My books

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707In April 1916, shortly before the commencement of the Battle of the Somme, a fire started in a vast munitions works located in the Kentish marshes. The resulting series of explosions killed 108 people and injured many more.

In a brilliant piece of storytelling, Brian Dillon recreates the events of that terrible day – and, in so doing, sheds a fresh and unexpected light on the British home front in the Great War. He offers a chilling natural history of explosives and their effects on the earth, on buildings, and on human and animal bodies. And he evokes with vivid clarity one of Britain’s strangest and most remarkable landscapes – where he has been a habitual explorer for many years. The Great Explosion is a profound work of narrative, exploration and inquiry from one of our most brilliant writers.

The Great Explosion is exhilarating and moving and lyrical. It is a quiet evisceration of a landscape through the discovery of a lost history of destructiveness, a meditation on Englishness, an autobiography, a mapping of absences. I loved it.’ Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes

”What a fascinating, unclassifiable, brilliant book, confirming Brian Dillon’s reputation as one of our most innovative and elegant non-fictioneers. No one else could have written it.’ Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways

‘Forensic, fascinating, endlessly interesting’ Philip Hoare, Samuel Johnson Prize-winning author of Leviathan and The Sea Inside

‘A subtle, human history of the early twentieth century … Explosions are a fruitful subject in Dillon’s hands, one that enables him to reflect movingly on the instant between life and death, on the frailty of human endeavour, and on the readiness of nations to tear one another apart. The Great Explosion deftly covers a tumultuous period of history while centring on the tiniest moments – just punctuation marks in time’ Financial Times

‘[Dillon’s] account of the Faversham explosion is as bold as it is dramatic, while his descriptive passages about the marshlands of Kent are so evocative that you can practically feel the mud sticking at your feet’ Evening Standard

‘A brilliant evocation of place grasped in its modernity’ Guardian

‘Dillon … has a WG Sebald-like gift for interrogating the landscape … a work of real elegiac seriousness that goes to the heart of a case of human loss and destruction in England’s sinister pastures green’ Ian Thomson, Irish Times

‘Exhilarating … utterly beguiling’ Literary Review


Ruin Lust (Tate Publishing, 2014)

51--0uKGxiL._Why are we fascinated by ruins? They recall the glory of dead civilisations and the certain end of our own. They stand as monuments to historic disasters, but also provoke dreams about futures born from destruction and decay. Ruins are bleak but alluring reminders of our vulnerable place in time and space. For centuries, ruins have attracted artists: among them J.M.W. Turner, Gustave Doré, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Patrick Caulf eld, Tacita Dean, and Jane and Louise Wilson. Ruin Lust explores the history of this obsession, from the art of the picturesque in the eighteenth century, through the wreckage of two world wars, to contemporary artists complex attitudes to the ruins of the recent past.

Objects in This Mirror (Sternberg Press, 2014)

Dillon_ObjectsinThisMirror_364“Like Roland Barthes and Virginia Woolf, Brian Dillon pays lavish attention to curious byways that usually go without saying. In sentences at once playful and majestic, he plumbs the intellectual depths of his subjects, and reveals a perverse, nearly dandyish love for odd facts and iconoclastic vistas. There is more than a touch of W. G. Sebald—the Wordsworthian wanderer, the romantic itinerant—in Dillon’s melancholy yet mood-spiked attitude toward the material objects that greet his sober, ever-evaluating eye.  Reading Objects in This Mirror, we participate in Dillon’s restless perambulations, and we are delighted to be thus transported.”

—Wayne Koestenbaum

Objects in This Mirror is a collection of essays on contemporary art, literature, landscape, aesthetics, and cultural history. Beginning with a polemical and personal defense of generalism and curiosity, Brian Dillon explores the variety of themes it is possible today to corral within the rubric of the critical essay. These pieces engage with the work of such artists as Tacita Dean, Gerard Byrne, Andy Warhol, and Sophie Calle; with the ruinous territories that haunt the work of Robert Smithson and Derek Jarman; with the ambiguous figures of the charlatan, the vandal, the hypochondriac, and the dandy. Taking seriously the playful remit of the essay as form, Dillon treats of compelling obscurities: gesture manuals of the nineteenth century, the history of antidepressant marketing, the search for a cure to the common cold. Whether his topic is the nature of slapstick, his love of the writings of Roland Barthes, or the genre of the essay itself, he is as much concerned with the form of criticism today as with its varied and digressive subjects.

Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing

Curiosity_Cover_150dpiCuriosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing draws on the work of the eclectic, quarterly magazine Cabinet to explore the notion of intellectual and creative curiosity across periods, genres and fields. Compiled in association with academic, editor and author Brian Dillon, this richly illustrated book explores objects, artworks and narratives drawn from a wide variety of disciplines – scientific, occult, anthropological, aesthetic, technological and sexual – taking as its guide a sensibility that developed in Europe in the early-Modern period and tracing it at work in disparate historical contexts. With an emphasis on contemporary art’s return to cross-disciplinary, intellectual and aesthetic freedom, ‘Curiosity’ comprises works ranging from the films of Tacita Dean to the photographic investigations of Gerard Byrne, and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, alongside historical ‘curiosities’, including drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and office equipment from the secret heart of the Cold War. Includes essays by Marina Warner and Brian Dillon, extensive commentary on individual works and an eclectic anthology of writings on ‘curiosity’. Artists include Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Agency, Anna Atkins, Aura Satz, Aurelien Froment, Charles Le Brun, Corinne May Botz, Gerard Byrne, Gunda Forster, J.M.W. Turner, Jeremy Millar, Katie Paterson, Laurent Grasso, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, Matt Mullican, Nicolaes Maes, Nina Katchadourian, Pablo Bronstein, Philip Henry Gosse, Richard Wentworth, Robert Hooke, Roger Caillois, Tacita Dean, Thomas Grunfeld, Toril Johannessen.

I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet, 2012)

At 10 am on Saturday, 10 December 2011, author Brian Dillon sat down at Cabinet’s gallery space and began writing a book. By 10 am the next morning, the completed book was at the printers and is now available to readers.

The inaugural volume in Cabinet’s new “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 the paraphernalia associated with celebrated writers, from Flaubert’s divan to Proust’s bed, from Leibniz’s card cabinet to Thomas Wolfe’s refrigerator desk.

Dillon, who arrived without any notes or other prepared material, of course also had to remain open to the contingencies of an unfamiliar writing environment, peculiar and perhaps slightly dodgy take-out food, a makeshift bed, and a capricious heating system, not to mention the obvious pressures of working under extreme time constraints. If that were not enough, this particular scene of writing was a public one, with curious onlookers dropping in during the process to watch the author (and his support staff) “at work.”

This first book in Cabinet’s series is also accompanied by Reception Rooms: An Anthology of Recent Responses to Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room, a critical volume similarly produced under apparently prohibitive time constraints. At the precise moment Dillon’s tome was completed on Sunday morning, Princeton University’s Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) invited a group of faculty and graduate students to read and respond to it within twenty-four hours. The respondents’ “encounters” were themselves gathered into a volume ready for printing by 4:30 pm on Monday, 12 December, in time for a symposium considered the past, present, and future of such experiments in the radical compression of culture. This companion volume is also available for purchase.

About Cabinet’s “24-Hour Book” series
Inspired by literary precedents such as automatic writing, by the resourcefulness of the bricoleur making do with what is at hand, and by the openness toward chance that all artistic production under severe constraint must necessarily incorporate, Cabinet’s new series will invite a number of distinguished authors and artists to be incarcerated in its gallery space to complete a project from start to finish within twenty-four hours.

Ruins (MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery, 2011) 

image7381The “ruins” of the modern era are the landmarks of recent art’s turn toward site and situation, history and memory. The abiding interest of artists in ruination and decay has led in particular to the concept of the modern ruin–an ambiguous site of artistic and architectural modernism, personal and collective memories, and the cultural afterlife of eras such as those of state communism and colonialism. Contemporary art’s explorations of the ruin can evoke on the one hand diverse experiences of nostalgia and on the other a ceaselessly renewed encounter with catastrophes of the recent past and apprehensions of the future. For every relic of a harmonious era or utopian dream stands another recalling industrial decline, environmental disaster, and the depredations of war.

This anthology provides a comprehensive survey of the contemporary ruin in cultural discourse, aesthetics, and artistic practice. It examines the development of ruin aesthetics from the  early modern era to the present; the ruin as a privileged emblem of modernity’s decline; the relic as a portal onto the political history of the recent past; the destruction and decline of cities and landscapes, with the emergence of “non-places” and “drosscape”; the symbolism of the entropic and decayed in critical environmentalism; and the confusing temporalities of the ruin in recent art – its involution of timescales and perspectives as it addresses not just the past but the future.

“Under Brian Dillon’s inspired editorial guidance, this survey of the moods and meanings of ruin and dereliction is as thought-provoking and perceptive as it is intrinsically poetic. It will offer its riches to anyone who has pondered what might be termed the mortality of materials, and read in their demise new and strange accounts of our own condition.”
—Michael Bracewell, Writer, novelist and cultural commentator

“Here the ruin is not the end of an artefact but rather the beginning of an investigation. From the forensic analysis of the physicality of fragments—revealing the relations that go into the making and unmaking of objects and commodities—to the virtual debris of philosophy, it is in its ruined form that a thing reveals its fossilized forces; and from this scattered mess we can start to assemble the connections of a new reality.”
—Eyal Weizman, Architect; Director of the Centre of Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London

September 2011 5.75 x 8.25, 240 pp. $24.95 (PAPER)
ISBN-10: 0-262-51637-3   ISBN-13: 978-0-262-51637-2
Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011)
Sanctuary is a fiction set in the ruins of a Modernist building on the outskirts of a city in Northern Europe. The structure, a Catholic seminary built in the 1960s and abandoned twenty years later, embodies the failure of certain ambitions: architectural, civic and spiritual. But it is the site too of a more recent disappearance. A young artist, intent on exploring the complex and its history, has gone missing among the wreckage. Months later his lover visits the place, unsure what she is looking for, and finds herself drawn into the strange nexus of energies and memories that persist there. Sanctuary is a story about what survives – of bodies, ideas, objects and the artistic or literary forms that might describe them – in the wake of catastrophe. Invoking key works of the last century – the fiction of Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the art of Robert Smithson, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Chris Marker and Andrei Tarkovsky – it maps a small but resonant portion of the ruins of the recent past.

‘Brian Dillon’s work immerses itself in space, place, ruins, and the residues of memory. At last: an Anglophone writer who takes up the challenge thrown down by the nouveau roman.’
—Tom McCarthy

“A slim but wonderfully rich novella…. Dillon brings a defiantly contemporary aesthetic sensibility to his writing. Scattered throughout the novella are short italicised passages describing in fastidiously sensuous detail the physical appearance of the ruins. A debt to the nouveaux romans of Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet notwithstanding, such passages have the uncanny effect of turning the ruins of the seminary into a virtual character in the drama of the story…. Dillon has previously used this meandering, Sebaldian style to powerful effect in his 2005 memoir, In the Dark Room, to uncover the dark tapestry of his own hypochondria and the early death of his parents. In Sanctuary he has created a subtle weave that at times reaches far beyond the narrow confines of its pages.”
—Aengus Woods, The Irish Times

Hardcover / 5 1/2 x 7 3/8 inches / 150 pp / 1 b&w
ISBN: 978-1-933128-87-0
Retail Price: €16

The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives (Faber & Faber Inc., 2010). Published in the UK as Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (Penguin, 2009). Charlotte Brontë found in her illnesses, real and imagined, an escape from familial and social duties, and the perfect conditions for writing. The German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber believed his body was being colonized and transformed at the hands of God and doctors alike. Andy Warhol was terrified by disease and by the idea of disease. Glenn Gould claimed a friendly pat on his shoulder had destroyed his ability to play piano. And we all know someone who has trawled the Internet in solitude, seeking to pinpoint the source of his or her fantastical symptoms.

The Hypochondriacs is a book about fear and hope, illness and imagination, despair and creativity. It explores, in the stories of nine individuals, the relationship between mind and body as it is mediated by the experience, or simply the terror, of being ill. And, in an intimate investigation of those lives, it shows how the mind can make a prison of the body by distorting our sense of ourselves as physical beings. Through witty, entertaining, and often moving examinations of the lives of these eminent hypochondriacs—James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould, and Andy Warhol—Brian Dillon brilliantly unravels the tortuous connections between real and imagined illness, irrational fear and rational concern, the mind’s aches and the body’s ideas.

“This deeply fascinating study will turn the reader’s eyes inward, to focus on his or her own foibles and compulsions and to wonder what they might really mean. —Booklist

“[Dillon] turns up some intriguing facts and trends . . . The cumulative effect of these stories is a surpassing sadness—poor Glenn Gould and others, retreating from a world in which they could not adequately function . . . Sturdy research and subtle analysis of these extreme cases produce some startling insights into human suffering.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[The Hypochondriacs] by Brian Dillon is a short but fascinating study of literary and other celebrated hypochondriacs. These engrossing glimpses of the ‘fit unwell’ include Charlotte Brontë, James Boswell, Andy Warhol and Marcel Proust (who must surely be the undisputed king of this particular neurotic hill). Written with great elegance and shrewd understanding, it illuminates a condition that probably all of us will suffer from at some time in our lives.” —William Boyd, The Guardian

“Brian Dillon’s case-study [The Hypochondriacs] deals with invalid artists and thinkers, from James Boswell to Glenn Gould. Some of them limped around being geniuses, complaining the while; some of them, like Proust, simply operated from their beds. It’s so good that, after reading it, I needed a lie-down.” —Hilary Mantel, The Guardian

“[The Hypochondriacs] is a not a book you can’t put down. It is a book you will keep putting down, both to absorb what [Dillon] has said and to postpone reaching the end. There is no higher compliment.” —Michael Bywater, The Independent

“A collection of beautifully crafted medical case histories…This book is greater than the sum of its parts; for as well as individual narratives, what Dillon provides here is nothing less than a history of ‘health anxiety’ in our culture from the 18th century to the present…The language is fluent and cogent, the story telling economical and deft. This is a superb book about a fascinating subject and one I’d recommend to anyone wanting to understand the function of hypochondria in society past and present.” —Carlo Gebler, The Irish Times

“There is an abundance of ‘wracked truth’ in this book. It will delight, inform, move, and horrify any of the millions of us.” —Sam Leith,Daily Mail (UK)

“[An] excellent book.” —Kevin Jackson, The Times (UK)

In the Dark Room: A Journey in MemoryIn the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005)
“Our world is clogged with memoirs. Most won’t last, but In the Dark Room will. It is thought-provoking and nourishing, and it deploys a unique technique to tell its tale. However, when they come to write the history of memoir, and this will be in there, it will be remembered less for its method, remarkable though that is, than for the author’s ability to make the reader really feel what it was like to be a damaged child and a grief-stricken adult.” – Carlo Gébler, Irish Time

“[A] book of immense, disturbingly lucid insight. It is an amazing achievement in terms of prose style alone.” – Michael Bracewell, Telegraph

“There are plenty of memoirs of unhappy childhoods on our shelves. Few of them, though, have the intelligence or rigour of this first book by critic Brian Dillon, which is less a personal narrative than an anguished monument to the idea of memory itself…. Of all the cultural heavyweights he calls as witness, none fits Dillon’s book better than Rachel Whiteread. His home was as filled with silence, sulky, embarrassed and pained, as was her “House” with miraculously solidified space. In the Dark Room is an equally impressive achievement.” – Jonathan Gibbs, Independent

“Moving and beautifully observed…. Dillon writes splendidly about objects, about the flotsam of a childhood, a family, a life.” – Peter Davidson, Scotland on Sunday

“Dillon’s prose frequently achieves [an] impressively unsettling rigour.” – Jonathan Derbyshire, Time Out

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