I first interviewed Lars Iyer in 2011, after the publication of his novel Spurious, the beginning of a trilogy that concluded with Exodus (my favorite of the three). I asked Lars to talk with me about his trilogy for an email interview, and we ended up discussing failure, comedy, optimism, academia, American writing, Britain in the mid-eighties, and his forthcoming novel Wittgenstein Jr.
Biblioklept: Why a trilogy? Was that by design? Is it a trilogy?
Lars Iyer: Spurious was only a beginning. I wanted to historicise my characters, to present their friendship as part of a larger social, economic and political context. Otherwise, I risked merely contributing belatedly to the literature of the absurd.
Biblioklept: I want to talk about the end of Exodus but that seems like bad form for an interview. Spoilers, etc. Can you comment on where you leave your protagonists, or how you leave them, or why you leave them?
LI: I leave my protagonists roughly where they were at the beginning of the trilogy: rudderless, rather lost, full of a sense of their failure, but with their friendship, such as it is, intact. ‘No hugs, no lessons’: my characters haven’t learned anything…
Biblioklept: Why can’t they learn? Why the repetition? Why not a heroic arc? Why not a saving grace?
LI: Perhaps because learning implies a kind of resolution that I think is inappropriate for the characters. Kundera says something apposite about Don Quixote. Cervantes makes his would-be knight-errant set off in search of battles, ready to sacrifice his life for a noble cause, ‘but tragedy doesn’t want him’. Kundera goes on:
since its birth, the novel is suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life. Poor Alonzo Quijada. In the vicinity of his mournful countenance, everything turns into comedy.
So it is with my trilogy. No tragedy! No heroism! No tragic catharsis, that would see the tragic hero being dragged back into line. And no comic catharsis either, in which the older norms of a traditional societal system are reaffirmed. So much comedy is self-congratulatory, self-reassuring: the humour of good cheer, of port and cigars. It shores up things as they are. This is why I can never bear to watch comedy on television. It’s so rare to see comedians turn the joke on themselves. We need cruel comedy. Black comedy, which laughs at itself laughing…
Why the use of repetition in my novels? Because I want to portray the breakdown of things as they are, not once, but again and again. Failure, without amelioration. Serio-comic breakdown, without restitution. Anomie. Helplessness. Crushed hope. How else to acknowledge the prose of our lives?
Much of the humour of Don Quixote, depends on the contrast between lofty ideals and the concrete, everyday, corporeal life. The humour of my trilogy is analogous – but, of course, our everyday is utterly changed! A generalised precarity, un- and under-employment, free-floating anxiety, consumerism, the emphasis on self-representation, the sense that history is over, that politics is all played out, that financial and climatic catastrophe loom…
The tragedy of everyday life is that it’s not even tragic. It never reaches the lofty heights of tragic grandeur. Well, nor do my characters. When W. is at his most wretched, he cannot even die – that’s the end of Dogma. When W. is at his most revolutionary, participating in his own version of the Occupy movement, as at the end of Exodus … well, I won’t spoil the story, but it won’t surprise readers of previous books in the trilogy that there is neither a heroic arc nor a saving grace.
Biblioklept: In contrast with Quixote, Lars and W. seem fully aware of the futility of their idealism. Quixote has an imaginative capacity that in some ways makes him one of the most optimistic characters in literature. Are Lars and W. optimists, at all? Is authentic optimism possible?
LI: Oh, W. is an optimist, certainly. He doesn’t cease his attempt to think and write, even though he knows, or half-knows, its absurdity. Indeed, his projects seem to get grander and grander… Exodus has him dreaming of writing his magnum opus: his God-book. That’s optimism! As for Lars: this might seem a clever-clever answer, but perhaps his optimism takes the form of writing the trilogy. Tarkovsky says somewhere: ‘Artistic creation is by definition a denial of death. Therefore it is optimistic …’
Biblioklept: I think in some ways that’s how academia functions too—as a kind of cycle of initial optimism, crushing reality, diminished expectations, and then, I don’t know, a kind of giving in to reality. Exodus is in some ways an academic novel, and also a timely one.
LI: The university is still marked by a kind of utopian promise, despite everything. Exodus is supposed to keep memory of that promise…
Biblioklept: In an interview with Full Stop in 2012, you talked about “American writing,” saying:
“I don’t know anyone who reads it, really. America seems to be everywhere; we are living in an American reality. Which makes me want to read anything but American fiction, however ignorant this sounds. I admit to having very little interest in British fiction, either. It seems to me that everything that is alive in fiction today comes via translation.”
Perhaps because I’m from there, I found the segments of Dogma set in the U.S. South particularly interesting. How much of those episodes are informed by your own experience? I know that you toured America to support Exodus—has your opinion or view of American writing changed at all sense then?
LI: There’s always been an American tradition of prophetic books, half-mad books, which draw on the past, on old weird things, to open up a relationship with a genuine future. Such books are the cousins of the music at the roots of blues, country, folk and jazz. Like W. in Dogma, I’m fascinated by what might be understood as a ‘messianic’ element to U.S. culture.
Biblioklept: Are there any “half-mad” books out there written in English, perhaps published in the past fifty years, that you think are particularly alive? I find that most of my favorite books of late tend to come via translation as well…
LI: Half-mad books? So many! Some old favourites: Golding’s Darkness Visible, Spark’s Hothouse on the East River, Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. A new favourite: Philip Terry’s Tapestry.
Biblioklept: Is it just that there are too many books? Too many novels? Too many new novels that are in no way new at all?
LI: Contemporary British literary culture always seemed timid and parochial to me, showing a great hostility to intellectualism. I was fortunate enough to encounter the work of T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Lawrence at school. Imagine my disappointment when I read prize-winning British and American fiction lauded by people ‘in the know’!
I might not have been able to express it in this way back then, but the legacy of Modernism felt dead, and with it the sense that there were stakes to literature – intellectual stakes, cultural stakes, even political stakes. Only Ballard and Burroughs seemed exceptional in this regard. Both were ideas-men. Both, at that time, seemed marginal to mainstream culture. The Atrocity Exhibition was long out of print. You had to head into London to get some of the more interesting Burroughs stuff…
Back then, in the ‘80s, we had music where, as Simon Reynolds and others have shown, modernist energies were very much alive. Discourse on music felt important, too. The music papers. Discussion of music was one of the few permitted forms of intellectual life among the young. Many of us came to philosophical questions, cultural questions, through music and writing on music.
What were we looking for in music, in writing on music? In marginal authors like Ballard and Burroughs? Some clue… Something that would tell us what had gone wrong… Because we had a sense of that, I think: that something had gone wrong. We were in the midst of the implementation of what we now call neo-liberalism. We were growing up in the triumphal phase of privatisation and marketization. Things were locking into place around us. The slack was being taken up. And, unless we did something, there wasn’t going to be much of a future for the likes of us!
Biblioklept: It’s strange for me to think of Britain in the mid-eighties as “dreary” or conformist— as a teenager in the early nineties, my friends and I really romanticized, even mythologized, so much of what was coming out of there, especially music (4AD records, The Smiths, Factory, etc.), but also the aesthetic of stuff like 2000 AD comics. Bands we revered like Pavement were heavily influenced by The Fall. Before the internet made everything available to everyone everywhere, music and music magazines were incredibly important—that was how we found out about, I don’t know, culture—by playing archaeologist. What was your experience of that mid-eighties scene though?
LI: Little different to yours, I think: it was all about music (bands, record labels) and music magazines, and about following up cultural clues that critics and musicians let drop. Figures like Mark E. Smith, like Ian Curtis, like Genesis P Orridge were portals, enablers. They brought you close to an underground. To buried cultural strata. And they encouraged you to discover your own private canon.
Of course, there was so much I missed out on. How I would like to have discovered free jazz when I was sixteen! Sun Ra! Jandek! Or what’s come to be called noise! Because you find in these musics, these figures, a kind of example, a whole ethics. A way of living.
I found my university studies very narrow. Real learning was done on the side. I locked myself in my room and read Proust and Musil and Broch. I read the Russians, the big novelists, Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva. I had the university library at my disposal, and a thriving secondhand book culture. But mainstream English language literary culture was always disappointing. True literary life was elsewhere. True life was elsewhere.
Biblioklept: Were you writing at the time? Fiction?
LI: ‘One can have vocation and not talent; one can be called and not know how to go’, says Clarice Lispector. For a long time, I had vocation, but no idea how to go, how to write. Blogging came along, eventually… It turned out that what I thought of as a kind of comic strip, light relief from my ‘real’ writing, was the writing. My fiction was a comic response to a more general predicament: feeling remote from Modernism, but in love with Modernism, feeling marginalised, despairing, but wanting to understand the processes of this marginalisation, wanting to understand my despair as a cultural symptom.
Biblioklept: I find some inspiration in that idea that you came to see the writing you were doing on your blog as real writing. (Inspirational Writer, Lars Iyer). I think people tend to see internet-based writing as less stable, less permanent, less real than printed bound books. Do you think that that perception will change, is changing?
LI: I’m sure anthologies of internet-based writing will appear in time. The cultural curators will get to work! No doubt this is already happening. Bloggers will win their prosperity!
But in a sense, this does not matter. Because blogging was not primarily about of individual voices. It was collective, networked. It was about links, about exchange and (often rather oblique) debate. Blogging belonged to a moment. Perhaps that moment has passed for many of us, I don’t know.
Real writing. Certainly, I found blogging a tremendous release. I wrote intensively online for four years, or so. Those four years seem more alive to me that the four years I have spent writing fiction. You could rush into writing as a blogger. To be sure, I edited, but that editing was light. It was all about the surge, the rush. It felt necessary to create at speed, and that blog posts would fall apart were they not written at an appropriate speed.
Novel-writing, on the other hand, is, for me, vastly more meticulous. It’s about micro-adjustments, about tiny decisions, about revisiting sections of prose dozens of times. Novel-editing has its own joys – there is no stage of writing happier for me than running through my manuscript like a madman, cutting huge sections, acting on the perceptions of my editor. But editing is about minutiae. It is fussy work. And so much of novel-writing is about editing, for me.
Biblioklept: I suppose that’s because (we perceive) the novel as a stable text. The edits are important because we build the novel to last. This is a good time, I think, for you to tell us about your new novel, Wittgenstein Jr.
LI: For me, novels require vast amounts of editing simply because of their scale. I used to edit blog posts, too, but was able to do so on the fly, in the same gesture, as it were, as the writing. But my novels, made up of so many component parts, need organisation, shaping. Section must fit with section. Motifs, themes, etc., must harmonize, and develop consistently… There must be no dead passages! No longeurs! And there must be a rapid movement from serious to comic material, so that things don’t become too serious, or too comic. And there must be speed – the aim is to create movement, momentum. And there must be lightness, my watchword. The novel must fly…
Wittgenstein Jr? A difficult novel to write, not least because it is my first attempt at pure fiction. I had the safeguard of basing it on the life of the real Wittgenstein, replaying it in a Cambridge University of the present. But I had to dream up characters, narrative incident, narrative colour… Above all, I had to find new rhythms of writing, which fit my version of Wittgenstein himself, and fit his students. Everything is about rhythm!
There’s high despair and low humour – a lot of humour. There’s romance. There’s paranoia. There’s utopianism: dreams of friendship, of politics, of meaning. There’s lyricism. There’s madness. There’s anti-Cambridge-dons invective. There’s dance. There are songs (all novels should have songs). There are long walks in the snow. Allusions to Paul, paraphrases of rabbinical commentaries on the Bible, quotes from Wallace Stevens, from Goethe, lines from Pretty Woman… Dramatic re-enactments of great philosophical deaths…