By Brian Dillon

Fitzcarraldo Editions. 138 pages. £10.99. ISBN 978-1-910695-41-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

What is an essay? According to Brian Dillon, “the essay is first of all a type of measurement or judgement, not so much a test of itself, of its own powers, or its author’s powers, as a weighing of something outside of itself.” And, a little later, he says: “it 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”. Or how about, “The essay is often itself a fragment, or it may be made of fragments”.

Reviewing a book full of useful quotations by the author, or from other writers, it’s a temptation to carry on with excerpts, Brian Dillon’s range of them being so wide and relevant. He refers more than once to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the incomplete but fascinating work that Benjamin left behind when he committed suicide. I can see why Dillon thinks so highly of it. Benjamin’s notion of presenting a picture of nineteenth century Paris through what is essentially a series of fragments is not dissimilar to Dillon’s idea of discussing the nature of the essay by referring to the numerous practitioners of the form, ranging from Montaigne to Susan Sontag, and along the way taking in Sir Thomas Browne, Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, and Elizabeth Hardwick, and quoting from their work.

He also writes about his own experiences as a writer, and when he quotes from someone else it is often to illustrate his own feelings about writing essays. He notes Adorno’s comments with approval: “The essayist, he writes, does not feel the need to say all that can be said on a subject, and is content to use concepts that already exist in philosophy”.

It’s possible to write an essay about anything, even the idea of writing an essay, which is what Dillon has done. And an essay can include everything. It’s not necessary to stick completely to the subject. Diversions can be entertaining, provided there’s eventually a return to the main theme. Dillon’s essay, or what can be seen as his series of interlinked essays, takes in a great deal of his personal history. He’s suffered from depression, with its consequent effect on his day-to-day life and his relationships with other people.

There is an essay by Dillon about “anxiety” in which he talks about reviewing, a subject close to my own heart. I’ve done so much of it in the past fifty and more years, and it has often occurred to me that I’ve probably used up a lot of time that might have been better spent on other things. Reviewing, I suspect, is looked down on by writers who produce novels or complete books about a particular subject. They may well write reviews themselves, though usually only to supplement their income or promote their academic careers. And it’s true that reviewing can distract from more creative work, assuming that the reviewer has ambitions in that line. Personally, I enjoy reviewing, especially when I have the opportunity to extend what I’m writing to a review/essay. Short reviews of a few hundred words can sometimes admittedly be little more than a necessary chore.

But, to be fair, Dillon mentions Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise referring to the dangers of reviewing. And there’s a brilliant essay by Seymour Krim (“What’s this Cat’s Story?” in Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, Dutton, 1968), in which he writes about the “drug” of reviewing, with its chance to appear in print almost immediately, and its possibility of a quick reputation. not to mention quick earnings. And let’s not forget the boost to the ego at seeing one’s name in print.  Much of what he says is true, but at the same time the reader can’t help wondering if Krim wasn’t destined anyway to be a reviewer and essayist rather than a novelist? “When are you going to write your novel?” someone once asked me, and it implied that novels are superior to other forms of writing. I’ve never had any desire to write one, nor thought that I could even if I wanted to. The form doesn’t really excite me, and mostly I prefer to read a short story, an essay, a poem, a good, informative review. Writing reviews, and other bits and pieces, can lead to being dismissed as a “hack,” but I think of myself as in a grand tradition if I am, and love to read about Grub Street and the purveyors of minor literary productions. I relate to John Dunton and the rest of the rabble.

Dillon also says that he enjoys, “the workaday feeling that everything I write has a modest journalistic ambition”. And he talks about the need to always have something ready to be done: another review, a request for an article. I know the feeling and like to look at the little pile of books waiting to be read and reviewed. Dillon does ponder on his own inclinations to a style of composition, with its dominance of the necessary and the immediate, and he thinks that his addiction to “small forms” could be a way that allows him, “and perhaps many other writers to keep a killing anxiety at bay”. Does the sense of completion when an essay is finished have the effect of calming worries about what comes next, at least temporarily?: “I like and loathe the fact that my writing life is so fractured, so contingent and occasional”.

Looking at Cyril Connolly’s failed ambitions, Dillon says that: “The Unquiet Grave begins with a sentence from which it cannot recover: “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence’ ”. It’s not only Connolly’s book that can’t recover. A young would-be writer, or indeed any writer of moderate ambitions, might well be put off writing at all by adopting such a statement as a guide. My advice, for what it’s worth, to anyone taking Connolly seriously, might be along the lines of: lighten up a little: “There seems”, said I, “an unaccountable prepossession among all persons, to imagine that whatever seems gloomy must be profound, and whatever is cheerful must be shallow. They have put poor philosophy into deep mourning, and given her a coffin for a writing desk, and a skull for an inkstand”. (Bulwer-Lytton: Pelham or Adventures of a Gentleman, 1828).

It needs to be said that Dillon does suggest that not only great writing can sustain us in darker moments. Affected by his mother’ death, he returned to reading what might best be described as expendable journalism: “At certain moments in my reading life there have been essays or articles that I had to keep rereading if I was to stay sane, or so it seemed. And sometimes in retrospect, or even at the time not quite worth the emotional, intellectual, existential weight I asked them to bear. Very few pages of the NME in 1985 really deserved to be pored over to the degree that I attended them in the days after my mother’s death. On the other hand I quite see how the collected journalism of Lester Bangs could have kept me afloat in the night, treading in panic above my black sea of despair, with his sentimental swagger”.     

Reading Essayism I kept coming across comments that made me acknowledge my own shortcomings (are they? Or useful attributes in the circumstances?): “I was capable only of interesting myself in subjects I was already interested in”. and “I was and remain quite incapable of mounting in writing a reasoned and coherent argument, never mind describing to myself, as the study of logic required, the parts and processes, more or less persuasive, of that argument”. How comforting it can be to realise that someone else shares my occasional misgivings about what I do. Luckily, I don’t think about them too much and instead get on with the next job.

Dillon’s honesty about his battles with depression is affecting, and I don’t want to play down his experiences in any way. And I think his comments are balanced in the sense of combining with other elements in his writing. I’ve already referred to his analysis of Cyril Connolly’s work, and Connolly, for all his faults, was someone I quite admired, if only for the lucidity of his book reviewing. Hunting for a poem by the 1890s poet Theodore Wratislaw recently, I pulled an anthology from the shelf and tucked inside it found a review by Connolly, published in The Sunday Times dated 20th December, 1970, of the Penguin publication, Poetry of the Nineties. I’m not going to claim that Connolly’s review made me buy the book. I was already curious about Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Richard Le Gallienne, and others in 1970, and would have got the book, anyway. But what Connolly said interested me. Perhaps he was a failed writer – aren’t we all, in one way or another? – but I liked what he wrote enough to have kept the review for almost fifty years. Someone should do the same for me. It would be pleasant to be remembered, if only for a fragment or two.

Elizabeth Hardwick is another fine essayist who Dillon writes about in an informed and sympathetic manner. He particularly refers to her essays about Dylan Thomas and Billie Holiday, which he thinks show that she “understood extremes”. There are many other Hardwick pieces that remain in my mind from the books of hers that I have on my shelves: “Bartleby in Manhattan”, “A Bunch of Reds” (about John Reed and Louise Bryant, and their roles in the Russian Revolution), “The Neglected Novels of Christina Stead”. I’m being selective with my list. “The list is a venerable and inventive literary mode,” Dillon quotes William Gass as saying. And is it that because selectivity is an essential component of a list? What we list indicates our own preferences, prejudices, and priorities.

“Essayism is tentative and hypothetical, and yet it is also a habit of thinking, writing and living that has definite boundaries”. Boundaries can be useful, both in life and writing. On a practical level in literature, the notion of a boundary can help to eliminate unnecessary writing. I remember an anecdote about the American sociologist, Ned Polsky, whose collection of essays, Hustlers, Beats and Others (Penguin, 1971) was a pleasure to read. He had an editorial post with a publisher of academic texts, and made himself unpopular because he would return book-length manuscripts with the comment that there was the basis for a good essay in the material, but that it was unnecessarily expansive otherwise. He knew the value of the essay form. I don’t know if the anecdote was true or not, but I liked the idea of it.

Brian Dillon has written an intriguing book, or book-length essay, or collection of short, interlinked essays. Pinning labels on a piece of writing is always unsatisfactory. Have I written a review, an essay, a review/essay? I’m not going to spend too much time considering the question. I’d rather turn to collections of essays by writers like Elizabeth Hardwick, Joseph Epstein (see his Wind Sprints, Axios Press, 2016, for entertaining examples of short, meaning a page or two, essays), Leslie Fiedler, Theodore Solotaroff, John Clellon Holmes, and enjoy re-reading them.

And I must look again at the five issues of Saul Bellow’s little magazine, The Noble Savage, which alongside contemporary essayists (1960-62) had a series called “Ancestors”, featuring essays by D.H. Lawrence, Isaac Rosenfeld, Isaac Babel, Alexander Pushkin, and  Samuel Butler. The latter’s “Ramblings in Cheapside”, opens with “Walking the other day in Cheapside I saw some turtles in Mr  Sweeting’s window, and was tempted to stay and look at them”. It goes on to talk about, among other things, Handel, Mendelssohn, slugs, Aeschylus, Butler’s dislike of books (“I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it”), Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, and a lady who always travelled accompanied by her parrots.  I’m In danger of compiling another list. And I want to add to it. I’m just about to start reading Joachim Kalka’s Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century (New York Review of Books, 2017).  Interesting and entertaining essays, I hope.