Spurious and I: an Interview
What is Spurious all about?
The novel relates the adventures of two would-be intellectuals, W. and Lars, who have an enthusiasm for the thought and literature of what they call ‘Old Europe’. They meet in their hometowns (Plymouth, Newcastle), undertake a foreign trip (to Freiburg) and head off to various parts of Britain, discussing matters by turn profound and trivial.
Spurious is also a story of ideas - the apocalypse, the Messiah and so on - and writers, Kafka, Rosenzweig and others. And then there’s the damp in Lars’s flat, which has its own story, like the decrepit landscapes the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr likes to film.
Tell me more about the characters of the novel.
There are really only two characters in Spurious: W., Jewish in origin, but a Catholic convert, who teaches in a college in Plymouth, and Lars, Danish-Indian in origin, and a Hindu, who teaches in a university in Newcastle. These friends and collaborators have a strong interest in philosophy and literature, but also a sense of inadequacy with respect to the great figures in these fields. W. thinks of Lars as a kind of failed protégé, who has been utterly unable to deliver on the task W. had set him, that is, to spur W. on to think original and relevant philosophical thoughts. What the characters have in common is a fascination with Old Europe, which names, for them, a kind of paradise, where certain ideas are taken seriously and form part of the intellectual conversations of an age. They look to figures like Kafka and Rosenzweig as exemplars of philosophical and literary commitment.
Why does ‘Old Europe’ mean so much to the characters?
Figures like Kafka and Rosenzweig, who W. and Lars admire, belonged to a culture that took ideas seriously, a culture in which intellectual life was valued, even lionized. Theirs was a period of great authors, and great ideas. The Britain of W. and Lars – the neoliberalised Britain of the 2000s – is very different. Their culture is not an intellectual one. It is not elitist – dfferences between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture have long since been erased. The charisma which surrounded older intellectual figures has disappeared. There is no longer an intransigent vanguard, no longer a securely reactionary bourgeois morality, no longer an academicist establishment for artists and thinkers to rail against. Culture, now, is populist and globalised. The high seriousness of modernism can only seem a posture. W., and, in particular, Lars, are part of this world. Lars seems to relish it: he reads gossip magazines (perhaps only to annoy W.), he plays Doom on his mobile phone. W. is more inclined to struggle against it.
Contemporary Britain isn’t greatly interested in ideas, in particular the ideas that interest W. and Lars, which belong to an entirely different, Old European, context. Nor is contemporary Britain interested in the integrity of Old European thinkers and artists, who seem to embody what they think and create, to live it, and to do so at a distance from conventional measures of success.
This kind of integrity – the attempt to live a serious life as a writer or a thinker – is something which the British have long been disinclined to admire. ‘Oh come off it!’, is the response of the Briton to continental seriousness. ‘What rot!’; ‘We don’t have to bother with any of that!’ – this kind of deflationary chirpiness can be a tonic when faced with pomposity or pretension. But it is too quick a response, I think, to continental attempts to address and remedy our situation.
This very British attitude is something which the critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici discovers in the brand of literary realism characteristic of the contemporary novel, which ‘yields an impoverished view of life’. The work of celebrated contemporary novelists has made the world, he says, ‘smaller and meaner’. In my view, the genial self-confidence of the British novel – of ‘Establishment Literary Fiction’, in Mark Thwaite’s formulation – disconnects it from the disorienting conditions in which many of us work and live.
Does this tie in with your claims in your Manifesto about the contemporary British literary fiction?
It does. Josipovici worries that contemporary literary fiction impoverishes life. I agree with him. But I make another claim in my Manifesto: that life itself, under the conditions of neoliberalism, is becoming impoverished – and that existing forms of literary fiction have difficulties responding to and registering this impoverishment. This leads me to conclude that contemporary literary fiction risks disengagement from the literary traditions, of which literary modernism is a crucial part, due to British parochialism, but also that literary modernism itself will have to be remade in the face of contemporary conditions, due to the disastrous effects of neoliberalism. There is a further twist: the marginality of literary fiction, the fact that it is but one strand in our multi-braided culture, means that it may no longer have a role that is central enough to respond to its own crisis. That is, its marginality, which means the impossibility of taking itself seriously as literature, means that it cannot rise to its greatest challenge. Contemporary literary fiction, for me, has been displaced from the traditions that feed into it, and from the conditions of these traditions, to the extent that we can say it is premised on the death of literature. Whether we acknowledge it or not, as readers, as writers, we are posthumous with respect to literature. We’ve come too late. We can no longer believe in literature. But there is a ray of hope: once you accept this non-belief, once you affirm it in a particular way, then something may be possible.
Is this what Spurious tries to do?
I hope so. For me, Spurious marks its own distance from the conditions in which the great works of literature and philosophy of Old Europe were written. You can see this at the level of the content of the work: W. and Lars occupy the world of the present, and the world that valued the ideas they value, the world that sustained those ideas and nurtured their production, has disappeared. Much of the humour of the book comes from the fact that its characters are men out of time. But perhaps it also makes itself visible at the level of form: the way in which the novel largely eschews plot and character development - in which it ‘circles the drain’, as one critic has put it.
Isn’t this rather a gloomy view? Won’t it lead to depressing and unreadable literary fiction?
I hope not! Spurious is first of all a comic novel, a novel of black humour. Black humour, in general, has been defined in terms of its focus on the darker sides of life, on despair and death, but that does not quite capture it. Comic vision is often conservative, depending on a stable value-system, on an unshakable order of the world. A whole strain of genial British comedy is of this kind. Think of Dickens’s Mr Pickwick, or Mr Toad of Toad Hall, or of the friends who mess about in boats in Jerome L. Jerome’s novel: these characters are amiable eccentrics at whose foibles and quirks we can poke gentle fun. W. and Lars might seem to be lovable fools of this sort. But the comedy of their banter about murder, suicide, violent death and so on, their penchant for exaggeration and grotesquerie, as well as their fascination with financial and climactic apocalypse, is meant to stick in the craw. It is meant to capture a genuine sense of posthumousness that they share, and we, as readers and writers interested in literature, share with them. I try to have it both ways: the novel is supposed to be humorous, funny, in the manner of British TV comedy like Steptoe and Son, or British films like Withnail and I. It is supposed to be entertaining. But it is also supposed to be troubling, conveying the sense of the end of an older order of the world, with its accompanying values.
Spurious doesn’t have much of a plot. Was that intentional?
There isn’t. The characters are continually led to confront their failure, in a manner reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Beckett has his characters bicker and argue to pass the time - anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay". So too with W. and Lars. The ‘terrible silence’ in question is the death of Old Europe, the death of literature. This is coupled, in the novel, with the results of neoliberalism: to financial and climactic apocalypse. The characters’ philosophical interest in messianism (in the messianism of Kafka and Rosenzweig) is an attempt to resist this silence. It is fitting, therefore, that messianism is presented in Spurious as a kind of speech – as exactly that kind of speech which takes place between W. and Lars.
Spurious is part of a trilogy ...
It is indeed. Dogma was published earlier this year, and sees the characters journeying through the southern states of the USA, as well as returning to their old haunts in Britain. Exodus, which will be published early next year, is an attempt at a final reckoning with neo-liberal Britain, and sees the characters take a final stand against the closure of W.’s philosophy department.
Interview for Lee Rourke & students at Kingston University