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Mourning becomes memories

Brian Dillon, in Essayism, wrote with affecting honesty about his mid-life depression and the therapeutic value of reading. In an earlier work, “In the dark room”, first published in 2005 and now available in a smart new edition, he relentlessly and plangently probes his state of mind following the deaths of his parents.


Judith Carlin. WikiCommons

Sean Sheehan


He was sixteen when his mother died and five years later his father suffered a fatal seizure, leaving Brian cruelly bereft.

It was all too much for a hyper-sensitive man on the cusp of adulthood and he was catapulted into severe dejection and a consequent breakdown. Etymologically, the term nostalgia comes from two ancient Greek words, for home and for pain, and nostalgia could appear on a signpost pointing in the direction of “In the dark room”.

The genesis of this memoir is Dillon’s aching need to return to the security of his family life before he was orphaned; the German word heimat, for which there is no simple translation, best expresses what he finds missing from his existence..

He clings to a few objects from his life before bereavement, not as talismans but as bits of a lived reality that have somehow survived from an otherwise irretrievable past: “It is the fact that they are still with me that matters’ and he summons up a short story of Borges (Funes the Memorious), a project by the American artist and writer Joe Brainard and work by the English artist Emma Kay to give credence and heft to his behaviour.

Books from his father’s extensive library, for example, are kept as a reminder and embodiment of ‘the ways in which I have tried to give a pattern to his memory”.

He keeps a mawkish poem by him, about children drowned in a boating accident, because of the way it hints at an aspect of his father’s emotional life that he was unaware of.

Dillon quotes Chris Marker: “Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance, on account of their scars”, and this book  focuses  intently, sometimes unhealthily, on the many scars that he bears and cannot remove.

In the depths of despair, Dillon finally consults a doctor and a therapist and the slow process of healing gets underway.

He eventually finds redemption not through pharmaceuticals but in his bleated conviction that mourning requires giving voice to one’s grief. The process begins when he writes down a few words about some family photographs and it comes to an end, hopefully for him, with the writing of “In the dark room”.

Dillon’s sensibility will seem morbid to some readers and his account of seeing his mother’s corpse in a Dublin mortuary in 1985 and then the harrowing chronicle of her illness is not a comfortable read. He so relentlessly dissects unhappiness that finishing reading this book may bring relief, akin to finally breathing fresh air after escaping from a disturbing and claustrophobic dream.

“In the dark room”, by Brian Dillon, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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