A captivating meditation on the power of the sentence by the author of Essayism, a 2018 New Yorker book of the year.
In Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, whom John Banville has called “a literary flâneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin,” has written a sequel of sorts to Essayism, turning his attention to the oblique and complex pleasures of the sentence. A series of essays prompted by a single sentence—from Shakespeare to James Baldwin, John Ruskin to Joan Didion—this new 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.
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. Explaining he has 45 notebooks filled with favorite sentences, Dillon focuses each of the book's 27 essays on a different one. A line from Charlotte Bront 's novel Villette, "The drug wrought," is praised for its brevity and emotional power, while Gertrude Stein's paragraph-long example is commended as showing her commitment to the experimental and unorthodox. What's particularly intriguing is that Dillon's choices disregard what one might call the "significance" of the work of their provenance. Frank O'Hara is represented by a line from a brief review of a Paul Klee exhibit, rather than one from one of his many celebrated poems, and Joan Didion by a photo caption she wrote for Vogue early in her career yet these seemingly trite examples capture the genius of their respective authors with precision. Elsewhere, an essay riffing on a James Baldwin sentence explores the author's contentious relationship with Norman Mailer. 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.