share


Interview with Lars Iyer

Like so much of the dialogue that marks time across Lars Iyer’s books, this conversation began in the pub. Of course, given the Dictaphone on the table it wasn’t really a conversation at all, but as the afternoon wore on the chat became more freewheeling. As in Iyer’s books, topics bounced from the exhilarating to the banal – from music, sex, and work, to unprintable anecdotes, unrealised projects, and work. By this point the recorder was off but we continued via email to follow up some of those incoherent, half-remembered thoughts.

 

Iyer’s latest novel Exodus is the finale of the ‘Lars and W.’ trilogy, which began with Spurious in 2011. The novels are based on Iyer’s life as an academic in the UK, and by now the fiction has nearly caught up with its reality – just as Iyer’s Spurious emerged from a collective blog, in Exodus Lars and W. start up their own blog which collapses under the weight of Lars’s continuous updates. (We might hope for a future trilogy in which ‘Lars’ writes Spurious, Dogma and Exodus all over again.) Iyer has said that Exodus is his attempt at a ‘big book, a comic Book of Revelations’, and religiosity and end-times abound – everything from Vedic scripture to Rastafarian eschatology – as the lecturer-heroes embark on their own uncertain exodus into the desert of neoliberal Britain.

 

In 2011, The White Review published Iyer’s ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss’, a manifesto against literature and against manifestos. Its bleakly funny provocation reminded me of a scene from the Simpsons – a call to ‘prove me wrong kids … prove me wrong’.

 

At the same time, in calling for a literature that addresses its own marginality, it seemed hopeful. A recurring motif in Iyer’s work is to think against a doomed situation from within – the suburbs, Britain, the apocalypse – and his books suggest a similar escape, a way out of literature through literature. It’s true that Iyer’s fiction can be glossed pretty quickly – following some of the best traditions of twentieth century art, not a lot happens – but the banal surface belies an extraordinary depth and richness. And if such things are already well known to readers familiar with Iyer’s work, they bear repeating: in the spirit of blind-drunk conviction, banging the tabletop, telling you just read the books!,over and over.

 

Q

The White Review

Exodus fills in more of the back story of the characters Lars and W. As well as the young Lars’s backpacking trip to Patmos, we hear of him squatting with ravers and rastafarians in Manchester, and, faced with the Job Centre’s mandatory ‘back-to-work’ training, moving into a monastery. Like much in the books, the stories come at a multiple remove, as Lars is relating W.’s versions of his own history. How does ‘real life’ connect to how you write?

A

Lars Iyer

— Almost everything in my novels is based on something real, but I exaggerate wildly, like any good anecdotalist.

Q

The White Review

— How did you end up becoming a monk in Patmos?

A

Lars Iyer

— Frustration with suburban life. A sense, which I knew to be misguided, that travel might change everything. The hope for a new personality. Alas, travel changed nothing, and my new personality never emerged. The story is pretty much as I recount it in Dogma.

 

I lived among monks for seven years. Seven years, and I am an atheist, with no connection whatsoever with the religious life! I still can’t believe it myself – it’s definitely worth a memoir. I was poor at the time. After a series of burglaries, I had nowhere else to go. I was taken in, treated generously. And then I settled there, although I often thought of leaving…

Q

The White Review

— In the books you describe a kind of internal exile…

A

Lars Iyer

— Unlike W. in the trilogy, I never had much faith that the world could be changed. Like the character Lars, I grew up in the eighties, the decade which saw the triumph of neoliberal capitalism, and the destruction of political hopes. I was never part of a larger whole, a collective, and I thought of life as something you had simply to endure. I just wanted to hole up somewhere, to listen to music and read.

Q

The White Review

— The idea of friendship is a very important part of your work. This is something I’ve wondered about – and anticipating certain reactions of my own friends, I’ll ask you directly – could it be said that the relationships examined in your books are nothing like true friendship at all, but just a peculiar and peculiarly male type of relationship?

A

Lars Iyer

— I am of the view that friendship is rare, not common. Friendship is difficult – it involves a struggle against what is now a widespread opportunism and cynicism. I think there really is such a thing as an art of friendship. I think it’s worth breaking off friendships when this art is being dishonoured – and doing so in the name of friendship.

 

It might be surprising, but I really do think that W. and Lars are friends. They pay attention to one another in their uniqueness – W., with his finely crafted insults, and Lars, with the narrative that he writes about W. They share a set of values – there are enough instances where we find both characters talking about politics, philosophy and literature to doubt W.’s claim that Lars has no interest in politics, philosophy and literature! They are intimates – they speak to each other of their lives, of their small concerns. ‘There is a rollicking kindness that looks like malice’, Nietzsche says. W. and Lars show this kindness to one another – they really are friends!

 

Having said that, it may be that the friendship of W. and Lars involves an unusual degree of toughness and cruelty. Perhaps their ‘rollicking kindness’ is a particular characteristic of male friendships, and something different can be found in female friendships; I’m not sure. ‘True friends stab you in the front,’ says Wilde. Do female friends stab each other in the front, as my characters tend to?

Q

The White Review

Exodus is the most expansive book of the series, both in terms of an even wider expanse of reference points, and the characters being in the world a bit more, breaking out of the enclosed space they were in. This was already there in the way Dogma developed from Spurious, and Exodus is a further explosion of that process…

A

Lars Iyer

Exodus builds on the previous narratives, by exploring W. and Lars’s voyage through a Britain ravaged by financial collapse, by the consequences of neoliberal capitalism. It has a more explicit political dimension – my characters follow the Italian philosophers Mario Tronti, Christian Marazzi and others in their analysis of the ‘step-change’ in capitalism, whereby capitalism operates directly on the inner life, the ‘soul’ of the worker.

 

In Dogma, the characters reflect on the relationship between capitalism and religion, following Benjamin’s discussion of this topic. Capitalism has cult-like elements, the characters suggest; it resembles a religion. And one way to combat capitalism is through religion – through drawing on the traditions to which, even as atheists, my characters belong. W. has a Jewish background, though his family converted to Catholicism. Lars has a background both in Hinduism and in Protestantism. Neither character feels himself able to believe in religious ideas, but they admire and appreciate belief.

Q

The White Review

— There’s that book by Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A

Lars Iyer

— Weber argues that Protestantism, with its emphasis on the individual, on individual work, lends itself particularly well to capitalism. Protestantism has prepared the soul for capitalism…

Q

The White Review

— It’s funny because my next question was about Hindu walking – there’s a passage in the book where W. accuses Lars of being a Hindu walker because he goes around in circles – and hence these two very different conceptions of time and motion.

A

Lars Iyer

— For W., there is a Jewish practice of walking, which understands every step as a step towards Canaan, towards heaven on earth. On W.’s account, the Jew is always looking for fellow walkers; walking is a collective endeavour, an attempt to assemble a people into a coherent movement, a political movement. The problem for W. is that no one will join him and Lars on their walks!

 

For W., the model of this collective walk is, of course, the exodus into the desert of the Israelites, described in the Bible. Many political thinkers, including Marx, have taken these years of spiritual trial as a model for political struggle. The Israelites left Egypt, the land of bondage, and exiled themselves in the desert – a place of trial, of purgation. The asceticism of the desert let the faith of the Israelites – a mixture of political faith and religious faith – burn at its brightest; through their journeying, the many tribes of Israel came together as one. Thereafter, the trials of the Israelite exodus became a model for preparing for the coming of the messianic kingdom, where God rules the faithful.

 

The march of the Israelites is linear, one-way. Although there are elements of the miraculous in their journeying, the exodus was the result of human effort – it is ‘secular’, to this extent. This is where ‘Jewish’ practices of walking differ from Hindu practices, according to W. For the Hindu, time is cyclical. The present time may be dreadful, but eventually it will be destroyed and a new world born, without any need for human agency, no need for a political collective to change things. For W., Hinduism cannot supply that same urgent relationship to time, to politics, to self-determination that we find in Judaism.

 

I should add that I don’t agree with my character, W., on this point, and actually added into the novel an account of Gandhi’s religiously-inspired political activism, for balance.

Q

The White Review

— All your books are particularly musical in the way they’re constructed, the repeating figures and ideas, with different elements locking together in different ways. It’s a repetitious rhythmic style, a ‘circular writing’ perhaps.

A

Lars Iyer

— Music is much more important to me than literature, literary writing.And if a literary work does not have a kind of music in its prose, I put it down straight away. Rhythm in prose is a vital concern to me. The inner movement of the text, the way it sounds, and the way the sounds of words and sentences combine with others. Without this vividness of movement, prose is inert. A precise choice of words, a distinctive music of prose, a suppleness of syntax: these are the things I strive for, and I revise my work repeatedly, to get it right. My novels may appear to be quite casual in the way they’re written, but that casualness is something I work at. Dolly Parton reminds us of how many dollars it cost her to look so cheap – with my fiction, there’s a huge amount of revision, to make it look so casual.

Q

The White Review

— What rappers would describe as flow, the way that you glide over a text…

A

Lars Iyer

— Flow, yes, that’s it. I want the reader to be able to be carried along at a certain tempo – a changing tempo, sometimes fast, sometimes more sedate. Long before I had anything to say, I used to hear rhythms in my head. I wanted to write in certain rhythms. I had to wait many years to flesh out these rhythms with appropriate words. Even now, I hear rhythms which I have no idea how to flesh out.

Q

The White Review

— And in the same way that thinkers from ‘old Europe’ are touchstones in the books, musicians appear frequently. Like the nineteenth-century philosophers, the bands and singers seem also to function as a kind of shorthand for sets of ideas – which is why I was bowled over by the appearance of Far I, nicknamed ‘King Cry Cry’ because he used to cry when he got angry, or as I heard it, because he would spontaneously cry on stage every night. And of course there’s the blues, ‘apocalyptic pop’, Joy Division, and Jandek too. Is it all about pathos, or is something else going on here?

A

Lars Iyer

— I use music, and the names of musicians, in a similar manner to the way I use philosophers, literary writers and moments in history in my trilogy: as indices, as ways of pointing to something. Back in the eighties, music seemed have something in it of utopia. It was the same with certain writers. Their names were magic charms for me – Artaud, Lispector, Rilke and others… My novels are fractal – collages of fractals. Every time I mention a musician, it is because I think it will resonate with other themes in my books, because it will constitute another image of the whole.

 

Why Prince Far I? Because, as a Rastafarian, he has a belief in the Messiah, and a desire to escape from the ‘Babylon shitstem’, which resonates strongly with Winstanley, and the other British revolutionaries Christopher Hill mentions in The World Turned Upside Down. Why the blues? Because it attests to suffering, plain unredeemable suffering, and to catastrophic events such as the great flood of 1927. And because blues music has a vibrancy, a life, which survives such suffering, which lives on, despite everything. Why Joy Division? In Exodus, I present their music as that of a crushed working class, in an as-yet unregenerated city, without hope. It is a music that reflects decades of marginalisation, decades of neglect. It is a posthumous music, a music of the Limbo which follows the catastrophe. Why Jandek? Because it is a wild and caterwauling music, a music of the outside, belonging alongside other figures of the outside in Exodus: Solomon Maimon, Chouchani, Louis Wain and so on.

Q

The White Review

— The trilogy itself is a kind of exodus. In Exodus, the escape from the universities mirrors the escape, if I can call it that, that you made in your own work – from academic writing to Lars and W. And so I wondered about the concept of exodus as it hangs over this entire project.

A

Lars Iyer

— How do we escape from our present bondage? How do we purge ourselves of the forces which lead us to internalise that bondage? How do we prepare for a new world, for a new kind of life? These are the questions I ask in Exodus. If the present bondage can be understood as neoliberal capitalism – as a kind of capitalism that now operates directly on our inner lives, our ‘souls’, then the question as to how we retrieve our inner life, how we reclaim our ‘souls’, becomes pressing.

 

The characters draw on the resources of the philosopher Kierkegaard in order to understand how this ‘purgation’ might occur. For W. and Lars, it is Kierkegaard’s descriptions of despair that are most relevant to our predicament. The ‘desert’ into which they enter is the desert of despair, which may prepare them for their Canaan, their land of milk and honey. But are they capable of feeling despair in the right way? And will such shared despair be sufficient to bind them together into a collective, a secular version of the ‘kingdom of priests’ described in the book of Exodus?

 

More generally, a certain movement outside is crucial to Exodus as a whole. The novel is full of evocations of outsider artists, of wild and strange philosophers of the outside, and it also describes the legendary generation of Essex postgraduates who sought to leave Britain behind altogether in the name of thought. Lars, for W., is a kind of outsider thinker, who might be the ‘last thinker’, the thinker of the end of times.

 

Lars’s blog, where he records his and W.’s adventures, is presented as a kind of outsider writing. In my case, I was very inspired by outsider artists and writers when it came to my own blog. I thought of blogging as a voyage out of the norms of academic writing. ‘Discover your legitimate madness,’ René Char says somewhere. That was what blogging was for me: an attempt to discover my legitimate outsiderness.

Q

The White Review

— You mentioned your antipathy, or lack of regard, for literature compared to music. Your manifesto ‘Nude in your Hot Tub’ coincided roughly with the manifesto that Lars and W. write in Dogma. I found I could relate more to the fictional manifesto, which is played for laughs in some respects, than the one about the end of literature … in that I didn’t feel any great loss for ‘literature’. Perhaps I’m part of the problem…

A

Lars Iyer

— Interesting. The young people with whom I am in contact do not have a strong relationship to literary fiction. They’re much more interested in music, or film. They are much more visually literate or musically literate than they are literate in the traditional sense. Is this something to lament?

 

I am often suspicious of my own love for many literary authors – do I really like them? I wonder. Is it not the kind of myth they embody that I love? Why do I read so many literary biographies? Am I looking for exemplary figures, saints of a kind?

 

What is it that I really love about Marina Tsvetayeva, for example? Yes, I have spent time with translations of her poems. But I have spent even more time reading about her work, and reading her biography. Do I prefer to read Char or commentaries about Char, in which his poems are quoted?

 

Cixous says somewhere that she needs to sense a centre of political suffering in the authors she admires – a horizon of events. She contrasts her admiration for Tsvetayeva (among others) with the sense of distance she feels with respect to Woolf. Woolf is from too lofty a social class. The ‘little Jewish girl’ in Cixous feels much closer to excluded artists, artists on the fringes of society.

 

Of course, Cixous is a marvellous reader of literature; the closeness she feels to Tsvetayeva or Lispector leads her to engage with their work very meticulously. In my case, this engagement is often absent and names like Tsvetayeva or Lispector – or even Cixous – are talismanic for me; they name Literature with a capital ‘L’, part of a world in which there was something at stake in writing, in ‘Literature’: a way of living, a struggle for integrity.

 

Perhaps I read as a ‘boy from the suburbs’, where meaning seemed lacking. And perhaps, because of the suburbs, so removed as they are from ‘Literature’, it is only the sense of remove that I prize.

 

If I value certain literary works today, it is because they also register this distance from ‘Literature’. It is because they write from the perspective of the suburbs, understood literally, or from a more general psychic suburbanisation – my version of Cixous’s ‘historical horizon’. I admire those writers who acknowledge the remove of ‘Literature’, holding open its distance from the everyday.

Q

The White Review

— An aspect of your ‘day job’ is as a scholar of Maurice Blanchot. You’ve written several books on him, but you don’t seem to talk about him very much.

A

Lars Iyer

— Until I wrote about him, Blanchot was another of the ‘talismanic’ authors I’ve mentioned – a name that stood in for a belief in something. It is possible to bathe in Blanchot rather than read him, to simply dwell in the presence of a master-author, even if this is quite the opposite of what he intended. Coming to Blanchot as an unemployed Philosophy graduate, living in the suburbs, I felt in the presence of ‘Literature’ itself, ‘Modernity’ itself. But I did read Blanchot, I tried to understand him, and his work very strongly informs everything I have tried to write, even if this might not be apparent.

 

Why do we feel an affinity with certain thinkers? Do they express something we were already thinking? Or do they change the way we think, setting us onto a new track? With Blanchot, it was an element of both. He’s so hard to understand! And what you think you grasp about his work could simply be a result of your misunderstanding. Perhaps I was able to produce a ‘reading’ of Blanchot’s work in my academic work – a particular way of presenting what he said. Perhaps I have been able to set his work into a kind of practice in my ‘creative’ writing (in my blogging, and my novels). I’m not sure. On the other hand, ‘my’ Blanchot may just be a fantasy, and my novels may only give voice to my particularity.

 

Kierkegaard is another figure of importance to me, one I’ve actually tried to read, instead of bathing in his aura. In particular, I am impressed by his use of various literary modes to communicate his philosophical concerns indirectly. Indeed, he felt that such indirection was the only way in which to communicate philosophically. My whole blog, back when it was about more than publicising my novels, or putting up W.-and-Lars posts, was conceived along Kierkegaardian lines. What I was trying to do there was to present the same kind of experience – a kind of experience that can, on my reading, be found at the heart of Blanchot’s work – in different modes, in different ways of writing, whether through autobiographical narratives, reports on the damp in my flat, attempts at literary, musical or art criticism, or whatever. My trilogy might also be understood as a kind of ‘indirect’ communication of this kind.

Q

The White Review

— The political landscape in Exodus is bleak. There is the point in the book where Lars and W. go to speak at Middlesex university, and wonder afterwards ‘What use do they have for our vague communism, and messianic pathos?’ which is particularly painful because we know that Middlesex philosophy is about to be closed down. How do you see your books politically?

A

Lars Iyer

— Despite his frequently-voiced scepticism, W. is very much a man of political hope. From the start of the trilogy, he has hoped to form a kind of collective – to engage in some kind of collective political work, whether modelled on the rue Saint-Benoît group, or on Tronti and his friends in the Operaismo movement. Lars, the narrator of the trilogy, might seem to be satirising W.’s political idealism. W., on this account, is the radical who is able to hold onto hope, and Lars is the reactionary, who laughs at hope.

 

Of course, W. is always linked in the novels to a certain messianism, to a certain idea of the Messiah – the Messiah fundamentally is a figure of hope. And Lars, by contrast, is always linked to the apocalypse, always linked to chaos and breakdown and disorder. But, although Lars narrates the novels, W. is their principal character. His rants and insults stay with the reader much more than anything Lars is reported as saying. Perhaps you could say the same for W.’s fervently-expressed hopes, too. To that extent, I think it is W.’s hope that breaks through the crust of my novels. W.’s radicality.

 

For myself, I would like to like to place myself on the side of hope. I would like to say I believe in political hope. But my belief wavers, which is why I turn repeatedly to Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, where she shows how leftist political interventions can achieve very concrete transformations of ordinary life. Solnit’s work restores my hope. I think the trilogy dramatises the wavering of my own hope, as I move between the positions embodied by my characters – from Lars to W. and back again.

Q

The White Review

— In Spurious,and to a certain extent Dogma, the hope tends to be undercut, whereas Exodus more clearly refuses this cynicism and breaks out or through it…
A

Lars Iyer

— I’m not sure that this contrast can be drawn between Exodus and the earlier novels. True, in Exodus, we hear Lars more directly than before, especially in the lecture he gives in Manchester, where he recalls elements of his experience of being unemployed and underemployed, of being ‘outside’ the world. We are exposed more directly to Lars’s sincerity. But wasn’t this sincerity also there in the account of his excursion to Greece in Dogma? Or in the account of his warehouse years, in both Dogma and Exodus?

 

The characters are ridiculous in so many ways. But I hope something breaks through their comic exchanges. I hope Lars’s desolation and W.’s political hope are not simply part of the fun. The last thing I want is for Exodus to be a ‘buddy novel’.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR



READ NEXT

Features

October 2015

War is Easy, Peace is Hard

Poetry

September 2011

First Blimp

Features

December 2016

Wildness of the Day