A review of Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon
Hard to write sentences – meaningful ones, anyway – about a work devoted to just that: the sentence. Hard to convey the experience of reading Brian Dillon’s magnificent new book, an inspirational volume of essays as skilfully sculpted as the sentences they examine. A quiet, perhaps unassuming title, clad in the plain white covers of Fitzcarraldo Editions’ non-fiction collection, Suppose a Sentence is a rare gem, a book so deeply thoughtful and carefully composed that it becomes its own subject: the essence of beautiful writing.
Brian Dillon has, he tells us, been collecting sentences for much of his adult life. He copies them out into the backs of notebooks: sentences he considers perfectly crafted or unusual in structure, series of words that seem to speak directly to his heart. They come from a diverse range of authors writing on varied subjects – the result of extraordinarily deep and eclectic reading – and as such are united by the one personal, indefinable quality of appearing in some way important to Dillon. In Suppose a Sentence he collects twenty-seven of them in chronological order of writing, beginning with William Shakespeare and ending with Anne Boyer, and seeks to elucidate for the reader just what it is that makes each sentence perfect.
Or near perfect – Suppose a Sentence is not, in fact, mere rhapsodising on elegantly structured phrases that transport their meaning effortlessly. On the contrary, Dillon picks apart sentences by the likes of Thomas de Quincey and Virginia Woolf, locating their oddities, their ‘awkwardnesses’ (this a word up for discussion in the essay on Elizabeth Bowen), what may even be regarded as mistakes of grammar or punctuation. Through gently explained but rigorously conducted analysis, Dillon lays bare these miniature works of art, and he does so with such grace and enthusiasm it is difficult to be anything but spellbound. A series of essays on individual sentences may sound far-fetched as a project, but by dint of Dillon’s own authorial voice and the intricate way in which the chapters are linked, he succeeds in capturing and retaining the reader’s interest for even the most obscure discussion of composition.
Besides exploring his chosen sentences individually – their structure, rhythm and meaning – Dillon sets them within the broader context of the author’s work and thus the literary canon as a whole, whetting the appetite of anyone who reads widely but perhaps wishes to expand this even further. He doesn’t shrink from discussing some of the world’s most illustrious literary figures – Woolf and Shakespeare have already been mentioned; we also encounter Samuel Beckett, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, James Baldwin, Roland Barthes – but there were several authors here who were new to me, and whose work I instantly wanted to explore. To achieve this based on a single sentence is no mean feat, but Dillon’s neat expositions of why these sentences matter and how they may be indicative or uncharacteristic of an author’s entire body of work are so filled with the infectious joy of discovering new worlds through reading that it’s hard not to want to put the book down and rush out to buy more.
For anyone who writes – or indeed translates; Dillon’s essay on a sentence by the Swiss author Fleur Jaeggy is more than illuminating in this department – Suppose a Sentence is utterly inspirational. Alongside his own literary criticism, thorough research enables Dillon to offer us insights into authors’ individual crafts, from Joan Didion’s rigorous training on the staff of Vogue to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s multilingual upbringing. His decision to range the sentences in chronological order allows too for a fascinating journey through the evolution of language and literature, including the gradual erasure of the comma-dash and the merits – or otherwise – of the verbless sentence. This journey is even more easily travelled thanks to several narrative threads running through the book, from snippets of autobiography to subjects (such as the weather) discussed on more than one occasion, and then Dillon’s wholly satisfying shaping of the book, which begins and ends with almost the very same sentence. More than anything, though, what this book manages to transport so well is sheer delight: the unquantifiable, intimate joy that comes from reading a set of words on a page and feeling oneself understood. In his introduction Dillon tells us he ‘wanted to write a book that was all positives, all pleasure, only about good things.’ That he has achieved this – and that we need such a thing right now – is a matter surely not up for debate.
The effect of Suppose a Sentence is difficult to convey in words. In the end, this is one of those books that need simply to be read. An ode to the craft of writing, to the power literature has to link minds and lives, it is a serene, sensitively written and thoroughly inspiring book that itself demonstrates the extraordinary influence sentences can have. A book to return to again and again – for deeper understanding, for a jolt of connection – Suppose a Sentence is exactly what Dillon, quoting William H. Gass, claims good sentences to be: ‘rare as eclipses’. And that, I find, is after all the way to describe the experience of reading this book. Concentrating deeply, buried in Dillon’s intricate prose, the world beyond is obscured for a long moment. And when at last you lift your head again, it will all still be there – only clearer, sharper, even more brilliant than before.