Interview with Lars Iyer, author of 'Spurious'
Lars Iyer lives and works in Newcastle, UK, where he teaches Philosophy. He is the author of Blanchot's Communism and Blanchot's Vigilance. Spurious is his debut novel, which will be followed in 2012 by its sequel, Dogma.
Mark Thwaite: How did the novel come to be? What were its origins?
Lars Iyer: Spurious grew out of posts on my blog of the same name, which I began in 2003. At that time, I wanted to escape the constraints of academic writing. I did escape, but not into anything that could be called worthwhile. I began to record the admonishments of a good friend, who has always wanted to turn me towards the good and the true. ‘Why are you writing all that nonsense?’, he said. Why are you writing all that nonsense?, W. says, I wrote. ‘You should get up earlier, and do some real reading’, he said. You should get up earlier, and do some real reading, W. says, I wrote. It was in these posts that the characters of W. and Lars came to be. Lars is an exaggerated version of me, and shares many of my traits; W. is an exaggerated version of a close friend and collaborator.
MT: Tell us more about what your novel Spurious is about?
LI: The novel relates the adventures of two would-be intellectuals, W. and Lars, who have an enthusiasm for the thought and literature of what they call ‘Old Europe’. They meet in their hometowns (Plymouth, Newcastle), undertake a foreign trip (to Freiburg) and head off to various parts of Britain, discussing matters by turn profound and trivial.
Spurious is also a story of ideas - the apocalypse, the Messiah and so on - and writers, Kafka, Rosenzweig and others. And then there’s the damp in Lars’s flat, which has its own story, like the decrepit landscapes Béla Tarr likes to film.
MT: Why Spurious? What’s in that word?
LI: My dictionary defines the word ‘spurious’ as, ‘superficially resembling something, but lacking its genuine character or qualities; not true or genuine; false; counterfeit’.
I think this title captures something of that feeling W. and Lars have towards the thinkers and writers who fascinate them, and towards the world from which those thinkers and writers emerge: a feeling of not quite measuring up, of not quite belonging to something.
MT: So Spurious records real events?
LI: It does, although with what Boswell calls ‘nice correction’. It discards some details, distorts or reinvents others, and rearranges the order in which things happened, to produce a cleaner narrative.
MT: You have published on the French literary critic and novelist Maurice Blanchot (Blanchot's Communism and Blanchot's Vigilance). Is Blanchot still key for you?
LI: At one time, I wanted to ‘reverse engineer’ a philosophy and a politics from a reading of Blanchot’s literary criticism, his fiction and, in particular, his political writings. I even wanted to develop a Blanchotian form of reflection on contemporary culture. I don’t think I succeeded.
The distance between Blanchot’s concerns and those of our own times is great. In the end, I felt overwhelmed by this distance, and felt that marking it in some way might be valuable in itself. We live in a media-rich, globalised, demotic world, and one overwhelmed by the political project of neoliberalism. In a real sense, we come after literature, even after that sense of literary posthumousness we can find in Blanchot’s fiction.
MT: Spurious seems to demand that the reader be familiar with literature and philosophy. Is such knowledge a requirement to enjoy your novel?
LI: Well, I hope that the book can be enjoyed by a reader entirely unfamiliar with the names and ideas mentioned in its pages.
In one sense, the names are stand-ins, for which others could substitute. The name ‘Kafka’, in the book, might be replaced by that of any great author whose shadow falls over us. But then Kafka is more than a great writer: his life and work were marked by a faith in the vocation of the writer and a perpetual disappointment with the fruits of that vocation. In this way, he became emblematic of the modern predicament of living in the wake of traditional authority. It’s the way he experiences this predicament which makes Kafka so important to W. and Lars.
Something similar might be said of Rosenzweig. On the one hand, his name could stand in for that of any great philosopher, tackling the great themes of philosophy, but Rosenzweig also tried to break with what he called the ‘old thinking’, which began from the perspective of the abstract and the atemporal. He wanted to step ‘into life’ — the last words of his magnum opus, The Star of Redemption — and stopped searching for a university professorship in order to found a Further Education institution for adults interested in Judaism. Like Kafka, there is an integrity to him, a purity. Rosenzweig lived what he wrote.
And it is this purity and integrity against which W. and Lars measure themselves and find themselves wanting. The characters in Spurious also long for the world in which something was at stake in literature, in philosophy. They strive for some kind of literary integrity, of philosophical integrity, but find that the world in which that was possible has gone.
I could say the same of the philosophical ideas discussed by the characters in the book. The idea of messianism, the topic of W.’s and Lars’s inquiries, could be replaced by another one, equally lofty. But then I would also want to say that it is not irrelevant to Spurious that messianism is a name for hope, and is usually found counterposed to the idea of the apocalypse — of financial collapse, ecological collapse — with which W. and Lars are obsessed.
MT: W.’s and Lars’s relationship to religion seems pretty complex. Are they religious or not?
LI: Contemporary Britain is deeply secular, and any interest in religion is viewed with suspicion. Is it simply their childish desire to provoke, which leads W. and Lars to their study of messianism and other elements of Jewish thought? Is it their love of Kafka and Rosenzweig?
W. and Lars want to step ‘into life’. The works of Kafka and Rosenzweig and, more generally, the tradition of Jewish thought that these writers reflect, provide a clue as to how this might be possible. Jewish modernity is marked by what Nietzsche calls the ‘death of God’: by the withdrawal of a sense of transcendence, and of religion as a source of absolute value.
For a philosopher like Rosenzweig, this is an invitation to think God anew — a God apart from the God of philosophy, of metaphysics. So he seeks to return to ancient Jewish texts, in a manner that he thinks has been lost to his liberal, assimilated Jewish contemporaries.
The case of Kafka, the literary author par excellence for W. and Lars, is more difficult. His work makes tangible the absence of God, of religious authority, even as, at the same time, it seems to belong to the genealogy of Jewish religious tradition. Kafka’s work transmits a sense of the importance of notions of God, of belief, even as it deprives us of them. In so doing, it poses the urgent question of our relationship to religion, and to tradition.
But what is transmitted by way of Kafka and Rosenzweig to W. and Lars? What does the notion of the Messiah have to do with two would-be intellectuals in contemporary Britain?
That, I think, is a more difficult issue to address.
MT: Kafka is totemic of a form of Modernity, where do you stand on the question of Modernity? Is it important to Spurious?
LI: Commenting on Vila-Matas’s new book, a reviewer in the TLS calls the obsession to create literature ‘a metonym for the ability to live a life that has some meaning rather than being entirely absurd’. In the wake of the collapse of old certainties, the possibility of the absurd comes ever closer. Gabriel Josipovici analyses what this means for writers who respond to this collapse, that is, for modern writers. I would supplement his account of literary modernity in What Ever Happened to Modernism? with an account of those social, economic, political and cultural transformations that are part of the rise of neoliberalism.
MT: There is a lot of despair in Spurious. Are you despairing?
LI: These are desperate times, end times, and despair is appropriate. But at what? Marx and Engels would say that the ‘constant revolutionising of production’ leads to ‘uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty ...’ To which we could add: the increasing consumption of fossil fuels, and rising levels of carbon dioxide; the volatility of the international movement of finance; the short-termism and populism of our political systems; the absence of any real party of the left (even the centre left!).
But despair and hope are intertwined. Despair at our lives is perhaps a modality of hope. ‘It is rarely assumed that not wanting to live might be part of wanting to live’: Adam Phillips said that. W. and Lars do want to live. That’s the aim of their would-be philosophising.
Cioran asked, ‘How can a man be a philosopher? How can he have the effrontery to contend with time, with beauty, with God, and the rest?’ His point is a good one, especially as it concerns that European tradition of thinkers with which W. and Lars are fascinated. The characters feel the effrontery of their attempt to understand the work of those thinkers, let alone to come up with ideas of their own. This leads them into a kind of despair with philosophy as they continue to try to philosophise, to understand works of philosophy. And to understand works of religion, too. W., in particular, shows a religious despair, being unable to accept a tradition which would make sense of the meaning of the word ‘God’.
Both characters also show political despair — they are not part of a Party, of any kind of collectivity. Financial and environmental collapse seem imminent, but what can they do about it? Their interest in philosophy, in this context, is no consolation. It helps them only to diagnose their time, to understand more deeply the conditions of their despair. In this sense, they exhibit that old literary trope, the melancholy of learning. Isn’t Hamlet represented as a student, a scholar? Learning, as such, leads to no good!
MT: W. seems very cruel to Lars ...
LI: Cruelty is one of the few ways in which some of us can show affection in our socially awkward country, much to the confusion of many Americans I’ve known. It’s what makes us laugh, for the most part, even if we’re the butt of the joke.
A couple of years back, a scientist made the dubious claim that British-style ‘negative humour’, which includes teasing and self-denigration, is genetically determined. It is innate to the British as it is not to Americans. What nonsense! I think the origins of ‘negative humour’ lie in something much simpler: a desire to be different from puffed-up fools who take themselves all too seriously. And that’s the positive role of so-called ‘negative humour’: it chips away at self-importance. We could do with a lot more of it!
Of course, W. is not cruel only to Lars, he is cruel to himself, too. In fact, both characters are ruthless with respect to their own intellectual incapacity, to the imposture of their efforts to think, and also to their responsibility for the state of the world, their ethical indolence, their political complacency ... ‘Negative humour’ again, but this time it takes the form of a kind of self-critique which attacks all forms of smugness or self-satisfaction.
MT: Are W. and Lars really idiots?
LI: You might have heard of Kruger’s and Dunning’s psychological theory of competence. They claim that in order to know how good you are at something, it requires the same skills and aptitude as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. This means that if you’re really good at something, then you know how to tell how good you are, but also, conversely, that when you’re no good at something, you haven’t got the skills to realise your defensiveness. Idiots don’t know they’re idiots, that’s the tragedy.
That W. and Lars seem to have some awareness of their idiocy is, perhaps, on this account, a ground for hope. But this means, according to Kruger and Dunning, that they might not be quite as idiotic as they take themselves to be.
Perhaps it is possible to conceive of a positive sense of idiocy. Socrates was told by the Sibyl that he was the wisest man in Greece because he knew he knew he didn’t know anything. There may be a similar wisdom in having a sense of your imposture, of the imposture of your self-satisfaction. Perhaps there is a kind of wisdom in feeling your own stupidity.
MT: Spurious is leavened by humour ...
LI: Spurious is marked, above all, by the black humour that comes of W.’s and Lars’s desire to have done with life and with their attempts to read and think. Their general fatalism and sense of absurdity seem to befit a world heading towards destruction. What can you do except laugh when meaning has been stripped so steadily away and the apocalypse stares you in the face?
But there is a kind of lightness or joy to Spurious, too. There is the cartoonish energy of the characters as they flit from conversation to conversation without distinguishing between the profound and the frivolous. W. and Lars are always ready for hyperbole and grand pronouncements — for some fresh experience of the end of things, or for some fiery revelation of hope.
Spurious also shows the very British mode of humour which derives from shifts of tone — from high seriousness to low silliness, from lofty conversations to smut. W. and Lars go from discussing Rosenzweig to the merits or otherwise of Peter André, from the collapse of civilization to the number of underpants it’s necessary to pack for a conference. As Grenier says somewhere, ‘Seen in its vastness, existence is tragic; up close it is absurdly petty’.
MT: Where do you see Spurious fitting in with the contemporary literary landscape?
LI: I have no sense of a landscape, nor of any kind of vista. I am a casual reader of novels, and usually follow what is recommended by Stephen Mitchelmore at This Space.
Almost none of the big names of contemporary fiction in the English-speaking world mean anything to me, but I never expected them to. I grew up in the ‘80s, when, with a few exceptions, we took for granted that official culture was shit. My canon was like a lot of other people’s — it was drawn from music and the music papers, as well as from science fiction. It wasn’t until later that I came across figures who seemed to have left little legacy in British fiction: the great modernists, the Russians ...
The fiction I like seems to have something to do with those authors. This Space continues to be my guide, introducing me to Solstad and Vila-Matas, Roubaud and Richard Ford, and reminding me of what is great about the work of Handke, of Appelfeld, of Bernhard. That’s my ‘landscape’ as a reader. As a writer ... that’s for others to judge.
MT: Spurious seems a very British book. Would you agree?
LI: W. and Lars are drawn to the periphery of British culture: to their cities, Plymouth and Newcastle, both destroyed by cuts in the ‘80s (as they will be destroyed anew by cuts in the ‘10s); to thinkers like Rosenstock and Cohen, who are barely known in Britain; to topics like messianism and the mathematical proofs of the existence of God, which are hardly of mainstream concern. They seek to live this admiration of the periphery, distancing themselves from careerism, from conventional measures of success.
‘The amazing thing is that, by keeping low, I have been able to go my own way’, so Bram Van Velde, the painter. W. and Lars, though perhaps in very different ways, go their own way. It is this most of all that constitutes their friendship. This reflects, once again, an attitude of the ‘80s: the official world is shit, there’s nothing for you there. Escape. Find a way out.
The major experience of my adult life has been the neoliberalisation of Britain, the shutting off of those possibilities which opened here for a while in the post-war welfare state and, more generally, in European Social Democracy. Every day, it seems to get worse; something else is made impossible. What I once regarded as idiosyncrasy, a trait of personality — I mean melancholy, despair — I now know to be largely the product of a particular environment.
Britain is a European test case for what happens when you progressively destroy the grounds for love, friendship and solidarity. It’s a test case for the destruction of ethics, of politics ... That’s why you have to ‘keep low’ in order to find another way of living. That’s why you have to laugh until you’re sick.
MT: Who is your ideal reader?
LI: To quote from Spurious quoting Mascolo:
One writes for the mal- or "disadjusted", neither proletarian or bourgeois; that is to say, for one's friends, and less for the friends one has than for the innumerable unknown people who have the same life as us, who roughly and crudely understand the same things, are able to accept or must refuse the same, and who are in the same state of powerlessness and official silence.
I find these lines very moving, and think of that set of friends to which Mascolo belonged: Duras, Antelme, Blanchot and others, who gathered at Duras’s flat on the rue Saint-Benoit and there attempted to develop new forms of political intervention. Friendship: that word was very important to them. I think of Blanchot’s dedication of a piece he wrote on Mascolo’s death: ‘To all my friends, known and unknown, close and distant’.
Friendship is a word important to Béla Tarr, too. He considers as friends those members of his audience who are touched by what he calls ‘the beauty of the destitute’. And Godard has also used this word of the dwindling numbers of filmgoers who see his work at the cinema. There is a sense of shared rejection. Of what? Certain ideas of power, of sanity, of adjustment; the imperative to be happy. ‘It’s like we weren’t made for this world/ Though I wouldn’t want to meet someone who was’: that’s Of Montreal.
Friendship of this kind is always under threat. Perhaps it is a sense of this precariousness that made me commemorate it in Spurious. What could be more unlikely, in contemporary Britain, than the intellectual friendship to which W. and Lars aspire?
That’s why I admire the characters in Spurious. They are utterly unfitted to the world in which they live, but they proceed regardless, and with hope, with ideals. I share much of their despair, and rejoice in their joy.
MT: Joy: a surprising word when it comes to Spurious! Yet your characters insist that they are joyful.
LI: Yes, joy. The characters — particularly Lars — expect very little. Of course life in Britain is shit! Of course they can’t understand what they read! How could it be otherwise?
Sometimes they are sad, but more often, exhilarated. Their humour, very dark as it is, is joyful. W.’s hounding of Lars, likewise. And perhaps, too, the record of their adventures that is kept by Spurious itself. ‘Optimists write badly. But pessimists do not write’: Blanchot wrote that. ‘A pessimist does not try to write. The true pessimist wouldn't take the trouble of writing’: that’s Albee, commenting on Beckett.
MT: There’s a sequel to this book?
LI: More than one, I hope! Melville House will publish Dogma, the sequel to Spurious, in 2012. It sees W. and Lars heading to America, and founding their own intellectual movement. A further sequel, Exodus, is in the works, bringing the series nearly up to date by exploring the effect of cuts on the universities in contemporary Britain.
The series is ‘an autobiography written as it’s happening’, as the late Harvey Pekar said of American Splendour. ‘Life is a war of attrition’, he said. ‘You have to stay active on all fronts’.