Spurious, Lars Iyer’s debut novel, follows W. and Lars, two British academics as they drink gin and discuss their professional failures and the worthiness of their pursuits, the apocalypse and the damp that is invading Lars’s flat, their relationship with Kafka and the Continent, and a host of other topics. The conversation always comes back to their relationship with each other: “I’m a terrible influence on W., everyone says that,” the novel begins. W. is particularly fond of pointing out Lars’s shortcomings: “There’s something spectacular about my decline, W. says …. ‘And you’re continuously touching yourself. Look at you: you’re doing it now!’ I take my hand out of my shirt.” Although W’s badgering often verges on cruelty (though it should be added that he speaks of himself the way he speaks of Lars as well) , the novel is ultimately an astonishingly moving meditation on the nature of friendship.
Spurious is more or less plotless, and it “slips down like an oyster,” as Iyer tells me he hoped it would. It’s also rather repetitive — Lars and W. keep returning to the same subjects; we are often told the same thing again and again. While some critics have complained about this aspect of the novel, I would argue that they’re missing the point: Iyer understands the comedic implications of repetition and Spurious is part of a tradition that includes Samuel Beckett, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, Scharpling & Wurster, Zach Galifianakis, The Mr. Show, Monty Python and, well, just about everything funny ever.
Michael Schapira, who contributed to this interview, reviewed the novel here. Dogma, a sequel to Spurious will be published by Melville House in 2012. I corresponded with Iyer, who teaches philosophy at Newcastle University, blogs here, and tweets @utterlyspurious, over email about Kafka, professional frustrations, and black humor.
To what extent is Spurious an “autobiographical novel”?
Certainly Spurious is autobiographical. But it is not like those novels which recount pivotal childhood experiences or love affairs, or indeed anything particularly eventful. I wanted to capture an element of our lives that we often forget: the to-and-fro of banter and piss-taking that makes up the substance of our friendships.
‘Friendship is a comic art’, Gilles Deleuze says somewhere. ‘There are few people in the world with whom one can say insignificant things. You can only speak of trifles with very good friends’. W. and Lars certainly speak of trifles, of trivialities, of petty things that are undeserving of serious attention. But this insignificance makes up their friendship. It is part of its joy.
But Spurious is more than this, I hope. Its comic art, such as it is, is blackly comic, as is appropriate to a world being torn to pieces by neoliberal reforms, and with the threat of climatic apocalypse before it. The trivialities of W. and Lars are marked by a sense that the world is coming to an end, and that they are both, in some sense, responsible for it.
Of course, there is a voice in the novel that isn’t comic at all, and certainly isn’t autobiographical: I’m thinking of the damp, which, according to Lars, says only ‘I am that I am’, like God to Moses.
Lars’s struggle to control the damp, the fungus growing in his flat, was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Those sections were hilarious and often surprisingly moving. Was “the damp” always a part of the novel? How did its role in the novel evolve?
The story of the damp is quite real. I knew as I recorded my relationship with it on my blog that there was something important there, something worth telling. Not all stories are about people. And sometimes, those that are, even a character-driven novel like Spurious, have to be set within a larger, impersonal context.
Béla Tarr said in an interview, remembering the shooting of The Man From London: ‘It was [a matter of] getting away, of distancing ourselves from the story because we thought that the wall, the rain, the dogs have their own stories, and that these stories are more important than these so-called human stories that we write’. The human story of Spurious is accompanied by the non-human story of the damp.
At the famous Group 47 meeting, very early in his career, Peter Handke said something very interesting: ‘Above all, it seems to me that the progress of literature consists of the gradual removal of all fictions’. In Spurious, damp, in my mind, is what remains after that removal, as though the chaos before the creation – which, according to the book of Genesis, is ‘without form or void’ – had returned, as though our world, solid and enduring as it may seem, rests atop quicksand.
Think of one element of the ‘human story’ of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – the struggle of some sorts between father and son. At the end of this film, the estranged pair appear to be reconciled, the son on his knees, embracing the father. Then the camera pans out, and we see that the apparently reconciliation is only imaginary, being a kind of dream of the sentient ocean of Solaris.
The friendship of W. and Lars, and the ‘comic art’ of this friendship, might only be a dream of the damp …
Lars and W. worship Kafka and wonder if they more resemble Kafka or Max Brod, his executor. Is Kafka one of your heroes? Do you, like Lars and W., think of yourself as more of a Max Brod than a Kafka?
I do not even see myself as a Brod! Max Brod was the most energetic of men – he wrote a great deal, he was active in various intellectual circles – and he placed himself most genuinely in the service of others. A remarkable combination. W. and Lars seem to form the entirety of each other’s intellectual circle, and the question whether they actually help anybody is an open one.
Am I a Brod? But I wrote a novel. And one writes novels, I think, in the hope that one might be more than a Brod. Brod, no doubt, wanted to be more than a Brod. At what stage did he realise that he was no Kafka? My argument: he never realised it. Perhaps to write a novel is to be a Brod who wants to be Kafka. And perhaps that’s why Kafka couldn’t finish his own novels. He, too, in his own way, was a Brod.
But we live in a different time from Kafka’s, when the hope of being a Kafka will result in something altogether different than becoming Kafka. Kafka’s displaced relations to Jewish traditions have their counterparts today, perhaps, in our displaced relations with the novel, and with figures like Kafka.
You’re a lecturer at Newcastle University. What is your academic background? What do you specialize in? How did that work affect the novel?
My background lies in philosophy, and that’s what I teach; I run a course called Philosophical Studies at Newcastle University. I specialise in the work of various thinkers within so-called ‘continental philosophy’ – the thought of continental Europe in the last couple of centuries.
The challenge of continental philosophy as studied in Britain was to think using the concepts of these strange and wonderful thinkers which fell on our shores like strange meteorites. These concepts arrived as burning fragments, almost too hot to hold, blasted from their original contexts into the empiricist, anti-metaphysical culture of our country. British continentalists were not usually steeped in the background from which these ideas came. Some became philologists, textual scholars, knowing many things, perhaps, though, lacking ideas of their own. Others tried to do something with the ideas they encountered, in order to make something new. In my case, I would have liked to have been the former, but, I suspect, have likely only ever been a bad example of the latter.
At a certain time of life – with your PhD and several articles, and perhaps a couple of books in hand – it’s time to deliver in the philosophical world; time to produce your own ideas and intervene meaningfully in contemporary thought. But what happens when this is impossible for you – and you find equally impossible the life of a commentator, producing endless introductions to the thought of others?
You might blame your shortcomings on the pressures of work, on the administrative tasks that play a huge role in British academia, on busy family life, on a lack of research leave, and so on, but in the end, you’ve failed in terms of the ambition which drew you towards ‘continental’ ideas in the first place. You’ve failed the ideas which drew you to philosophy.
It is a sense of this failure that characterises W. and Lars in the novel. They’ve disappointed themselves, but they still go on – or, at least, W. does – attempting to think, attempting do something with the ideas that mesmerise them.
I wrote Spurious the blog and then Spurious the novel (as well as its sequels, Dogma and Exodus, forthcoming from Melville House) as my own form of this ‘going on’, writing about failure with the aim of achieving a kind of literary success. How strangely things turn out!
How has the novel been received amongst colleagues in the humanities? And your students? Given the most recent round of cuts to higher education and the protests in opposition to them, do you think that W. and Lars are examples of the kinds of inflated caricatures of unproductive intellectuals that neo-liberal reformers imagine?
It’s an unwritten rule of academia that no one reads anyone else’s books, so I’m not sure what anyone thinks of Spurious!
Are W. and Lars really unproductive intellectuals? W. is nothing if not busy, rising at 4AM to work every morning. He reads the most challenging of books, in their original languages, and constantly tries to broaden his skills, learning mathematics, learning ancient Greek, with the aim of coming up with his own thought. Lars rises at 5AM, or says he does. He, too, reads – albeit, according to W., secondary texts, rather than primary ones. He, too, we are led to understand, attempts to think for himself, even if it is only W. who, by the end of the novel, thinks he might have an idea.
Philosophy is punishingly difficult, and the word, ‘philosopher’, should be saved as an honorific for the greatest of thinkers. And I think philosophy is saddening, too – it makes you aware of what really matters, and of how inadequate one is with respect to the task of thinking. If the purpose of philosophy is, as Deleuze says somewhere, to ‘damage stupidity, to turn stupidity into something shameful’, it is often one’s own stupidity of which one becomes most aware, and one’s own shame as a would-be thinker attempting to think.
That they experience their stupidity does not make W. and Lars stupid. In fact, it might well be a sign of the opposite. Perhaps there is a version of W. (and perhaps Lars) in any worthwhile thinker.
Cuts to UK universities have been used by managers to push through an ill-conceived and short-termist business agenda, getting rid of humanities subjects despite student demand for these subjects. Where they remain, humanities subjects are urged to be ‘relevant’, so that philosophy, for example, becomes applied ethics, servicing other, ostensibly more profitable, courses. The cuts are indiscriminate – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a dunce or Dun Scotus, when they shut down your programme they shut down your programme.
In this context, it doesn’t matter whether W. and Lars are productive or not – they’ll still be sacked. They’re larking about on top of a volcano, knowing it’s about to erupt.
Philosophically and artistically the affinities of W. and Lars track closer to “Old Europe,” where thinkers and artists are capable of having and expressing genuine ideas. Yet much of the humor in the book can more easily be located in the black, but philosophically informed humor of British comedy. In writing the novel, or in your scholarly work on Blanchot and other “Old Europe” figures, have you found that there is something in this kind of humor that allows for an engagement with genuine ideas in a culture like Britain’s which is perhaps less hospitable to them?
Old Europe, for the characters of Spurious, is a kind of paradise, where certain ideas are taken seriously and form part of the intellectual conversations of an age. In many senses, this is a projection, quite unreal. Kafka, who W. and Lars admire so much, was an obscure figure in his day. Franz Rosenzweig, another figure they admire, wasn’t well known during his lifetime. Nevertheless, these figures did belong to a culture that took ideas seriously, a culture in which intellectual life was valued, even lionized. Theirs was a period of great authors, and great ideas.
The Britain of W. and Lars – the neo-liberalised Britain of the 2000s – is very different. Their culture is not an intellectual one. It is not elitist – dfferences between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture have long since been erased. The conditions of charisma which surrounded older intellectual figures have disappeared. There is no longer an intransigent vanguard, no longer a securely reactionary bourgeois morality, no longer an academicist establishment for artists and thinkers to rail against. Culture, now, is populist and globalised. The high seriousness of modernism can only seem a posture. W., and, in particular, Lars, are part of this world. Lars seems to relish it: he reads gossip magazines (perhaps only to annoy W.), he plays Doom on his mobile phone. W. is more inclined to struggle against it.
Contemporary Britain isn’t greatly interested in ideas, in particular the ideas that interest W. and Lars, which belong to an entirely different, Old European, context. Nor is contemporary Britain interested in the integrity of Old European thinkers and artists, who seem to embody what they think and create, to live it, and to do so at a distance from conventional measures of success.
This kind of integrity – the attempt to live a serious life as a writer or a thinker – is something which the British have long been disinclined to admire. ‘Oh come off it!’, is the response of the Briton to continental seriousness. ‘What rot!’; ‘We don’t have to bother with any of that!’ – this kind of deflationary chirpiness can be a tonic when faced with pomposity or pretension. But it is too quick a response, I think, to continental attempts to address and remedy our situation.
This very British attitude is something which the critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici discovers in the brand of literary realism characteristic of the contemporary novel, which ‘yields an impoverished view of life’. The work of celebrated contemporary novelists has made the world, he says, ‘smaller and meaner’. In my view, the genial self-confidence of the British novel – of ‘Establishment Literary Fiction’, in Mark Thwaite’s formulation – disconnects it from the disorienting conditions in which many of us work and live.
This is why black humour might have a literary and even a philosophical role. The changes wrought by neoliberalism on British life demand a proportionate response. The horrors of untrammelled capitalism call for writers who are likewise untrammelled: dispossessed writers, attuned to the apocalypse.
We need novels forged in the black fire of despair – personal despair, political despair, even cosmic despair. Novels shot through with a sense that the end is nigh, that all our efforts are in vain, but that we might at least laugh at our predicament. Laugh – but with a laughter as black as the forces that we laugh at.
Whence, perhaps, the black humour of Spurious, of which the ‘comic art’ of the relationship between W. and Lars is a part.
Black humour, in general, has been defined in terms of its focus on the darker sides of life, on despair and death, but that does not quite capture it. Comic vision is often conservative, depending on a stable value-system, on an unshakable order of the world. A whole strain of genial British comedy is of this kind. Think of Dickens’s Mr Pickwick, or Mr Toad of Toad Hall, or of the friends who mess about in boats in Jerome L. Jerome’s novel: these characters are amiable eccentrics at whose foibles and quirks we can poke gentle fun.
W. and Lars might seem to be lovable fools of this sort. But the ‘comic art’ of their banter about murder, suicide, violent death and so on, their penchant for exaggeration and grotesquerie, is meant to stick in the craw. The black humour of Spurious is apocalyptic, conveying the sense of the end of an older order of the world, with its accompanying values. Yes, there is an element of genial humour in the novel, which seems to have made it enjoyable to a variety of readers, placing it within a recognisable comic genre. But I hope the excessiveness of W.’s criticisms of Lars, as well as the characters’ criticisms of themselves and their general sense of living in the end times, make Spurious a troubling novel, too.
The world of W. and Lars has gone mad, and they’ve gone a little mad with it. The comic antecedents of the characters, in my imagination at least, are Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, and Thomas Bernhard’s monomaniacs.
Does black humour allow for an engagement with genuine ideas, as you ask? I think Deleuze and Guattari laughed as they wrote the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I think Lyotard laughed as he wrote Libidinal Economy. And there is the wild laughter of Nick Land, which echoes with that of Georges Bataille. But real philosophical work can seem impossible when you are overwhelmed by the madness of the world. This is why the protagonists of Waiting for Godot only ape true philosophising, and Bernhard’s madmen never get down to the grand philosophical projects that they set themselves.
There’s a lot of talk about the apocalypse in Spurious. What draws Lars and W. to our coming economic and ecological doom? Do you think things are decaying?
One can use the word ‘apocalypse’ in the popular sense, to refer to violent and climactic events which will destroy the order of the world. Climatic collapse and, to a lesser extent, financial collapse are examples of such apocalypses. This is why W. and Lars believe they’re living at the end of times, a belief I share.
But Spurious draws on an older notion of apocalypse, too. The word ‘apocalyptic’, as it names a genre of writings of which the books of Daniel and Revelation are part, arose among the Jews of the second century BCE, as the prophetic voice which marked previous scriptural writings died out. The apocalyptic genre reflected an experience of upheaval and confusion, in which the ideal seemed to have separated itself entirely from the real. God may have been Lord of creation, Lord of history, but the innocent suffered and the wicked triumphed. When would deliverance come?
Apocalypse, in this context, means the revelation of something formerly hidden, granting a ground for hope in a world in which the signs of God are difficult to discern. This revelation breaks into history from outside, changing its course. It bears many of the hallmarks of a catastrophe, and indeed it will bring death and destruction, but it is also the basis for redemption; a new age will rise out of the present, by God’s grace. It is as part of Jewish apocalyptic that we find the figure of the Messiah, who is the agent of salvation, and will redeem the suffering and misery of the world. This figure will reappear in the literature of other crisis points in history.
In the twentieth century, in the work of the writers and thinkers who fascinate W. and Lars, the notion of the messianic has been, in a sense, brought down to earth. The Messiah, argues Levinas, for example – and the atheist Blanchot follows him in this – is the one I become when I respond to the plight of the other human being. I might not be aware of this, but it happens nonetheless, according to a logic of relations marked by asymmetry and alterity. There is a sense for both Levinas and Blanchot that speaking to the other human being in a certain way, that acknowledging the alterity of the other, redeems the world in some measure; or, at least that it redeems you, the speaker.
This is why the ‘comic art’ of friendship, real friendship, has something messianic about it, and why Spurious, despite its apocalypticism, also has its moments of hope.
You have spoken elsewhere about the humor of the book being somewhat lost on American audiences who read W.’s treatment of Lars as a form of abuse. Have you had a similar reaction in Europe?
Perhaps the USA has as rich a tradition of black humour as any European country; I don’t know. In Britain, black humour is comparatively rare. The few friendships I have enjoyed have been marked by a ‘comic art’ that is decidedly black, but it is hard to find people who see things in this way. This is why the positive reception of Spurious has surprised me: reviewers of all kinds, whether in Europe or elsewhere, have, with few exceptions, appreciated its humour. Perhaps there are other people who feel as suffocated by the contemporary ideology of positivity as I do; on the other hand, by associating the ‘comic art’ of W. and Lars with other, more genial comic double acts, they haven’t seen how seriously the humour of Spurious is intended.
More generally, in an age of smugly narcissistic friendship groups, of the mutual reassurance of ‘kidults’, it is unsurprising that the friendship between W. and Lars may strike readers as unnecessarily abusive. We might enjoy being gently teased – it’s a way of receiving attention from others. But W.’s onslaught on Lars is much more than teasing; and his onslaught on himself is just as merciless. In its excessiveness, its ceaselessness, I think the humour of W. and Lars breaks them from smug self-regard which characterises the imperative to positivity that marks our culture.
‘In your friend you should possess your best enemy’, Nietzsche writes. Perhaps we need such enemies in the face of the stifling performance of happiness. Perhaps we need their cruelty to reawaken a sense in us of the commitment and seriousness that are necessary to address what matters most.
Some critics have argued that Spurious is essentially plotless. Do you see an arc in the novel?
A sense of narrative pressure, of a kind of swiftness or urgency, was important to me in writing Spurious. I wanted the book to slip down like an oyster. Such pressure, I think, should be distinguished from what is called plotting. Or perhaps plotting should be seen as something arising from it, like a rainbow that arches over a waterfall.
An example. Little happens in Bernhard’s fictions. What matters is the scintillation of those long sentences and the endless variations which they carry forward. The plot of Bernhard’s later novels, like Concrete or Yes, is marvellously fitted to this pressure (much more so, for me, than in the earlier novels), but is, I think, secondary to it. The whole of Bernhard’s career is an attempt to come to terms with this pressure.
If there is such a narrative pressure, in Spurious – W.’s tormenting badgering his friend, but also W.’s and Lars’s badgering of themselves and lamenting at the state of the world, as well as the insinuating emergence of the damp – then what plot there is must get out of its way.
Perhaps this is disingenuous. Perhaps Spurious is an expression of neoliberal conditions, just as the pressure in Bernhard’s fictions was the expression of a post-Nazi Austria. What remains of the plot is like the jumble of moraine pushed along by a glacier.
But perhaps, on the other hand, the pressure characteristic of a certain kind of fiction – the kind Josipovici champions in his book on modernism – reflects a more general uncertainty for which modernity is the name, and in relation to which the traumas of Bernhard’s post-Nazi Austria and my neo-liberalising Britain are only stand-ins.
Was this book written in part out a professional frustration? Do you believe that there are certain structural problems in the British academy that makes normal philosophical/academic work creatively unfulfilling or impossible?
Structural problems in the British academy: where to begin!? We are flying directly into the neoliberal storm. This is the period of the privatisation of the university, which is to say, the period of its destruction.
The situation for many staff members is stressful and disorienting. A minority of opportunists and cynics do flourish in these circumstances. They’re made for the new world, perfectly fitted to British ‘market Stalinism’, as Mark Fisher has called it, to ‘the generation and massaging of representations’. And the rest of us? We stagger around like stunned oxen, continually having to justify the continued existence of non-vocational courses.
Perhaps Spurious reflects a small measure of professional frustration. But universities still provide the conditions for thinking. The continual round of auditing and quality assurance can make university life frustrating, but teaching itself is still fulfilling, and there is still some time to read and write.
I work with motivated, serious-minded people, to whom ideas matter. I attend conferences where I have found myself in company with brilliant minds, and I supervise dedicated postgraduates who devote themselves to their studies, although they have little prospect of finding an academic job. These times are likely coming to an end, but, nevertheless, they are the context in which W. and Lars work: the last days of the university.
Who are your favorite comics?
Comedians play almost no part in my life. I don’t watch much TV, or follow stand-up comedy. I have dim memories of watching videos of Monty Python, the Marx Brothers and Derek and Clive as a teenager, and distantly remember friends telling me about Spike Milligan’s Q. I have more vivid memories of Zach Galifianakis’s stand up comedy on Youtube, or Neil Hamburger’s festival gigs. But if I want humour, it’s to Bernhard’s fiction that I turn.
What have you been reading recently? How much fiction do you typically read?
I read widely in history and philosophy and religion, but little fiction. Piled up on my desk: Bataille’s collected works, a volume of William Kurelek’s paintings, some introductory books on Buddhism and Ivor Southwood’s Non-Stop Inertia, which was so good that I’m going to read it again.
I keep fiction for holidays. Last summer, I read Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England; the summer before, Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. This summer, it might be the turn of Mathias Énard’s Zone.