Lars Iyer: "How refreshing it is to be insulted"

An interview with the cult author about Exodus, the final novel in his trilogy about philosophy and writing.

W. reads me a passage from one of Guy Debord’s films:

It must be admitted that none of this is very clear. It is a completely typical drunken monologue, with its incomprehensible allusions and tiresome delivery. With its vain phrases that do not await response and its overbearing explanations. And its silences.

‘That’s how you should preface everything you write’, W. says.

(Lars Iyer, Exodus, 2013)

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Exodus is the final novel in the trilogy by philosophy lecturer Lars Iyer, which began with the Not the Booker Prize-shortlisted Spurious (2011) and continued with Dogma, published last year by Melville House. All three follow two academics and would-be authors – one called Lars Iyer, the other W. – as they attempt to cope with the closure of university philosophy departments and what they perceive as the wider, terminal decline of European culture, bound by their inability to overcome their own creative and political impotence.

The trilogy has attracted a cult following amongst readers who empathise with the characters’ conviction that no future philosophy could be as influential as that of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Weil; no literature as resonant as that of Kafka, Beckett or Thomas Bernhard; no filmmaking as visceral as that of Werner Herzog or Béla Tarr. The other reason for their success is Iyer’s skill in distilling this despair: where others may have produced long, hand-wringing tomes as they tried to diagnose the reasons for literature’s diminished status, Iyer boils the situation down to two frustrated friends bickering – the main use for W’s understanding of Western philosophy and culture is to insult narrator Lars in a series of harsh, hilarious ways.

Juliet Jacques: What made you choose yourself and W. as the central characters in this trilogy? Did you feel that their (your) impotence was emblematic of the position of the would-be writer-philosopher under late capitalism?

Lars Iyer: The books started as a blog which I wrote to amuse myself and my friends, especially in difficult times – not on a personal level but more broadly. I wanted to present the characters and their friendship – or frenmity  – within a political and intellectual context. My characters, W. and Lars, are friends because they share an intuition that there's something wrong with the world, and, however foolishly, they aim to address that wrong, if only within the space of their friendship.

Are they doomed from the start?

I don't think so. The novels never show them falling out; their friendship is the thread that runs through the trilogy. This friendship is anything but doomed; it is based, it is true, on an awareness of a certain failure – of both characters having failed in some way – but that awareness is also its source of life. W. and Lars joke and laugh about their failure. And since, in their eyes, they’re continually failing, there is always more to joke about. To that extent, their friendship is full of hope – endless hope. Failure never has the last word.

And the hope is not insulted by W's insistence of putting the entire Western canon at the service of belittling Lars ...

Lars narrates the novel. That very act of narration shows, I think, the enjoyment that he has in being insulted in such a virtuosic manner. W.'s insults are magnificent – they’re so inventive, so alive! Lars, as narrator, feels that vivacity. How refreshing it is to be insulted in a time when we’re all supposed to be so cloyingly nice to one another! And how wonderful to be paid the compliment of a finely-crafted personal insult!

My favourite is the placing of Lars below Diogenes [the Greek philosopher whose name became associated with self-neglect and hoarding] in Dogma.

Diogenes is a very noble figure – a man who lives firmly according to his principles. For W., Lars is someone who lives according to no principles and is almost entirely unwitting. But, for W., Lars has an importance in our age equivalent to that which Diogenes had in his. Lars registers the horror of our age in his guts, as W. puts it. W.’s task is to understand this horror, to render it explicit, to understand the ‘message’ that Lars is, and to pass this message on.

Is writing futile? If so, why do it?

I don't think writing is futile. There's something immensely important about the sheer act of communication. Your question puts me in mind of what one critic said about Beckett: that, in his work, everything is subjected to critique except for the desire to communicate. That’s the one thing that is unquestioned in Beckett, and still holds over his most abject characters: the urge to express, the urge to have your say.

Why is this unquestioned?

Because Beckett’s work, and literature in general, depends on the desire to communicate, which is to say, on a kind of hope.

What would happen to literature if we questioned that desire itself?

Even if white space – silence – is incorporated into a literary work, it is still part of a more general attempt to communicate, in which there is a sender, a message, and an addressee. Any ostensible break in communication is also part of communication.

That recalls Stewart Home's Art Strike – suggesting that the most radical (or career-furthering) thing that an artist can do is refuse to create.

Even when John Cage incorporates silence into his work – or rather, moments, such as in 4’33”, when ambient sound is allowed to speak – this takes place within a context of an act of communication. Even noise, in which nothing is being communicated, can be part of a message.

Your manifesto, published at The White Review, traces a line from the medieval period, when writers were almost entirely aloof from their societies, to the present, where social media and other technological advances make it almost impossible for writers to maintain any detachment. Is this level of integration a barrier to literary production?

For me, it was very difficult to enter the world of social media. I had a blog, but it was anonymous and one of the great advantages of blogging was that the assessment of what you wrote did not depend on some preconception about your identity, on the part of the reader. However, when it comes to writing fiction for an independent publisher, you are, I think, obligated to enter into modern techniques of publicity, which involve social media. In so doing, I asked myself how I could maintain, across a number of media platforms, a persona that was consistent with what I wrote. Maurice Blanchot, the French novelist and critic, achieved that consistency by refusing to submit photos to his publisher’s files, and granting only one interview in his life. I admire that achievement; but, of course, my writing is of a very different kind. Still, the question is a troubling one for me: how do you deal with social media, if you are not going to withdraw from it altogether?

I shared this position entirely when I started using Twitter, especially as I wrote this Guardian column in which the assertion of differing facets of my personality was a tactical attempt at rendering stereotypes of transsexual women as Stepford wives untenable. As I got drawn in, I found it impossible to maintain a consistent persona, and then I quite enjoyed its resignation, and the space to be flippant, or to talk about the unexpected.

It was a stroke of good luck that my characters can be trivial and foolish, so being consistent with what I write is, to that extent, no problem! But the challenge when it came to my public persona was to marry the "low" cultural concerns of my characters, their bickerings and foolishnesses, with an appropriate seriousness.

I'd just like to haul you up on “appropriate seriousness”, especially given how comic these novels are …

In various ways, I’ve sought, in the novels, to register the miseries of those who suffer, or who have suffered, as a result of capitalism. I’ve tried to puncture the surface of the trilogy with quite straight accounts of the conditions of cotton-mill workers in nineteenth-century Manchester, or of precarious workers, failed asylum seekers and slum-dwellers in today’s neoliberal world. I’ve even tried to anticipate the suffering to come – the horrors that will be unleashed because of climate change. This suffering and misery demands seriousness, and a fervent desire for political change.

I'm glad you've said that – I grew up in the Nineties, after the fall of the USSR, post-Thatcher and Reagan, when there was a sense that we had survived the worst excesses of ideological politics, and in which irony and flippancy became very strong cultural currents – after 9/11 and the global financial crisis, this no longer felt appropriate. Does a similar sense permeate your work?

There was that dreadful idea in the Nineties that history had ended – that we'd reached an ideal form of societal organisation, and that everything was fundamentally okay. It was the "Sunday of Life"; time for irony and flippancy. History began again after 9/11; the party was over; time to put irony, flippancy and other toys away… But that’s how it seemed only to those who weren’t paying attention. Things were always serious! Things are serious. I do my best to show this in my novels.

Has the insistence of liberal democracies on ignoring rather than censoring literature effectively deprived literature of its power? If so, do you think this was intentional?

Certainly, if we look at the experiences of countries of the former Eastern bloc, literature had enormous value under periods of direct censorship. This value seemed to disappear almost as soon as capitalism was allowed free reign in these countries. Capitalism can destroy all seriousness. Literary and artistic dissent are very easily accommodated (you only have to read Sinéad Murphy’s The Art Kettle for a sense of this).

Across the trilogy, you seem to suggest that the greatest barrier to a meaningful, relevant literature of the present is the literature of the past, which had a very different relationship with politics and wider culture.

In some sense. For me, what writers up until the period of late modernism could rely upon was the prestige implicit in the idea of literature. What contemporary writers, in my view, need to contend with, is the marginality of literature within our culture. Kafka did not believe in religion but he could still believe in art. That same belief in art today, if not grotesque, is based upon a great capacity for denial.

Have the new forms of the 20th century – from cinema to video games – taken potential writers and audiences away from literature? How can literature in the Modernist tradition claim to be the harbinger of new ideas when there are so many newer forms?

High Modernist literature employs some techniques found in cinema – montage for example. One task might be to incorporate some of the techniques implicit in blogging into literary practice, not simply to enrich literature but to bring it down a peg or two. For me, that’s what I would seek in a contemporary work of fiction – methods of communication which are similar to what I find in the new media.

One problem with that, I've found, is that this media can move so quickly as to pre-empt literary production, which is traditionally a slow practice. To give an example: in summer 2011, I started to plan a novel which would be written as a cacophony of blogs, some for the mainstream media, some independent, in dialogue with each other, about how the mainstream media used the concept of free speech to preserve its own power. Before I even got as far as devising the plot from this, the Guardian published on the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone and we got this rapid discourse that led us to the Leveson Inquiry, and I soon abandoned the novel because it could never match the swiftly unfolding reality.

I see that, but new media are not only about speed. One thing that blogging has facilitated is people, who had no other access to channels of communication, writing whatever they wanted and finding an audience for it. For me, new media provide a way of discovering and legitimating your own strangeness, of pursuing your interests and desires in public…

So maybe, we can say that blogging does interesting things to the ‘time’ of writing, of literary production. For me, what made the form of a rolling blog so exciting thing was that even I didn't know where it would go. That gives it something in common with the 19th century serialised novels – the reader couldn’t skip ahead to see where the text would go, and perhaps the writer didn’t know either.

That's very interesting. For me, certainly, composing fiction using a blog allows me to gauge reader responses on a daily basis: I can see what they ‘favourite’ or quote elsewhere. I enjoy the sense of being part of something, with my readers, even if I have never allowed comments on my blog. I’m sure that the sense of writing for a community – a community that I have constituted through my blog – must have a significant effect on the direction of that writing.

So what might come to epitomise contemporary literary fiction, or change it, is this dialectic between writers and their readers?

Perhaps what blogging encourages is a kind of autofiction, a variation on autobiography or memoir, where the author becomes a character him- or herself, a performer in some sense. In this way, you can foreground a kind of imposture in the very act of being an author. You can undercut your own status as a would-be auteur with all the high seriousness this can entail. This is part of attesting to the marginality of literature in contemporary culture, and the inappropriateness of older senses of "being an author".

Are there any contemporary authors you particularly admire?

Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers, published in response to 9/11, was a magnificent work – very telling in its use of a kind of black humour. I also wonder how another post-9/11 artwork, Scott Walker's The Drift, might inspire writers – in its fragmentary lyrics, in its rapid shifts in tone from horror to humour, from obscure historical references to direct cries and whispers.

After modernism and post-modernism, can you see any way forward for literature? Or was post-modernism's self-consciousness and self-referentialism a dead end?

A quick answer, and perhaps a silly one: perhaps post-modernism is premised upon the support of the university – upon academia and institutional validation, and upon the prestige of the idea of "literature". This may be naive, but I dream of a ‘literature’ arising from people’s discovery of strange things about themselves before an audience. I still find a kind of literary height in Hélène Cixous’ work, for example, which holds itself above the ordinary world – or perhaps my ordinary, British world. I have always found her painful to read because of this – because I would like such a height to be possible, because I want literature to be exalted, but feel such height to be impossible, and for literature to be exhausted. I want to believe, but I can’t believe...

The work of Art Spiegelman, whom Iyer admires. Photo: Getty

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism