By Brian Dillon
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Price: Rs 948
The metaphysical novel, the postcolonial novel, the historical novel, the society novel, the comic novel, the anti-novel… What do these generic labels prove? For one thing, they are evidence of how seriously the novel has been taken by readers and writers through the ages. The novel as a form is forever in need of a definition, and so is always open to being redefined. It’s a form that can easily adapt to—or can be made to adapt to—the current fashions of culture and politics. The novel represents: ideologies, agendas, the spirit of an age, the mores of a people. Thus we are able to speak so naturally of the novel in both national and ethnic terms—the great American or Russian novel, the Jewish novel.
Now consider for a moment the novel’s close cousin, that laggard of literary history known as the essay. We’ll get to the part where we attempt to define the term “essay” (and an attempt should suffice). But first let us establish what we don’t mean by it. We don’t mean any random piece of fact-based reportage, nor a typical specimen of “creative nonfiction”. We also don’t necessarily mean autobiographical sketches, or works of criticism. An essay is none of these, although it can be all of these, and yet much more. It’s this slipperiness that has made this form so resistant to easy political or cultural assimilation, and so different from the formulaic nature of the novel.
“Imagine a type of writing so hard to define its very name should be something like: an effort, an attempt, a trial,” writes Brian Dillon in Essayism, his brilliant and eminently readable book-length meditation on the many meanings and uses (literary as well as personal) of the essay. And the hazy etymological definition of the essay offered here applies just as well to
Dillon’s own book.
Essayism marks the author’s attempt to understand the essay not merely in formal terms; here, the form itself is regarded as something that derives from a specific writerly attitude. And the true connoisseur, the expert reader, is able to detect traces of this attitude—this attitude called “essayism”—in all works of literature regardless of the genre. Which is why Dillon’s book is replete with literary references to, as he writes, “books of essays, the books that are essays, the books I have chosen to think of as essays…”
A select bibliography, which influenced and informed the making of Essayism, is presented at the end of Dillon’s book. Cited here are all essential works by the usual suspects: Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, William Gass and Joan Didion among others. Dillon’s take on these writers is perceptive and original, even in those passages that amount to nothing more than declarations of love and gratitude. But it’s worth emphasising the significance of this achievement, for we often forget that love and gratitude are the two most difficult to maintain registers in critical writing.
Dillon goes further in his search for the essayistic element, beyond what many would consider familiar territory. To John Donne’s sermons, to Georges Perec’s experimental prose, to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and to the little-known Irish writer Maeve Brennan’s New York sketches. As a reader, Dillon is always looking for distinctiveness, ingenuity on the page, but also for consistencies. What is it that links these writers he so admires? Could it be the value they placed on style? And if that is indeed so, we must contend with yet another indefinable term, style.
Dillon attempts—or shall we say, essays—a response to this riddle too. And his attempt, his definition of style, is beautiful enough to be quoted in full. “What exactly do I mean, even, by ‘style’?” he writes. “Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush. On what? The very idea. Form and texture rescued from chaos, the precision and extravagance of it, the daring, in the end the distance, such as I think I could never attain. As much in a person, in a body, as in prose: those people who can keep it together. I like your style means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness. I’m a fan, too much a fan, of your rising above.”
Consider that passage a representative slice of Dillon’s book—where the literary is impossible to separate from the personal. Indeed, we are told that for him, reading—and reading essays in particular—is a form of consolation, just as writing is a diversion. But a diversion from what? From the sickness and pain and madness of life. The bright stars of Essayism are obscured every once in a while by the dense fog of the writer’s own melancholy: “Each day I sat at my desk in an office at the end of the garden and cried and smoked and tried to write—tried to write this book—and each day finally gave myself up to fantasies of suicide.”
Dr Johnson’s Dictionary defines the essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece”. While parts of Essayism do match up to the fragmentary, offbeat character of the form the author has set out to explore, Dillon’s book is anything but a loose, Johnsonian sally. This is a deeply considered, expertly composed work of literature, packed with ideas and reminiscences, luminous with critical insights and (see above) beautiful sentences.
What exactly is this book about, though? That’s the inane inquiry of the amateur reader. But some of my favourite writers have had a lot of fun with this question. I have in mind Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, which, contrary to what it says on the label, isn’t really about photography. Also, of a more recent vintage, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which isn’t quite about D.H. Lawrence as advertised. Dillon’s Essayism deserves to be placed in this esteemed company—for here, too, we have a fabulous book that delivers much more than it promises.