Ruins have inspired many contemporary artists. They are a well-trodden territory, a fertile soil, a common trope in western art and literature. Indeed, the last couple of decades have been marked by an enthusiastically sentimental attitude towards what is called the modern ruin or the relic of the not-so-distant past.
"The ruin reclaimed from destruction is the ruin lost," Robert Ginsberg writes in his book The Aesthetics of Ruins, capturing in one short sentence the contradictory, contemporary desire of many to preserve derelict spaces - from dilapidated power stations to condemned apartment blocks - in some vaguely romantic haze. For Brian Dillon, a Dublin-born author living in England, ruins are, however, simply a challenging topic to write about, as Sanctuary, his fiction debut, convincingly underscores.
The sanctuary of his title is a collapsing building on the outskirts of an unnamed city, built in the 1960s as a Catholic seminary and abandoned some 20 years later. The setting may suggest that the book was conceived as an exercise in retro-futurism, a depiction of nostalgia for the "future that never came to be". Indeed, the recent rush towards ruin-inspired writing, particularly in Britain, stems from this very phenomenon.
If WG Sebald, wandering around the eastern coast of England in the early 1990s, was once perceived as an eccentric figure drawn to disused windmills and boarded-up shops, by now, such pursuits have become fairly mainstream. This year saw the publication of Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which eulogises decaying grey areas between city and countryside. Patrick Wright's A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, was first published in 1991, before being reissued in 2009. Even two decades ago, Wright was already aware of "an interest in debris and human fallout [that] is part of the New Baroque sensibility, shared by young Apocalyptics and played-out Marxists alike". These books are almost always politically engaged, most notably Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, which offers a passionate critique of various architectural projects hatched during the New Labour years.
Not so Sanctuary; there is no room here for blue-eyed enthusiasm, prophetic gloom or militant leftism - just beautiful, minimalist prose. The object the author's optics are trained on is so grandiose it almost gets in the way of perception, which, for an ambitious writer, is reason enough to tackle it. The site is modelled on St Peter's Seminary, built in a Glasgow suburb in 1966 and abandoned by the end of the 1980s. Dillon tries to get as close as possible to the fabric of the place in order to do justice to the building's modernism. To achieve this, he draws on modernist literature, echoing Beckett and Robbe-Grillet. The novelist Tom McCarthy calls Dillon a "writer who takes up the challenge thrown down by the nouveau roman", but the author's main strength is his own take on ruins. If they have, indeed, been exhausted as a subject, this book gives them one more chance to impress.
A nameless heroine comes to the seminary looking for her lover who, having become obsessed with the site, had made it the subject of his art project, tirelessly explored the ruin and, on his last visit, vanished. After six months of fruitless search, she still hopes to find him. We learn, however, that she has a rare condition, a scintillating scotoma, a blind spot in the human eye, whose symptoms include excruciating headaches followed by nausea and a slow recovery. Crippled with pain, the sufferer is attacked by flashing images - "jagged lines and geometric splinters [...] at the edges of the formless vague" - as a hole develops in the field of vision. Dillon sets up her character with these sensations, but supplies almost no other background details, save for this physical disturbance. It allows her, of course, to see things in a different light: "All this apprehension regarding her own body leaves her feeling removed from the world [...]. At the same time she is extremely alert to certain details and textures."