There are few more exciting writers at work today than Lars Iyer. The hilarious despair of his first two novels, Spurious and Dogma, seems to have touched a chord, each receiving near unanimous acclaim. His third novel, Exodus, sees Lars and his mentor, W., make their way around the dying universities of Britain in preparation for a philosophical movement that will exist outside the academy. The comedy is a little blacker this time around, and the black a little funnier still.
Exodus is your third novel, but your fifth book. You work as a philosophy lecturer in Newcastle University and have written two books on Maurice Blanchot. Have you found it difficult to go between your work as a novelist and your work as an academic?
It’s very hard to write good philosophy in your own name. Much easier, is to write a literary work about the inability of writing good philosophy in your own name! Literary writing can allow you to capitalise on failure – how strange! Having said that, I still chip away at writing bits of philosophy – papers, conference presentations and so on. It never gets any easier.
Lars narrates the trilogy, but he seldom expresses his own ideas. Instead he tends to report what W. says about everything – the state of nation, the state of philosophy, the state of Lars himself. “Don’t I know there’s a war on – a philosophical war, W. says.” The subjects always sit strangely; at times, it seems like W. is talking about himself. Was it your intention to make the two characters seem as one?
Lars, the first-person narrator of the trilogy, very rarely gets to speak for himself, seemingly being content to report the insults W. sends his way, along with W.’s other musings. Why this style? Well, as more than one reviewer has noted, it allows Lars to satirize W. – he makes W. look more than a little ridiculous in the hyperbole of his views. This is perhaps Lars’s way of taking revenge on W. But Lars’s taking the piss out of W. is as mingled with affection as are the insults W. directs at Lars. W. and Lars are frenemies, as are many male friends. My mode of narration is a new twist on various literary and non-literary double acts: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Vladimir and Estragon; Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The passage quoted above continues: “Why am I not marching to the philosophical front lines, like he is? Why am I not doing my bit?” Do you see Exodus as a political novel, an effort to do your bit on the philosophical frontlines?
The philosophical frontline demands a philosophical response to the crisis of neoliberalism – the crisis that so exercises W. and Lars – not a literary response. Exodus only describes that philosophical frontline, as it is imagined by two very isolated and marginal individuals; their frontline might not be real, or, at best, might be only an exercise in wistful thinking – that philosophy might really intervene in some way in our present condition.
The novel laments the death of the university, the way the humanities are being stripped and made to turn toward application. Lars laments that his academic books, judged by W. to be terrible, “meet with perfect silence, perfect indifference”. Is the fundamental tragedy of Exodus the fact that, in the absence of a functioning university, Lars has had to assume the role of his own judge, recording without protest W.’s admonishments of his fraudulence and actually putting them into print?
A great question! W. and Lars often evince the desire to be judged – to be told off, corrected. They are like children who purposely test the rules in order to be punished. But no punishment comes. No judgement. W.’s and Lars’s scholarly labours are ignored by the academy. So they judge each other’s work instead – W. through insulting Lars, and Lars through the writing of the trilogy. This judgement has to be relentless, because it is never definitive – neither W. nor Lars takes the other to have the authority of judgement that the institution might have had. W. will carry on insulting Lars, and Lars will carry on writing his blog about W. because the academy has other things on its mind.
You wrote a widely-read literary manifesto announcing the death of literature. Do you consider this death of literature, like the death of the university, as a symptom of neoliberal capitalism? Or is it simply a case of formal exhaustion?
For me, the rise of neoliberalism as an economic model means that the conditions under which literary modernism appeared now lie behind us. Culture has become more horizontal, less elitist, and more accommodated to capitalism. The result is the incorporation of literary fiction into a vast entertainment industry. True, there is a thriving ecology of independent presses, and the extraordinary bubble, particularly in the USA, of creative writing courses at university. But the former are marginal, and the latter may burst. For me, the question becomes how to incorporate the marginality of literature into fiction without lapsing into defeatism. This is joined, for me, with the question of how we might admit the triumph of neoliberalism, without forgetting that there was once the possibility of a future other than the one that lies before us now.
Citing works by Enrique Vilas-Mata, Thomas Bernhard and Roberto Bolaño, you conclude your manifesto by suggesting that the only thing left for literature to do is to explore its own passing, to mourn itself. Could you speak about your own work in this context?
In my own work, I try to pose the questions I mentioned, concerning marginality and neoliberalism, not simply at the level of content, but at the level of form: in the unusual narrative structure of my trilogy that you mentioned earlier. W. is someone who believes in the power of philosophy, of literature, of politics, more than his frenemy Lars does. Lars satirizes W.’s hyperbole, his extravagant power of belief, but also celebrates it. Lars presents W.’s enthusiasms as derisory, laughable, but also as somehow admirable. My work mourns the passing of a certain conception of philosophy, literature and politics; the passing of a certain hope. But remembering what was once possible is itself a form of hope, and a writing which mourns is still a kind of writing.
Lars Iyer’s Exodus is available now.