Brian Dillon’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”

Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room is the first in Cabinet’s 24-Hour  Book series.

Dillon’s book explores the scenography and architecture of writing itself. Inspired in part by Georges Perec’s short fragment in Species of Spaces on Antonello da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his study, Dillon’s text is both a personal reflection on the theatrics of the study, the library, and the office, and a historical consideration of such writerly paraphernalia as Proust’s bed, Nabokov’s index cards, and Philip Roth’s moustache.

Cabinet is now my only magazine subscription. Apart from Cabinet my media consumption is entirely online, in one form or another. You never know what you will be reading about when Cabinet shows up. (With a subscription you also get access to the archives.) I’m not on commission here, just pushing you toward the good stuff. I used to have a dozen subscriptions to publications, not only literary journals, but found that they were sitting unread while I caught up with Twitter and my RSS feed. I get more reliable literary criticism from Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters and Michelle Bailat Jones than I got once from more mainstream publications.

Striking red cover and bold title apart, the production quality of I Am Sitting in a Room is crap. I’m not easy on my books; I scribble on them and bend their spines. In this case, the pages started to fall out before I got ten pages in.

That aside, the book is short, seventy-odd pages, and comprises Brian Dillon, who I’ve intended to read for ages, writing about writer’s routines and the places where writers go to write. Autobiographical in part, also a study of writers including  Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Joan Didion, accompanied with photographs of writer’s studies. That’s my summary, though you may prefer Cabinet’s version above.

Dillon’s keeps a blog, mostly used to cross-post pieces that have appeared in other places, and is on Twitter. I also came across this absorbing piece, drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, that Dillon wrote for Frieze, as much about the state of criticism as about taste. I’m very interested at the moment in Bourdieu for his ideas on taste, the nature of patriarchy and, intrigued by a conversation with Rim, his views on the origin and death and decadence of philosophy. Here’s a taster of Dillon’s article:

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.

Pinter: Influences

PINTER: [..] I read Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Henry Miller at a very early age, and Kafka. I’d read Beckett’s novels, too, but I’d never heard of Ionesco until after I’d written the first few plays.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think these writers had any influence on your writing?

PINTER: I’ve been influenced personally by everyone I’ve ever read—and I read all the time—but none of these writers particularly influenced my writing. Beckett and Kafka stayed with me the most—I think Beckett is the best prose writer living. My world is still bound up by other writers—that’s one of the best things in it.

Dubliners by James Joyce

There are a few artists capable of consistently constructing powerful short stories: Chekhov, Turgenev, Hemingway; contemporaries include Julian Barnes and Julie Orringer.

My Joycean summer enables me to add another to my list, though in completing Dubliners, I have completed Joyce’s short story collection. The stories in Dubliners stand shoulder to shoulder with Chekhov’s oeuvre. Is there a weak story in the fifteen that make up Dubliners? After the Race perhaps, but it may open up on future readings. My favourite three, this time around, in ascending order would have to be: Araby, The Sisters and The Dead. There is sufficient subtlety and depth in the stories to repay many readings.

Twenty years ago I was fortunate to spend part of my education in Dublin. At that time, the city and, in many ways, the people that Joyce portrayed in Dubliners were recognisable. Given Joyce’s apparent manifesto in Dubliners, to portray the city in all it’s iniquity in order to “lead to the spiritual liberation of the city”, it is arguable whether he would feel sufficient progress has yet been made. But perhaps that edginess is what is required to make great cities.