease when he was a teenager. Later, he became a victim of depression himself, suffering his first breakdown while studying at university in Dublin. These essays explore that state of mind and the ways in which he tried to find his way back to some form of inner stability, partly through reading – Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, EM Cioran, WG Sebald; but also through writing, which became a means of containing his depressive periods.

At university, in his twenties, Brian Dillon came under the sway of Theory, and perhaps this too was an attempt to create some kind of control over his inner chaos. He came to realise, however, that abstraction of this kind was death to the writer he was trying to become: ‘Nowadays I would much rather read the plainest – they are hardly ever plain, not really – description of a thing than its most erudite or “radical” theorization, in which the thing vanishes.’ Walking through Dublin one night, a friend takes him to an alley where ‘a chance combination of street lights, rain and broken glass meant the street was strewn with winking lights as we walked, a constellation of points in the near-dark that remade itself with every second, tiny stars dying and others being born as we moved through the field.’ He remembers thinking ‘I wish I were the sort of person who notices such things unprompted.’

Essayism is an account of the processes by which he became that ‘sort of person’, as a writer of essays which frequently surprise and sparkle like the alleyway all those years ago.

John Barnie’s latest book is a collection poems, Wind Playing with a Man’s Hat (Cinnamon Press). A new collection, Departure Lounge, also from Cinnamon, will appear in 2018. Barnie’s essay collection of 1989, The King of Ashes (Gomer), won the Arts Council of Wales’ Book of the Year award.

Entries are now open in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. The word-limit is 5000 for a minimum of two essays on an open theme, entries close on 1 February, and first prize is £1000 as an advance on an ebook deal.


previous review: George Borrow’s Second Tour of Wales in 1857
next review: All That Is Wales: Collected Essays (Writing Wales in English)


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