Suppose a Sentence

Brian Dillon

Published 23 September 2020
French paperback with flaps, 200 pages


Or maybe a short sentence after all, a fragment in fact, a simple cry, of pain or pleasure, or succession of same, of the same cries that is, compounded, and spoken at the last, in extremis, or another sort of beast entirely, whose unmeaning cry is just an overture, before the sentence sets in distinguished motion its several parallel clauses, as though it were a creature with at least four legs (‘Every sentence was once an animal,’ says Emerson), so slowly but deliberately intent on its progress, so stately in its procession, so lavish in attention to the world it passes through, so exacting in the concentration it demands in turn, that—what?—here already the sentence swerves, and although you are sure you’ve caught the sense the shape has begun to elude you, as if the animal in question were squirming or shaking itself loose of your grip, or turning to bite you and then take off, against all entreaties, into a mist of metaphor, where you must follow, closing the gate of this punctuation mark behind you; and on the other side everything is both less certain and suddenly, swimmingly, closer at hand: the sentence stops and looks around and starts comparing itself to the action of a drug, to the light-sucking lens of a camera or the slow apparition of an image (let’s say a face) on photographic paper, to festive decorations enchained about a church, or a storm speeding across the lake towards the place where its writer is sitting, or, or, or the sentence, which considers itself very modern, has grown tired of such figural adventures, not to speak of the antiquary’s accumulation of clauses and subclauses, so that you start to notice, start to notice certain acts of repetition (Repetition. But also. Interruption.) that give the sentence a faceted, crystalline quality it will always ever after possess, whether it wants to talk about sickness and health, about the sunlight outside Rome, a New York afternoon, a white boy who wants to be black, or the disappearing sun in day time, even if it is short, even if it is long, even (especially) if it still aspires to its old elegance, the lofty periods, the plush vocabulary, on which subject, by the way, the sentence has been taking notes—a sample from the archive: slumgullion, mandrelled, greaved, eidetic, soricine, macula, flimmering, glop, exorb, chthonic, brumous, moil, ort, flygolding, chlamys—and keeping tabs, in case these riches come in useful, because who can say what the sentence will need or want in the future, what expansions or contractions it may endure or enjoy, what knowledge need to muster and deploy, whose speech to steal and celebrate, where to be heard the rhythms it needs to live, to live and let slip your overly attentive attention, interesting itself in things and bodies and abstractions that you no longer recognize and whose names and outlines you will have to entrust to the slippery sentence itself, which it turns out knows more than you do, knows when to seize on and worry the world and when to let go, as it’s doing now, and go skittering away from you (its maker not its keeper), beating the bounds of its invisible domain.

For about twenty-five years I have been copying sentences into the back pages of whatever notebook I happen to be using, using mostly for other purposes. The brand, style and quality of these notebooks has changed a few times, but not their dimensions, or not much: they are all more or less A5, paperback-sized, at home in the hand or on the desk. Of course there are sentences elsewhere in these books: even the briefest, most telegraphic, verbless note is a sentence of sorts. And then there are the quotations and paraphrases from books, descriptions of people and places and things, as well as rough drafts of sentences later to be properly written, or not written. But the end-of-notebook sentences are different, even if some of them come from books I’m reviewing and so on. Unconnected to duty or deadlines, to projects per se, they compose a parallel timeline—of what?


In Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon turns his attention to the oblique and complex pleasures of the sentence. A series of essays prompted by a single sentence – from Shakespeare to Gertrude Stein, John Ruskin to Joan Didion – the book explores style, voice, and language, along with the subjectivity of reading. Both an exercise in practical criticism and a set of experiments or challenges, Suppose a Sentence is a polemical and personal reflection on the art of the sentence in literature. Whether the sentence in question is a rigorous expression of a state of vulnerability, extremity, even madness, or a carefully calibrated arrangement, Dillon examines not only how it works and why but also, in the course of the book, what the sentence once was, what it is today, and what it might become tomorrow.

‘Essayist and critic Brian Dillon is in thrall to sentences. For a quarter of a century, he tells us in his marvelous new book, he has been collecting them, in “the back pages of whatever notebook I happen to be using,” ... The product of decades of close reading, Suppose a Sentence is eclectic yet tightly shaped. Mr. Dillon has a taste for the more eccentric prose stylists, and lights with delight upon the likes of John Ruskin ... His essay on Thomas De Quincey is a small masterpiece ... The best and certainly most beautiful piece in the book is on Roland Barthes, “the patron saint of my sentences” without whom “I would never have written a word.”  It is easy to understand what Mr. Dillon means when he speaks of Barthes, one of whose books is called A Lover’s Discourse, as “the most seductive writer I know,” for Mr. Dillon’s own book is a record of successive enrapturings.’
John Banville, Wall Street Journal

‘In this delightful literary ramble, Dillon (Essayism), a creative writing professor at Queen Mary University of London, expounds upon remarkable sentences from a variety of voices in literature, past and present. ... The well-chosen sentences themselves are worth the price of admission, but Dillon’s encyclopedic erudition and infectious joy in a skillful piece of writing are what stamp this as a treat for literary buffs.’
Publishers Weekly

‘Taking as his starting point a sentence that has intrigued him for years or, in some cases, come into his ken more recently, Brian Dillon in Suppose a Sentence ranges through the centuries exploring the associations of what he observes and discovers about his object of study and its writer, through biographical anecdote, linguistic speculation, and a look at related writings. This rich and various collection resembles a beguiling, inspiriting conversation with a personable and wry intelligence who keeps you happily up late, incites you to note some follow-up reading, and opens your eyes further to the multifarious syntactical and emotional capacities of even a few joined words of English. Enjoyable and thought-provoking reading!’
Lydia Davis, author of Can’t and Won’t

 ‘Suppose a Sentence shines the light down on words, at a time when they have never felt more burning… The way he takes apart the written wor(l)d is exquisite.’
— Kerri Ni Dochartaigh, Irish Times

‘Ultimately, this is a book about love...On the frequent occasions that Dillon is overtaken by enthusiasm for the prose machinery [...] he resembles a professor of anatomy falling into a cadaver in his enthusiasm...This is no bad thing.’

‘Dillon has brilliantly reinvented the commonplace book in this witty, erudite, and addictively readable guide to the sentences that have stayed with him over the years.’
Jenny Offill, author of Weather

‘Brian Dillon is one of the true treasures of contemporary literature – a critic and essayist of unmatched style, sensitivity and purpose – and Suppose a Sentence is a book only he could have written. It’s an inspired celebration of the sentence as a self-sufficient artform, and reading it has reinvigorated my sense of the possibilities of writing itself.’
Mark O’Connell, author of Notes from an Apocalypse

‘Reading Brian Dillon’s brilliant book, I was repeatedly struck – because each one of the book’s short sections is a wholly captivating demonstration of this fact – that a sentence, just a single sentence, can hold and release an event. “Close reading”, in Dillon’s hands, starts to look like a form of “close living”: a life-practice that makes an everyday value out of paying serious, open-minded attention, especially to what is hard to understand.’
Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art

‘Brian Dillon has a way with and among ideas, rather an unusual one. His acute noticing supposes, as he says along with Gertrude Stein, a singular sentence in some text of these wildly differing authors, and then expands upon that notice, moving us around within and without the very particular wording to the everything else around. He dives in for some detail(s) of each called upon part of a whole, surprising us and himself by his swerves and metaswerves, offering them delightedly up to a joint self-awareness in the reading. Very close-up and personal, the style wrapping around itself, like the ouroboros, this animal waiting to be found.’
Mary Ann Caws, author of Creative Gatherings

‘These chronologically arranged picks from the 17th century to today are the “few that shine more brightly and for the moment compose a pattern.” The author plumbs biography, autobiography, and history to add context and background, with particular attention to each author’s literary style. ... A learned, spirited foray into what makes a sentence tick.’

Suppose A Sentence is both intense and idiosyncratic.’
Money Control

Brian Dillon was born in Dublin in 1969. His books include Essayism,  The Great Explosion (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize), Objects in This Mirror: Essays, I Am Sitting in a Room, Sanctuary, Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize) and In the Dark Room, which won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, frieze and Artforum. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London.