A semi-autobiographical black comedy of academic life, abusive friendship, and rising damp, Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious came out earlier this year, to critical praise – including in these pages. Distracting Iyer from his day-job as a philosophy lecturer at Newcastle University, and from writing the follow-up, Dogma, we asked him some questions:
One of the striking things about Spurious to me is the lack of superfluous detail (and characters!). It makes Lars’ life seem very thin. Is that how your memory works, or just how your writing works?
I think Spurious is largely made up of superfluous detail! The conversations between W. and Lars are, to me, examples of pure superfluity, pure excess. In one sense, Lars may seem to be a thin character: we hear little about the main events of his life. But we hear a great deal of the banter and conversational back and forth that constitutes Lars’s friendship with W. and that takes place in the dead time of their travels.
Much of the life of our friendships depends on enduring dead time together. This is why our memories of friendships at school are so vivid. All those boring lessons! All those transitional moments between class or during lunchbreaks. The long summer holidays, in which time seemed to stretch out endlessly… What we had in common was passing time together, when we had nothing in particular to do.
The big events of our life – bereavements and divorce, romance and career changes – take place against a background of apparently non-eventful banter and chat. But this apparent non-eventfulness can be extremely inventive. Forced to pass the time together, you come up with all kinds of nonsense, it is true; but some of it has real comic value.
I want to remember the kind of relationship, the kind of friendship, that seems to exceed and even precede any particular characteristic or contribution of those involved. In such friendship, your life alone is not of great interest; it is rather what happens when you are together as friends that is worth remembering. As such, the Lars of Spurious is not so much a thin character as one term of a relationship which is the real subject of the novel. It is the relationship, the friendship, which is, as it were, thick.
How much has the success (does it feel successful to you?) of the book changed your life, and will that appear in the sequel? Will Lars have written this book? What will W think? What does the real version of W think of Spurious? Have many of your other colleagues read it? Your students?
To have a novel published at all is a success. If it is not self-published, it means your work has been positively valued by an independent authority. Am I mad to think what I’m doing is worthwhile?, you say to yourself as you submit your novel. You are not mad, says the publisher who puts it out. And now you are a novelist; you can call yourself that without shame. You’re a legitimate part of what William Burroughs called ‘the Shakespeare squadron’, even if you’re its most humble foot-soldier. That, I think, changes your life.
But the publication of Spurious, as well as its positive reception, is not something I intend to become part of the fictional world of the W. and I trilogy. Harvey Pekar, in the originalAmerican Splendour comics, is wonderful on the effects their publication had on his life. But even if my novel is, as I said elsewhere, ‘an autobiography written as it’s happening’ – a phrase I borrowed from Pekar – it is only a partial one. Lars, the character, will not have written Spurious in the sequels.
What does the real W. think of the novel? I think he is amused, which he always was by the posts on the blog. As for colleagues and students, I don’t know of anyone who’s read it. Academics tend not to read each others’ work; students have other things to do with their time.
What direction is your academic work going in? Is it influenced by writing the book much? Kafka, Cioran, Rosenzweig, Cohen – do these figure as much in the academic work as they do in the book?
My academic work, such as it is, continues in the same direction it always has. I specialise in the thought of various figures within so-called continental philosophy, writing and publishing on the thought of Maurice Blanchot in particular. As a lecturer, I have always taught a wide variety of things. But Cioran, Rosenzweig, Cohen and other figures are not thinkers on whose work I have published or taught, and Kafka I have approached only indirectly, in writing about Blanchot.
What these figures have in common is that they are totemic; their names convey the ambience of a vanished world, in which philosophy, writing, formed a much greater cultural role. It was a world of disaffected writer-heroes, flouting conventions of taste and resisting the temptations of the market – a world of intransigence and opposition in which intellectuals like Kafka and Rosenzweig mattered. Spurious laughs blackly at how removed such figures seem from our world.
Literature has a kind of prestige today, it is true, but it is a fading one. The big books of our day are a kind of kitsch, and the pose of authors – serious authors – is laughable. The game’s up! The party’s over! Literature is like an ox-bow lake silting up in the sun. The river of culture has meandered elsewhere. But that’s not to say that there may not be another kind of writing, a post-literature literature, full of black laughter and a sense of its own posthumousness …
I would not say the same of philosophy. Its case is more complex. On the one hand, the discipline has become specialized over the last few decades, retreating to the academy. On the other, many philosophers – most notably, of the ‘continental’ tradition – have become extremely influential, such that any humanities student is likely to come into contact with their ideas. With the vast expansion of higher education in the UK, the ideas in question have been distributed very widely.
Was writing the novel a good way of doing philosophy – or is it something totally different? What’s the use of novels – and what’s the use of works of philosophy?
I don’t regard writing the novel as a way of doing philosophy at all. Spurious only toys with certain philosophical ideas. As with the blog on which the novel was based, it was a relief to depart from the norms of academic writing. As with the blog, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, pushing myself, as it were, from the riverbank of academic security without knowing if any channel might catch me.
The use of novels? I rather like what Ferdinand says in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou: ‘I’ve found an idea for a novel. No longer to write about people’s lives … but only about life, life itself. What goes on between people, in space … like sound and colours. That would be something worthwhile. Joyce tried, but one must be able, ought to be able, to do better.’
Life itself, as Ferdinand sums it up, I think of as the inconsequential, the incidental, as the froth of popping bubbles left by waves on a beach. I think of friendships again – of the play of conversation, of banter. I think of the dead time in which friends say nothing in particular. I think of fruitless journeys and failed encounters. I think of every kind of disappointment.
The novel is elastic enough a form to let such ‘sound and colours’ speak. To remember ‘what goes on between people’. And it is, by virtue of its length, its open-endedness, peculiarly suited for doing so.
I should add that Spurious and its sequels have a valedictory feel. W. and Lars live in a world threatened by financial and climatic collapse, and utterly indifferent to the ideas that are precious to them. Their comic exchanges take place within a context that cannot even be called tragic; it’s beyond that. These are the end of times, the last days… The use of the novel might be to bear witness to ‘life, life itself’, as it approaches the condition of its end.
What is the use of philosophy? Magicians distract our attention by indirection, to accomplish their tricks. Capitalism does the same, as does our liberal democracy. Philosophy should redirect our attention and show us the trick, recalling us to what matters most.