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…
We could probably maybe add the novel to David Markson’s list from Vanishing Point:
I thought I’d jump in on the Books Acquired feature on the blog, so below is a picture and some words about the books I got this past April. Significantly fewer than average as I’m *trying* to read the books I already have but, you know, it doesn’t really ever stop.
It was in this interview on the blog that I heard about Gabriel Josipovici’s philosophical novel. I’ve been on the hunt for more books like this in the past couple of years, and if it’s anyone’s recommendation about novels that wax philosophical, it’d be a philosopher’s. Goldberg: Variations also promises to slake an obsessive thirst for books about composers and their madness (or illness). I also seem unable to shake an attraction for books that tell stories about other stories, with the latter being the “actual story” of the book. From the back: “At the turn of the eighteenth century, a writer–a Jew–enters an English country manor, where he has been invited to read through the night to his host until the gentleman falls asleep. What unfolds then are seemingly unconnected stories covering a vast array of topics–from incest to madness to a poetic competition in the court of George III. And what emerges by the end is a breathtaking tapestry in which past and present, imagination and truth, are intricately woven together into one remarkable whole.”
I saw Kate Zambreno read from this book back in 2011 when it was originally published by Emergency Press. Since then she’s written a “critical memoir” titled Heroines, which explores the writer’s relationship with the “wives and mistresses” of the 20th-Century modernist greats. It’s my understanding that Zambreno has also reworked through Green Girl for this republish. Which I can’t imagine doing. Seems terrifying and harrowing. Only about 20 pages in so far, but it definitely has, for desperate lack of a better term, a European feel to it that’s rare for American writers. The sentences vibrate along the same manic, anxious and panicky frequencies of favorites like Bernhard, Rhys and Woolf. From the back: “Ruth is a young American in London, trying desperately to navigate a world in which she attracts the unwanted gaze of others while grappling with the uncertainty of her own self-regard. Haunted equally by self-doubt and by a morbid fascination with the beautiful, cruel, and empty people around her, Ruth darts quietly through the rainy sidewalks of her present, trying to escape her future.”
I know Steve Mitchelmore, blogger of This Space, is a big Peter Handke fan. I tweeted him a couple of months ago and he recommended that I start with this one. I’m looking forward to reading an Austrian (or Austro-Hungarian and descendants of) that isn’t cantankerous and odorous a la Bernhard. But, as expected, this book seems like it’s going to be really fucked up. The back: “In the summer of 1960, Filip Kobal leaves his home in search of his missing brother, Gregor. Not quite twenty, he is armed only with two of his brother’s books; a copybook and a dictionary in which Gregor has, revealingly, marked certain words. Filip’s investigations of language–of the laws of naming objects, and of the roots of alienation in the discrepancy between objects’ names and our experience of them–becomes, finally, an investigation of himself and the world around him.”
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 DonQuixote, 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. Continue reading ““We Need Cruel Comedy” | A Lars Iyer Interview”→
Exodus is the third entry in a trilogy that Lars Iyer began with Spurious and Dogma.
What happens in Exodus?
Not much (but also maybe everything—like all sorts of philosophical investigations and intellectual adventure and despair and potential revolution and symbolic death, etc.).
If you’ve read Spuriousand Dogma you’d expect this.
There is a quest though in Exodus, a quest that feels more visceral, more real, cuts closer to the bone than in the first two entries.
What is this quest?
Do our heroes W. and Lars vanquish despair? Figure out Kafka?
Do they save humanity (or at least the humanities department)?
Do they finally cast the One Ring into Mount Doom?
(They go on a lecture tour).
What is the connection between Kierkegaard and capitalism?: that’s our question, W. says. What does Kierkegaard tell us about the despair of capitalism?
‘The true and only virtue is to hate ourselves’, W. says, reading from his notebook.
And, perhaps more specifically
Of course, they’re going to close all humanities courses in British universities, W. says . . . They’re simply going to marketise education, W. says. They’re simply going to turn the university over to the free market. They’re going to submit philosophy to the forces of capitalism . . .
Imagine it! Two plastic cups of Plymouth Gin might usher in the reign of peace, W. says.
There are no jobs in philosophy — everyone knows that. No jobs in academia!
III. The Call to Adventure
This is our last tour, W. says. He feels that strongly. Something’s going to happen. Something’s about to happen. . . Why does he feel such a sense of dread?
IV. The Road of Trials
Gin, Deleuze, Kafka, Kierkegaard, gin, Blade Runner, Guy Debord, postgraduate students, linguistic stupidity, anxiety over what Alan Badiou is doing right this very minute, gin, Gandhi, Marx, the blogosphere (so-called), Bartleby, Moses, God, logical-mathematical stupidity, the Talmud, gin, bodily-kinesthetic stupidity, cheap food, the Thames, Oxford, Rosenzweig, interpersonal stupidity, gin, Bela Tarr, Manchester, Wikipedia, gin, intrapersonal stupidity, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Middlesex, Weil, naturalistic stupidity, Abraham and Isaac, Old Europe, sports science students, moral stupidity, Solomon Maimon, gin, Plato (turning in his grave), public houses, existential stupidity, Kant, a friend from Taiwan, a plenary speaker, sartorial stupidity, gin, Krasznahorkai, blowing a great horn to have the horde come running (like that guy in Anchorman), a Dostoevskian innocence or a Grossmanian selflessness, religious stupidity, Master/Blaster as a metaphor for the mind-brain problem, Canadian laughter in the glittering light (etc.), Essex Postgraduates, gin, gin, gin, job security, painting-and-decorating stupidity, hangovers, posh people eating lunch in the sun, settling for cans of Stella from the trolley, philosophy of walking, gin, romantic stupidity, gin, culinary stupidity, gin, stupidity stupidity.
V. The Magic Flight
Alcohol makes people speak, that’s its greatness, W. says. It makes them religious, political, even as it shows them the impossibility of religion and the impossibility of politics. Drinking carries you through despair, W. says. Through it, and out beyond it, if you are prepared to keep drinking right all through the night.
W. dreams of the profound slumber from which we would rise reborn, ready for the morning, ready for work. He dreams of the great day that would follow our night of rest, and of the great ideas that would flash above us like diurnal stars.
How is it still alive in him, the belief that he might wake into genius?, W says. How is it that he still believes, despite everything, that he is a man of thought?
VII. Freedom to Live
Thought is the hangman, our hangman, W. says. Thought has its nooses ready just for us.
VIII. Cult Fiction
Judgment, evaluation, criticism: Exodus—the Spurious Trilogy, if that’s what we’ll call it—has reserved its own special place in the world of cult fiction. These novels (if they are in fact novels) perform their own deconstruction. They delineate metacognition. They frustrate. They are simultaneously sad and funny, and even a little bit scary, at least if you earn your bread by academicizin’.
They frustrate. Wait, do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.
These novels dissect the problems of philosophy against the backdrop of late capitalism, but part of this dissection is also the covering up of the dissection: the fear, the failure, the despair, the doom. (Hence the anesthesia, the gin). So that the novels seem to be a series of references, contours, quirks, loops of dialog, declamations, insults . . . That the novels take their own central subject as the failure to mean, to communicate—and then perform these failures: deferral, delay, intellectual suspense. And that these suspensions replace the furniture and sets of the traditional novel, etc. Maybe I’m failing to mean. I’ve anesthetized myself a bit, I do admit.
I get it. I mean, that’s maybe what I mean, or hope to mean to say about these novels: That meaning is hard, that saying meaning doing thinking is hard; that thinking after, against, beyond other thinkers is hard, painful, produces despair, dread, etc. Maybe that’s why I like these novels. Because I think that maybe I get them even as I doubt that I do get them.
IX. An Idea
Publisher Melville House might consider putting all three of these books into one epic volume.
X. A Question
Do the eagles ever show up to fly W. and Lars out of Mordor?
Lars Iyer’s latest, Exodus presumably concludes the trilogy that began with Spurious and Dogma. Exodus picks up the adventures/failures of our tragicomic (anti)heroes Lars and W. Here’s publisher Melville House’s description:
With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply — although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerrilla philosophy movement — conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges — that will save the study of philosophy after the long intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.
For another, they must save themselves, perhaps by learning to play badminton after all. Gin isn’t free, you know.
As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modeled on investment and return.
Lars Iyer’s novel (or anti-novel, if you swing that way) Spurious was one of the better books I read last year. From my review:
Lars Iyer’s début novel Spurious is about two would-be intellectuals, W., the book’s comic hero, and his closest friend, our narrator Lars. They bitch and moan and despair: it’s the end of the world, it’s the apocalypse; they find themselves incapable of original thought, of producing any good writing. The shadow of Kafka paralyzes them. They travel about Europe, seeking out knowledge and inspiration — or at least a glimpse of some beautiful first editions of Rosenzweig. They attend dreadful academic conferences; they write letters. They flounder and fail.
A final example of literature that faces its own demise and survives: Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a book about an attempt to create a literary vanguard in 1975, written after the conditions for vanguardist practice had collapsed. It is a book about political revolution written in a period after the inevitable failures of such revolutions have revealed themselves. It is a novel about a literary avant-garde and yet the novel itself resists the conceptualization and stylization that a literary avant-garde requires. It is an ecstatic, passionate novel—Bolaño himself describes it as a ‘love letter to my generation’—that plays out as a parody of the desires for Literature and Revolution. It is a novel, like all recent novels, that comes too late, but unlike most others it finds a way to address this lateness. In doing so, The Savage Detectives provides another model for how all would-be authors can appropriately speak about our anachronistic dreams.
The supposed heroes of the book, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, leaders of the literary ‘gang’ called the Visceral Realists, are rarely on stage in the novel for very long. For the most part, we hear of them only at a remove, through the disparate narrators Bolaño calls forward to tell their tale. And the verdict on them is mixed – they have an admirer in gauche and excitable law student Madero, whose brilliantly funny diaries bookend The Savage Detectives, but they have their detractors, too. ‘Belano and Lima weren’t revolutionaries. They weren’t writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets, either. They sold drugs,’ says one of Bolano’s narrators. ‘The whole visceral realism thing was… the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless,’ says another. In the end they head towards ‘catastrophe or the abyss’, as they wander the world, still attempting to strike literary and political poses when the time for Literature and Politics has gone. ‘We fought for parties that, had they emerged victorious, would have immediately sent us into a forced labour camp’, Bolaño writes of his generation. ‘We fought and poured all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for over fifty years’.
Lars Iyer’s début novel Spurious is about two would-be intellectuals, W., the book’s comic hero, and his closest friend, our narrator Lars. They bitch and moan and despair: it’s the end of the world, it’s the apocalypse; they find themselves incapable of original thought, of producing any good writing. The shadow of Kafka paralyzes them. They travel about Europe, seeking out knowledge and inspiration — or at least a glimpse of some beautiful first editions of Rosenzweig. They attend dreadful academic conferences; they write letters. They flounder and fail. In the meantime, a fungus of seemingly metaphysical proportions infects Lars’s apartment, soaking it through, compounding his desperation, as no one can figure out how to get rid of it—
No one understands the damp. It’s Talmudic. The damp is the enigma at the heart of everything. It draws into it the light of all explanation, all hope. The damp says: I exist, and that is all. I am that I am: so the damp. I will outlast you and outlast everything: so the damp.
The passage is a lovely example of Iyer’s humor, which pervades the book just as the damp creeps through his narrator’s home, absurd and bewildering. Iyer is willing to play with tropes of theology and philosophy in ways that are simultaneously absurd, hyperbolic, and deadly serious. “These are the End Times, but who knows it but us?” his hapless heroes wonder. W. is not without solutions though—-
Every conversation must be driven through the apocalyptic towards the messianic, that’s W.’s principle; the shared sense that it’s all at an end, it’s all finished. He loves nothing better than conversations of this kind, W. says, when everything’s at stake, when everything that could be said is said.
That’s when messianism begins, W. says, You have to wear out speech, to run it down. And then? And then, W. says, inanity begins, reckless inanity. The whole night opens up. You have to drink a great deal to get there. It’s an art.
The dialogue (or monologue pretending to be dialogue, more accurately) highlights the verbal slapstick of Spurious, its willingness to shift direction while retaining tone. “Both characters are mesmerised by a real disaster,” Iyer told me in a recent interview (the interview, by the way, makes a better case for reading Spurious than I can hope to here) . “And both — particularly W. — are mesmerised by their partial responsibility for this disaster. The ‘strained and unreasoning’ laughter of Spurious is a response to the grimness of the world that is of our making.”
W.’s response to our grim, apocalyptic world is a mix of absurd humor and real cruelty toward his friend Lars. And if W. is willing to mock and laugh at his friend, he also mocks and laughs at the world, and himself—only his laughter never absolves or forgives or otherwise deflects the cruelty and grimness of the world (or his own cruelty, in turn). When W. calls Lars fat or chastises his laziness or derides his intellect, there’s a recursive angle to his jabs, a sense that they will return to rest on his own brow. It’s all in good fun except when it’s not.
W. and Lars face the same trial that all thinking people face during the End Times, the inescapable, all-devouring nightmare of history, art, philosophy. Perhaps a passage will explicate better than I—
Kafka was always our model, we agree. How is it possible that a human being could write like that?, W. says, again and again. It’s always at the end of the night when he says this, after we’ve drunk a great deal and the sky opens above us, and it is possible to think of what is most important.
At the same time, we have Kafka to blame for everything. Our lives each took a wrong turn when we opened The Castle. It was quite fatal: there was literature itself! We were finished. What could we do, simple apes, but exhaust ourselves in imitation? We had been struck by something we could not understand. It was above us, beyond us, and we were not of its order.
If our heroes are disciples of literature (or the purity of “literature itself”), they are also its prisoners, its slaves, the tormented. W. attempts to find ways out through mathematics and Talmudic theology, but these disciplines entail their own weight and chains—and ultimately, W.’s own shortcomings in these areas only point back to his own reliance on literature (and, in turn, his own shortcomings there again). Still, W. (or Lars, or Iyer, I guess), is willing to share his citations with us, quoting or paraphrasing from a rich intellectual diet.
Although in some ways Spurious is fragmentary and elliptical, a series of riffs, vignettes, and skits, it is also in many ways a traditional novel, with emotionally drawn characters in Lars and W., whose friendship resounds with a deep reality and psychological honesty with which most readers will identify. W. suggests that companionship and friendship are reasons enough to continue existence in the face of despair and absurdity; he then turns around and accuses Lars of being a terrible friend. Iyer offers the kind of truth that has become a cliché, offers it perhaps without cynicism or irony, and then immediately punctures it, even as he reinforces its original truth. Spurious is full of such vacillations, reeling like its often-drunk heroes at times, but always unified by a consistent tone and tight prose. Funny and lively, even when it’s erudite and depressive, Spurious is a lovely little book for drinking and thinking. Read it and pass it on to a dear friend.
Lars Iyer’s first novel Spurious (Melville House) is by turns, witty, sad, and profound, and garnered serious acclaim on its release earlier this year. Spurious originated in a blog of the same name. There are two sequels on the way—Dogma should be on shelves in early 2012, and Exodus the year after. Lars teaches philosophy at Newcastle University (so it’s no wonder that Spurious reads like a discursive philosophy course by way of the Marx brothers). Lars was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept in depth about his work and writing. In addition to his teaching, writing, and blogging, you will also find Lars on Twitter.
Biblioklept: Your novel Spurious began as a blog and then was published by Melville House, a thriving indie publisher that also began life as a blog. At a recent talk you gave at the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival, you discuss the freedom blogging allows for writers to develop their “legitimate strangeness.” Why is “legitimate strangeness” important for writers, and how does blogging help facilitate it?
Lars Iyer: Sometimes it is necessary to depart. Sometimes it is necessary to leave it all behind. That’s how I understood the act of blogging, back when I started Spurious, the blog which shares thesame name as the novel.
As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modelled on investment and return.
Sometimes a kind of solitude is necessary. You need to be alone, to regather your forces, to marshall your strength. But what is really necessary is a solitude in community. You’re on your own, depending on your own resources. But your solitude is lightened: because you know that there are others like you, who have likewise expelled themselves from captivity; because you know that others share your sense of disgust and self-disgust, that they too have gone out to the desert to do battle with the demons sent by capitalism into each of our souls; because there are others, like you, who see writing as both scourge and liberation, others who see it as a spiritual trial, others looking to destroy who they were and be reborn, and to keep themselves in rebirth.
In the end, the desert is paradise, and the world the blogger has left behind, with its whips and fleshpots, is the real desert.
Cultivate your legitimate strangeness: that was my mantra. ‘Cultivate’, because it is a struggle, a kind of asceticism. To drive the demons out, you have to know that they are there. A kind of self-knowledge is necessary – not the petty narcissism we find in the ‘misery memoir’, but a growing awareness of those forces that have constituted you, that have made you what you are. ‘Your legitimate strangeness’: ‘Your’, because it is yours, your space, the person you are, that you have become, even as you might alter this space, remake it. ‘Legitimate’ – that part of you that is not yet subsumed by capitalism, that free part of yourself that is not a slave. ‘Strangeness’ – because it must appear strange to the slaves and their masters, to everyone around you.
Why is this important to the writer? Some of us write because of our alienation. We have had no one to speak to, no friends, no conversations. There was no one around. Thoreau went to the woods to find himself. We went to our rooms. We went to literature, and philosophy, without knowing anything of literature and philosophy. We worked on our own.
There is something pathetic about this. Shouldn’t we have been fighting the world instead? Shouldn’t we have been ready on the barricades? But there were no barricades. There was no solidarity. We belonged to nothing, and had gone a little mad, a little reclusive, from belonging to nothing.
In one sense, since we lacked education, lacked culture, since our world was not one which valued the ideas and writers that we came to, our exodus was pathetic. We were imitators, play-pretending at being what we are not. We’d come too late; the party was over. We stood in the ruins, and the ruins mocked us. What could we have achieved, that had not been achieved to a much higher level before? What could we have made, that had not already been made, and much more competently, much more measuredly? We lacked the basic skills. We lacked the ability to write – even that. We lacked the breadth of culture, the breadth of scholarship.
But seen in another light, we discovered ourselves as outsiders, like those outsider artists who practiced their vocation outside of institutions. What we made was crude and simple, true — especially when compared to what went before – but it did have a certain power to affect. It had an urgency, a desperation, which might, perhaps, appeal to others. We were capable of only scraps and fragments, to be sure – dreck – but dreck marked by a moving sincerity.
I wondered – and this was the beginning of Spurious, the novel, and of its sequels – whether there was a way of folding this sense of posthumousness, of coming too late and lacking the old skills, into the practice of writing. Maybe it was time to come back from the desert, which had taught me only the extent and depth of my stupidity. Maybe it was time to write with a new kind of writing . . .
Biblioklept: That “sense of posthumousness, of coming too late” figures heavily in Spurious. Is Spurious the “new kind of writing” you are aiming for? While the book has a fragmentary, even elliptical quality, it also reminds me of novels in the picaresque tradition. What form does this new kind of writing you invoke take?
LI: Spurious is a book on its hands and knees. For me, it feels like the last book, the last burst of laughter before the world ends. But it also feels like the first one, because it has loosened the hold of the past. It says: a whole form of literary pretence is over.
Writing to a friend, in 1916, before the composition and publication of the work that would make him famous, the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote, ‘My true book will appear only as an opus posthumum: I do not want to have to defend it or know about its “influence”’. He writes something similar, a year later, in another letter: ‘I will only truly speak after my death …, I place my entire life beneath the sign of that “posthumousness”’. Rosenzweig was confident that there would be a culture to evaluate his work. He was confident that there would be a place for his posthumous work among the greats – that there would still be greats, such that he might find his place among them. He was sure, in other words, that the old world would continue as it was; that there would still be master-works, still be the geniuses who wrote them, and still be the critics whose evaluations would be trusted by a general public.
A similar confidence in an author today would be a sign of delusion. Literature is one strand among many in our multi-braided culture. True, it retains something of its prestige; it is studied at universities, reviewed in serious newspapers — but it occupies an increasingly marginal role. The ‘great names’ are, for the most part, only cultural markers, ready for commercialisation (Kafka oven gloves in the tourist shop in Prague; the Brontë Balti House in Haworth; the Pride and Prejudice fully immersive interactive environment). But it is not only marginalisation that should be feared; recognition, too, should be. I think of the stupidity of documentary ‘infotainment’ on writers and artists, and rise of the vast, say-everything biography, that says nothing at all (as Mark Fisher has written, the biography is an end of history form, making the reassuring claim that ‘it was all about people’).
Literature continues. But it does so, in contemporary literary fiction, as a kind of empty form. As the anonymous blogger of Life Unfurnished has put it: contemporary literary fiction gives ‘the appearance alone of literature’; it is a genre ‘in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant’.
Reviewing Jean-Luc Godard’s film Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kael writes, ‘I got the feeling that Godard doesn’t believe in anything anymore; he just wants to make movies, but maybe he doesn’t really believe in movies anymore, either’. Without agreeing with Kael’s assessment of Godard, I’d like to paraphrase her formulation: I think literary writers want to write literary fiction without believing in literature – without, indeed, believing in anything at all.
It seems to me that the literary gestures are worn out – the creation of character, plot, the contrivance of high-literary language and style as much as the avoidance of high-literary language and style, and the abandonment of most elements of the creation of character and plot. The ‘short, elliptical sentences’ of which the blogger of Life Unfurnished writes, the ‘absence of fulsome description’, the ‘signs of iconoclastic casualness’, the ‘colloquialisms’, the ‘lack of trajectory’, the ‘air of the incidental’: all are likewise exhausted.
What, then, is to be done? As writers, as readers, we are posthumous. We’ve come too late. We no longer believe in literature. Once you accept this non-belief, once you affirm it in a particular way, then something may be possible.
Witold Gombrowicz seems to advocating a return to older forms of literary insouciance: ‘Where are the good old days, when Rabelais wrote as a child might pee against a tree, to relieve himself? The old days when literature took a deep breath and created itself freely, among people, for people!’ But we cannot simply return to Rabelais, as Gombrowicz knew. Too much has happened! If a kind of self-consciousness is a distinguishing mark of the contemporary literary novelist, this is not something that can be relinquished altogether. The role of centuries of writing – of the rise of the nineteenth century bourgeois novel, of modernism and so on – must be marked.
But it can be marked by portraying our distance now from the conditions in which the great works of literature and philosophy were written. W. and Lars, the characters in Spurious, revere Rosenzweig. But this is also reverence for a culture that would deem Rosenzweig and his work important – a culture that is completely different from the one which W. and Lars occupy. True, they revere contemporary masters, too – the filmmaker Béla Tarr, for example – but Tarr lives far away, in very different conditions. W. and Lars occupy the world of the present, and the world that valued the ideas they value, the world that sustained those ideas and nurtured their production, has disappeared. Much of the humour of the book comes from the fact that its characters are men out of time – gasping in awe at Rosenzweig’s work at one moment, leafing through gossip magazines at another; proclaiming a great love of Kafka one minute, playing Doom on a mobile phone the next.
It is in this sense that there might appear to be an overlap between Spurious and novels in the picaresque tradition, which extends from sixteenth century Spain to the present day. Picaresque, it has been argued, appears as a result of a tension between an old world and a new one. The Spain of the first picaresque novels was in a period of difficult transition, from the stability of the medieval order to the age of a new, self-assertive individuality. Poverty and war were all around. The picaresque is produced in a world where human solidarity is lacking, and the individual no longer has a place in the world. The episodic journeys of the picaresque novel reflect the lack of coherence of its central characters, the lack of secure identity – a kind of cosmic loneliness.
Some picaresque features can be found in Spurious. The novel is episodic, and its characters lack a place in the world, even a place in history. W. and Lars play-pretend at various roles, trying on the mantle of the religious person or the philosophical thinker. W., in particular, yearns after friendship. But the characters are not roguish, as the picaro of a picaresque novel is supposed to be. W. is perfectly sincere. And picaros do not usually come in pairs.
Biblioklept: Speaking of your pair Lars and W., there’s a strong friendship there that strikes me as very realistic and actually quite moving. Reading Spurious I was reminded strongly of one of my own friendships, which is perhaps based on equal parts degradation and love. Lars and W. evoke both extreme pathos and a kind of deep existential anxiety that manifests in humor. Parts of Spurious read almost like verbal slapstick (if that metaphor can hold any water). How important is humor—what do you think the humor in Spurious is “doing”?
LI: Humour? I’m with Gilbert Sorrentino: ‘In a country such as ours we have reached a point at which there is hardly anything left to do but laugh or cry. It’s a kind of hysterical laughter, it’s strained and unreasoning laughter, or it is a morbid, bleak sobbing. I don’t think that anything is going to get changed in this country except that it’s going to become grimmer’.
Sorrentino’s referring to the USA, but he could just as well be referring to the UK. We lack the grounds for belief, for hope, for a future. There’s economic disaster — not simply the credit crunch, but neoliberalism in general: corporatisation, unemployment, job insecurity, casualisation, the privatisation of public utilities. Beyond this, there are the effects of climate change: drought and hunger, failure of whole nations, wars, migrants. The temptation of ‘morbid, bleak sobbing’ is extreme, as is the desire to drink oneself into oblivion like the barflies in Béla Tarr films.
Sometimes, it feels that there is an imposture in the very fact of being alive. It is as though getting out of bed in these terrible conditions were already an imposture, let alone trying to think or write. What can we do, really do, about the disaster? ‘To hope is to contradict the future’, Cioran says somewhere. Better to lie down and wait for the end. Better to give up before you begin.
‘I think joy is a lack of understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves’, Andrei Tarkovsky says, with marvellous ill-temper. And, on another occasion: ‘I accept happiness only in children and the elderly, with all others I am intolerant’. It’s true that joy and happiness seem ill-suited to our times, all the more in that joy and happiness are promoted in that ideology of positivity which is everywhere today. But perhaps there is a sense in which one might legitimately laugh at the apocalypse, albeit with what Sorrentino calls a ‘hysterical laughter’.
A sage in the Ramayana tells us that there are three things which are real: god, human folly, and laughter. ‘Since the first two surpass human comprehension’, he says, ‘we must do what we can with the third’. So we must laugh at folly, laugh at greed and smugness, opportunism and corruption, as eternal flaws in the human condition; laugh, and dream of a better world, knowing that it won’t come.
But this kind of laughter is too genial for me. It treats human folly as eternal, which I’m sure in many ways it is, but ignores suffering, dying, the real hell of our globalised world. And I worry that it also spares the one who laughs. True, you can laugh retrospectively at your own stupidities. What an idiot I was when I young!, you might say. But there is a broader sense in which we are, each of us, implicated in the present state of the world. It is our responsibility, in some important way. For me, to laugh sagely at one’s own foolishness is still too little.
What is the humour of Spurious doing, then? As many reviews of the novel have shown, the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the characters is part of a whole tradition of double acts and comic routines. I wanted W.’s insults of Lars to exhibit the same virtuosity as the physical humour of the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. I think there is a whole art of the insult. But I think something else is going in the novel, too.
Alenka Zupančič argues that comedies are never truly intersubjective. ‘[C]omedy is above all a dialogical genre’, she grants; but comic heroes are ‘extracted, by their passion, from the world of the normal intersubjective communication’. What they are really doing is seeking ‘to converse solely with their ‘it/id”’. Dialogues, in comedy, are really monologues; the hero is really only obsessed with his basic, chaos-ridden drives. As Zupančič suggests, ‘The comedy of such dialogues does not come from witty and clever exchanges between two subjects, or from local misunderstandings that make (comic) sense on another level of dialogue, but from the fact that the character is not really present in the dialogue he is engaged in’. On this account, the cruelty of the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the friendship in Spurious, which sees W. continually berating his poor friend, would actually be directed at W. himself. W., the only candidate for being the ‘comic hero’ of Spurious, would use Lars as merely the occasion for the continuation of his monologue.
But this interpretation doesn’t quite work for me, either. The ‘it’ that drives the exchanges of the characters is not only a feature of W.’s psychic makeup, of the chaos of his drives. Both characters are mesmerised by a real disaster. And both — particularly W. — are mesmerised by their partial responsibility for this disaster. The ‘strained and unreasoning’ laughter of Spurious is a response to the grimness of the world that is of our making.
Biblioklept: For me, that “strained and unreasoning” laughter is a big part of why I enjoyed the book—I identified with the characters. Spurious isn’t really, to borrow a phrase from David Shields, a “novelly-novel,” but it does have elements of a “novelly-novel” (including characters with whom some readers will strongly identify). At the same time, its short sections, fragmentary nature, and willingness to cite entire paragraphs of other texts point to a new kind of writing, one perhaps anchored in its origins as a blog. How did you compose Spurious? How does the novel differ from the blog?
LI: ‘A page is good only when we turn it and find life urging along …’, says one of Calvino’s characters in Our Ancestors. I hope that’s what a reader can find in Spurious: life urging along. I hope readers recognise something of their own friendships in that of W. and Lars. Spurious is not, I think, a ‘novelly-novel’. It’s new in some way – it has characters, some elements of plot, but it doesn’t resemble other books. And I think this is due to its origins. Blogging, and then combining different categories of posts, allowed me to discover, through editing, a new kind of novel.
Blogging demands immediacy. Telling the story of W. and Lars, I couldn’t rely on readers having followed it from the start. Every day, with my blog posts, I had to present these characters and their situation anew, and in a manner vivid enough to engage any potential reader. In doing so, I felt rather like the writer of a strip cartoon. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts had longer narrative arcs, but each sequence he published in daily newspapers had to stand on its own. Likewise with the posts at the blog. Each post had to have its own internal drama, a kind of ‘verbal slapstick’, even as it could be contained within a larger narrative arc.
My loyalty was, for a long time, to the readers of my blog, and I produced new material for them daily. But I thought some of the thematic strands developing at the blog – the trips to Freiburg and Dundee, for example, or the reflections on Kafka and on the Messiah – were being obscured by the quantity and disparateness of W. and Lars material. A selection had to be made. This is where the work of editing began, of the practice of literary montage that would lead to Spurious.
Tarkovsky, in his book about film, narrates the long process of assembling the various fragments that comprise the finished film, Mirror. ‘I am seeking a principle of montage which would permit me to show the subjective logic — the thought, the dream, the memory — instead of the logic of the subject’, he said. He was looking for a way to combine various elements – short narrative sequences, pieces of music and poetry, etc. – into a living whole.
I was doing the same thing, in my own way. Spurious is a hybrid of many elements of the blog. There was a story about W. and Lars, but also one about damp –– a real story, which I wrote about at the blog. I added quotations, too, as well as incorporating the narratives of the lives of various thinkers. And I edited until I felt that life was urging along.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LI: I have thousands of pages of photocopies, which I made, full of ardour, during my first jobs as an academic. I thought I’d never get a permanent job, and wanted to make my own library of knock-off books in my rented room. Perse, Trakl, Tsvetayeva, Duras, and so many others: no printed book could mean as much to me as my annotated duplicates.
I shouldn’t be reading five novels at once. It’s a terrible idea, a symptom of a bad habit that I thought I’d broken, but after abandoning Levin’s tedious tome The Instructions and wasting my time on Shteyngart’s insipid dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, I found myself absorbed by a lovely little cache that had been neatly, patiently stacked for a few weeks now.
I’m only 60 or so pages into Lars Iyer’s Spurious — about a third of the way through — and at the rate I’m reading, I won’t finish it until the end of this month. It’s not that it’s slow or tedious or hard work: quite the opposite, in fact — it’s funny and lively, even when it’s erudite and depressive. I’ve enjoyed taking it in as a series of vignettes or skits or riffs. Spurious is about, or seems to be about (the term must be placed under suspicion) two would-be intellectuals, W. and his friend the narrator. They bitch and moan and despair: it’s the end of the world, it’s the apocalypse; they find themselves incapable of original thought, of producing any good writing. The shadow of Kafka paralyzes them. They travel about Europe, seeking out knowledge and inspiration — or at least a glimpse of some beautiful first editions. W. is cruel to the narrator, calling him fat and deriding his intellect for sport. But it’s all in good fun. Or maybe not. I’m really enjoying Spurious and have no hesitation recommending it; however, like a strong shot of bourbon, it’s best enjoyed frequently but in small doses. Spurious is brand spanking new from Melville House.
Iyer’s book dovetails nicely with W.G. Sebald’s first novel, Vertigo, which I picked up expressly to get the bad taste of Shteyngart out of my brain. Both books are haunted by Kafka, both blur the lines between fiction and biography, both are works of and about flânerie, and both are melancholy. The book comprises four sections; the first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section, which I just read last night, describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life. I’m almost certain that I’ve read this section, “Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva,” before — but I can’t remember where or when. It was strange reading it, almost as if I were experiencing some of the vertigo that permeates the volume. Full review forthcoming.
Kafka was a German-speaking Jewish writer from Prague. So was H.G. Adler, author ofPanorama, new in English for the first time (hardback; Random House). Another way to transition from the Sebald paragraph above to this write-up of Panorama might be to point out that Sebald references Adler in Austerlitz, a book that tries to measure continental memory of the Holocaust. Adler survived the Holocaust, forced first into Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz, where his wife and mother were murdered in the gas chambers. Panorama is an autobiographical bildungsroman, with its hero young Josef Kramer standing in for Adler, and while it will clearly work its way into grim territory, the beginning — which is to say, the part that I’ve read so far — is bucolic and sweet and strange, as we see young Josef at home with his family. There’s a cinematic scope to Adler’s prose — Panorama is a Modernist work, one where the narrative freely dips into its protagonist’s mind. More to come.
Continuing in this Teutonic vein is Heinrich Böll’s novel The Clown (also Melville House). It’s postwar Germany, and Hans Schnier is a clown who’s crashing and burning. He hurts himself–purposefully–during a performance (at one of the increasingly more provincial venues he finds himself playing for these days) and retreats to Bonn, where he holes up in his small apartment and makes angry desperate phone calls (and tries not to drink too much brandy) and reflects on his past. What’s eating him up? His gal Marie, basically his common-law wife, has reverted back to her Catholic ways and up and left him for some chump named Zupfner. Schnier rants against a complacent and complicit German bourgeoisie, spitting vitriol against Protestants and Catholics alike; some of the best parts of the novel though are his ravings about art and the role of the “artiste” in society. Also: he can smell over the phone. Full review soon.
Wesley Stace’s new novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (new from Picador) is a musical murder mystery set in the early part of 20th century Britain. Our (seemingly less than reliable) narrator Leslie Shepherd is a music critic with an aristocratic background who likes to spend his weekends collecting folk songs with other rich boys in the towns surrounding their country manors. He’s smitten (platonically, of course) with Charles Jessold, a middle class composer with a spark of avant-garde genius, and wins the younger man’s friendship quickly when he tells the story of Carlo Gesualdo, a fifteenth century composer/lord who kills his wife and her lover. (Notice the etymological connection between their names?) This tale of murder and cuckoldry is doubled in the ballad “Little Musgrave“; when Jessold and Shepherd find a new variation of the ballad, they set out to write the next (only?) great English opera, an adaptation of “Musgrave.” Oh, and that plot? The book opens with a news clipping reporting that Jessold killed his wife and her lover, and then himself, after the première of his opera Little Musgrave. Life imitates art imitates life. Stace has a keen ear for the period he writes about as well as a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about music, but he also has the good sense to restrain himself and remember that he’s delivering a murder mystery. I’ve been enjoying Jessold quite a bit, and will return to it when I finish writing these lines. (And, for what it’s worth, part of Jessold is set in Germany).