Lars Iyer, ‘Spurious’ – a review

Lars Iyer (photo from Bomblog website)

Lars Iyer (photo from Bomblog website)

Lars Iyer, Spurious  (Melville House, New York: 2011) paperback, 188 pages.

I bought and read this book in response to glowing reviews by people I respect like John Self (on his Asylum book blog) and Sam Jordison at the Guardian (‘a brilliant, engaging read’).  Although I’m mostly in accord with their positive views, I finished it with decreasing enthusiasm and, by the end, a fair amount of…well, boredom.

It’s certainly an engaging, curious and highly individual work.  It doesn’t conform to most of the conventions of a novel: there’s little plot to speak of – the spread and growth of damp and spores in Lars’ flat, perhaps, and occasional gin-fuelled dérives with his pal W., perhaps (there are several in jokes about the Situationists; many more – too many – about other philosophical, literary figures).  The largest part of the book consists of raucous dialogues between the character called Lars, who like his namesake the author lives and teaches in the NE of England (Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle), and his ‘frenemy’, the acerbic W. – we never learn his full name.  W. lives in Plymouth where he seems also to have a fitfully rewarding academic career.  These dialogues are almost entirely narrated as reported speech by the impassive Lars:

I am something to explain, W. says.  He has to account for me to everyone.  Why is that?  I don’t feel I have to account for myself, W. says, that’s what it is.  I’ve no real sense of shame.  It must be something to do with my Hinduism, W. muses.

This appears on the first page, and typifies the oblique style and muted, absurdist tone.  Most of what W. says to Lars, as reported by Lars, anyway – he’s not the most reliable of narrators – is cruelly insulting.  He frequently singles out Lars’ stupidity, obesity and all-round uselessness; this is apparent from page 1, just a few lines on from my previous quotation:

‘You’re an ancient people, but an innocent one, unburdened by shame’, W. says.  On the other hand, it could simply be due to my stupidity.  I’m freer than him, W. acknowledges, but more stupid.  It’s an innocent kind of stupidity, but it’s stupidity nonetheless.

This kind of love-hate relationship with its banter, this deadpan, relentless insulting (which is usually placidly accepted by Lars) has been likened by most critics to the clownish antics of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett (photo: Wiki Commons)Samuel Beckett (photo: Wiki Commons)

Iyer himself, in an article in the Guardian in 2012, acknowledged his debt to Nietzsche, quoting his statement: ‘In your friend you should have your best enemy’.  Such a friend, Iyer continues, should be one who ‘badgers, bothers, enrages, and insults you’, and he claims to detest the blandly spurious ‘kidult’ friendship promoted on platforms such as Facebook.  And that probably explains this book’s title.

There are nine other literary pairs of ‘frenemies’ that Iyer identifies in that article (in addition to Vladimir and Estragon); all are clear influences on Spurious – here are some of them:

Don Quixote and his ‘comic foil’ Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: picture from Wiki Commons, from an engraving by Gustave Doré, 1863

Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: picture from Wiki Commons, from an engraving by Gustave Doré, 1863

In the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser the pianist prodigy Glenn Gould sends his less gifted fellow music student Bertheimer into a downward spiral of misery ending in suicide after Gould labels him a ‘loser’, and plays with inimitable virtuoso skill.

Thomas Mann’s Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain, ‘the former embodying the positive, hopeful ideal of the Enlightenment, and the latter, the more chaotic, order-threatening aspects of fascism, anarchism and communism. The two men debate furiously, and end up fighting an improbable duel, foreshadowing the coming clash of ideologies that would tear the continent apart.’

The cutting, nihilistic sharpness of W.’s invective is mildly amusing for a while: ‘You always have administration to fall back on’, W. says. ‘You never really experience your failure’.  The back-handed compliment is compounded in the next sentence: ‘With neither a fear of unemployment nor a fearful skill as an administrator, W. is alone with his failure, he says.  It’s terrible – there’s no alibi, he can’t blame it on anyone’.  After this uncharacteristic, Kafka-esque flash of self-criticism W. returns to his usual theme: ‘You’re like the dog that licks the hand of its master.  You’ll be licking their hand even as they beat you, and making little whiny noises.  You’re good at that, aren’t you – making whiny noises?’

Nearly 200 pages of such pessimistic, one-sided badinage has limited appeal for me:

We were disgusted with ourselves.  We were mired in self-disgust, our whole circle.  We hung our heads.  If we could have hung ourselves at that moment, we would have done so.

Yes, it’s inventive, clever, thought-provoking and idiosyncratic.  Look at the whimsically studied development there from ‘hung our heads’ to ‘hung ourselves’, and the other patterned repetitions here and in much of the dialogue, presented (as in the quotation above) in staccato bursts of short sentences or paratactic, loosely linked sentences of greater lengthy.  But I think it’s just too damn up itself to be fully successful in literary terms.  It’s an intelligent curiosity, well worth reading, but ultimately sounds too few notes too frequently.  Its origins as a blog are also apparent: it’s got an episodic, non-linear structure, and lapses too often into repetition.

The most interesting aspect of the text for me was the more profound, less quirky forays into philosophical debate, presented with the bleak wit of Lars and W.’s literary hero, Kafka, and their cinematic hero, the Hungarian Bela Tarr:

Of course, I should take my life immediately, that would be the honourable thing, W. says.  I should climb the footstool to the noose…But it would already be too late, that’s the problem, W. says.  The sin has already been committed.  The sin against existence, against the whole order of existing things.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924); photo - Wiki Commons

Franz Kafka (1883-1924); photo – Wiki Commons

Iyer is to be congratulated for producing such a daring attempt at a shaggy-dog story based on the principle of turning apocalyptic-messianic pseudo-philosophical musings by a pair of smug, self-styled idiots into Nietzschean, angst-ridden comedy:

We know we’re failures, we know we’ll never achieve anything, but we’re still joyful.

Iyer’s competitive chums are capable of beautiful lyric episodes:

We’re only signs or syndromes of some great collapse, and our deaths will be no more significant than those of summer flies in empty rooms.

There are some genuinely funny (but weird, absurd) passages, like this one, where W. has been viciously berating Lars for not reading the chapters he’d sent him for comment:

‘You didn’t read chapter five’, says W., ‘with the dog’.  He was very proud of his pages on his dog, even though he doesn’t own a dog.  ‘You should always include a dog in your books’, says W.  It’s a bit like his imaginary children in his previous book, W. says. – ‘Do you remember the passages on children?’  Even W. wept.  He weeps now to think of them.  He’s very moved by his own imaginary examples, he says.

He wants to work a nun into his next book, he says.  An imaginary nun, the kindest and most gentle person in the world.

It’s for sentences like these that I think Spurious is worth a look; but be prepared for some longueurs and donnish, highbrow namedropping among the comical repetitions.

 

Typically enigmatic cover image of 'Spurious'; photo from the Guardian website

Typically enigmatic cover image of ‘Spurious’; photo from the Guardian website

 

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Part 2 of the critique

Last Thursday (May 30) I posted the first instalment of my critique of the brilliant trilogy of novels by Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow (YFT).  I’m delighted and honoured to say that the eminent author re-posted my piece on his own blog the very next day.  The link can be found on my homepage.  Today there’s Part 2; here we go…

Marías  says that what is now regarded as his own distinctive style, the long, digressive, almost musical sentences that loop around sensual perceptions, cerebral reflections and speculation, took years to evolve, and was perhaps first fully realised in  A Man of Feeling (1986).  This extraordinary voice and style are challenging: paragraphs can go on for pages; sentences are loosely tacked together with commas in ways that many English teachers would underline in their students’ work in red ink as representations of ‘comma splice’ or loose syntax.  This is a practice that can pull the reader into a lyrical zone of heightened sensibility, but I personally find it occasionally intrusive and a little affected.  I would warn any newcomer to his novels that his narrative pace is slow to the point of being glacial (though he’s positively buzzy compared to Proust in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, László Krasznahorkai or Thomas Bernhard – creator of what George Steiner called the anguished landscapes, ‘the sodden, malignant hamlets of Carinthia’); there are often long sections of many pages in which nothing much happens in a narrative, dramatic sense, and we are frequently given minutely, punctiliously detailed insights into Deza’s thoughts and musings.  New readers should persevere, for the rewards definitely outweigh the drawbacks; however, there are times when I’ve wanted him just to get on with his story and not provide, for example, detailed accounts of every statue his character passes as he walks through Madrid, or relate in detail what he eats and drinks for lunch.  There can at times be too much detail.  A characteristically convoluted passage (with minimal full-stops) in YFT vol. 3, Poison, Shadow and Farewell, makes this point for me (and here he is surely having an elaborately eloquent, endearing joke at his own expense?):

The truth is we never know from whom we originally get the ideas and beliefs that shape us…Yes, it’s incredible how much people say, how much they discuss and recount and write down, this is a wearisome world of ceaseless transmission and thus we are born with the work already far advanced but condemned to the knowledge that nothing is ever entirely finished…[but] people have never stopped endlessly telling stories and, sooner or later, everything is told, the interesting and the trivial, the private and the public, the intimate and the superfluous…[this list goes on for eight more lines!]

But in the interview with Richard Lea on the Guardian website Marías insists that his novels should be read quickly, not with slow reverence.  The implication seems to be that that’s how he wrote them, with all their tortuous, bolted-on clauses and iterated riffs.  And in defence of all those Madrid statues: they do add to the growing atmosphere of tension in vol. 3 as Deza stalks his rival, creating a socio-historical, cultural and political context, and in a nuanced way that is thematically consistent: the descriptions of statues, posters, books, paintings, photographs, etc., connect and cohere, ultimately – they are to do with the central themes of the trilogy: surveillance and watching (and being watched), tensions and secrets in relationships, conflict, desire, betrayal (and trust), love and death.

This kind of writing makes him difficult to render into English, says Margaret Jull Costa, his brilliant translator (quoted in the Guardian profile cited in Part 1 of this critique).  “I don’t think that’s the problem [ie this loose-linked syntax].  I think it’s more the thought process that’s difficult.  He’s like Picasso, who said he used to take a line for a walk. Javier takes a thought for a walk.  In a way they’re very philosophical novels, and that’s quite alien to the English reader.  We don’t like to be made to think.”

Jull Costa said she was daunted by the epic abstractions and the digressive, meandering and anecdotal structure of YFT vol. 1: Fever and Spear: “Are they [such sentences] a weakness in Proust? It’s just a way of getting deeper into things, of not accepting face-value judgments.”  His style enacts his subject, which “is really the individual consciousness – how we think, how we justify, how we perceive, and how we flail around for some certainty, some absolute feeling or judgment and find it a lie and an impossibility.”  Having said that, his “sense of humour is essential”.   Some of the set pieces in YFT are almost farcically hilarious (but also tinged with darkness): the donnish party in Wheeler’s house in vol. 1, where various lushes and buffoons are shown up in ways that remind me of Waugh and Wodehouse; one of them, De La Garza, who fancies himself as a dangerous ladies’ man, is portrayed as a ludicrously repulsive ‘dickhead’, and he features in later comic scenes in vol. 2: Dance and Dream, that rapidly turn to brutal violence, notably in the ‘disco’ where he adopts an ill-judged hip-hop/rapper/matador look, topped off by a lethal hairnet.

That’s the end of Part 2 of this critique; Part 3 will follow soon, in which I shall turn to his stylistic use of ‘echoes’ or repetitions.  I shall then post three separate mini-reviews, one for each volume of the trilogy.  The first of these can be found on the Guardian ‘Reader Reviews’ section under the title ‘Any nature is possible in all of us’…

Meanwhile, in case you become sated by the subject of YFT and Javier Marías, I shall post some different kinds of material; you might have seen my flash fiction piece, ‘Football’, posted here most recently.  I’ve also had two stories published in Flash Fiction Wolrd on 2 June: ‘Safe on Most Surfaces’ and ‘Green Ink’.