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In the Dark Room

A meditation on how memory works, both culturally and emotionally.

Boldly combining the highly personal with the brilliantly scholarly, IN THE DARK ROOM explores the question of how memory works emotionally and culturally. It is narrated through the prism of the author's experience of losing both his parents, his mother when he was sixteen, his father when he was on the cusp of adulthood and of trying, after a breakdown some years later, to piece things together. Drawing on the lessons of centuries of literature, philosophy and visual art, Dillon interprets the relics of his parents and of his childhood in a singularly original and arresting piece of writing reissued for the first time since its original publication in 2005, and including a new foreword from prize-winning biographer Frances Wilson.


'IN THE DARK ROOM is no ordinary memoir. It isn't much about the miseries of his [Dillon's] mother's illness, or even about grief – or it is, but it can't quite bear to be. Instead, it is a meditation on space or spaces, on things, on memory. It attempts what all good books attempt – a kind of lifting off, a swooping away from experience into something we can call joy, or art, or even simply style. Great art does this. It does not reproduce misery; it transforms it.'

'IN THE DARK ROOM is a wonderfully controlled yet passionate meditation on memory and the things of the past, those that are lost and those, fewer, that remain: on what, in a late work, Beckett beautifully reduced to "time and grief and self, so-called". Retracing his steps through his own life and the lives of the family in the midst of which he grew up, Brian Dillon takes for guides some of the great connoisseurs of melancholy, from St Augustine to W. G. Sebald, by way of Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Proust and Walter Benjamin. The result is a deeply moving testament, free of sentimentality and evasion, to life's intricacies and the pleasures and the inevitable pains they entail. In defiance of so much that is ephemeral, this is a book that will live.'

'IN THE DARK ROOM moves beyond the specificity of recollected grief to explore the history of attempts to understand memory, from De Quincey to Proust and Bachelard. Like Van Veen in Nabokov's Ada or Ardor, Dillon delights in the texture of time, "in its stuff and spread, in the fall of its folds". The personal blends effortlessly with the universal to form a deeply evocative meditation on loss and the passage of time.'

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Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon is a freelance writer and critic. He is the editor of RUINS (Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2011) and author of THE GREAT EXPLOSION (Penguin, 2015), OBJECTS IN THIS MIRROR (Sternberg Press, 2014), I AM SITTING IN A ROOM (Cabinet, 2011), SANCTUARY (Sternberg Press, 2011), TORMENTED HOPE: NINE HYPOCHONDRIAC LIVES (Penguin, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and IN THE DARK ROOM (Penguin, 2015) which won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. Dillon writes regularly on art, books and culture for the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Irish Times, Artforum and frieze. He is Tutor in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art and UK editor of Cabinet, a quarterly of art and culture based in New York.

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'Part personal memoir, part scholarly disquisition, IN THE DARK ROOM explores the relationship between memory and physical space - the way a mere nook or shaft of light can evoke deeply buried feelings and sensations. [...] That IN THE DARK ROOM feels arguably more relevant now than it did when it was first published in 2005 owes something to the remarkable afterlife of W.G. Sebald. Sebald's influence is worn here with the unapologetic earnestness peculiar to debut works, right down to the forensic precision and meditative languor of Dillon's prose. The book's abundant intertextuality is also implicitly autobiographical, representing the intellectual trajectory of an emerging writer.'

'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 (such as Barthes, Benjamin and Sebald), 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.'

'It is the deeply emotive nature of his "journey into memory" that presents Dillon with such a formidable task. Yet he not only succeeds in translating his personal experience into a book of immense, disturbingly lucid insight, but in doing so has written a meditation on the nature of memory that, in many places, could compare to the most open-hearted writings of Roland Barthes. It is an amazing achievement in terms of prose style alone.'

'IN THE DARK ROOM is a manifestation of Dillon's remarkable talent for combining internal anguish, technique and theory and making something that is not only consumable and thought-provoking, but also relatable regardless of your own experience.'