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Literary Melancholy

Lars Iyer interviewed by David Winters.

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3:AM: I want to start with Spurious, and in particular with the passage from Dionys Mascolo that W. sends to Lars from his notebook. The quotation appears from nowhere, without commentary, but somehow the simple fact that it’s suddenly there captures the joy and the sadness of what the book wants to say. For me at least, this was one of those rare moments in reading when a book seems to show you its ‘soul’. I’ll repeat most of it here:

‘One writes for the disadjusted… that is to say, for one’s friends, and less for the friends one has than for the innumerable unknown people who have the same life as us, who roughly and crudely understand the same things, are able to accept or must refuse the same, and who are in the same state of powerlessness and official silence.’

Lars and W. don’t attempt any exegesis of this, but I’m wondering whether you would. The quote elicits a sense of recognition that seems central to the experience of reading Spurious. For readers of Blanchot and Bataille it might resonate with certain other remarks about community. Of course, it could also say something about the sort of literary community one finds on the internet. So, first of all, what are your thoughts on literature and community?

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LI: Dionys Mascolo was one of the group of political activist friends that met in Marguerite Duras’s flat in the rue Saint-Benoît from the 1940s onwards. The group, which included Blanchot and which was notorious for having opposed the French colonial war in Algeria, sought to galvanize the non-Party Left. Mascolo, like the other members of the group, never gave up on the idea of communism, which he understood as a radical egalitarianism characterized by less alienating forms of communication. The friendships practiced between the members of the group were to exemplify these less-alienating forms. But Mascolo also attributed particular importance to literature, as exhibiting an inspiring kind of communication. In his 1953 book, Communism, he argues that practices of friendship, and also the work of literature, point the way towards the kind of social relations for which the communist revolution must strive.

The quotation that you have pulled from Spurious comes from Mascolo’s Communism. Mascolo is addressing his friends, and also the disorganized non-Party Left that, he hoped, shared his and his friends’ frustrations with official politics and need for ‘truer’ forms of communication. The passage is very moving. When it appears in my novel, it might be interpreted as a manifesto for W., who is always talking of friendship, and what a band of loyal friends might be able to achieve. Or it might, of course, be one of the many ways in which the narrator ironically marks the distance between W.’s dreams of friendship and the friendship that he actually has with Lars. Then again, the passage might also be read as something of a mission statement for Spurious itself, which was written by one who is ‘disadjusted’ and for those who are ‘disadjusted,’ written perhaps as a kind of reassurance that there are others ‘who think the same things at the same time,’ to quote Thom Yorke’s song. But I cannot help but read the quotation more generally, in the context of the disappearance of forms of solidarity, forms of politics, that were still possible when Mascolo was writing his book.

Today, of course, there is no real Party of the Left, and there is only a very weak assortment of non-Party leftist groups. For the most part, we are now outside of the possibility of real political intervention. To be sure, we all have friends who share our political convictions. But these convictions remain largely privately held rather than publicly attested to.

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You mention Bataille and Blanchot. It is true their notions of community are very close to Mascolo’s. Blanchot particularly took part in many politically-motivated projects with Mascolo, most notably La Revue Internationale. Their concerns were, in many ways, the same. What is the relationship between ‘literary responsibility’ and ‘political responsibility’, Blanchot wonders in the ‘Proposal’ he sent to his fellow participants in La Revue Internationale. Both, he says, ‘engage us [...] absolutely, as in a sense does the disparity between them.’

Literature and community: as I read this phrase in your question, and reflect on Blanchot and Bataille, I think of literary communities such as that which gathered around the Athaeneum back in Jena, such as the Surrealists, such as Bataille’s Socratic College, and, following on from that, the communitarian demand to which Bataille sought to respond in his great wartime writings. I think, of course, of the Saint-Benoît Group, of their activities in the Resistance, of their struggle against French colonialism and against de Gaulle’s unconstitutional return to power in 1958, and of their participation in the Events of May 1968. And I think of Blanchot’s homage to Mascolo – For Friendship – in which Blanchot reflects on the failure of La Revue Internationale (‘if the idea proves to be utopian, then we should be willing to fail as utopians’).

This is a formidable legacy. But it is one that seems to me to me to have little to do with our current situation, and perhaps little to do with Spurious! The question of the relationship between literature and community is of interest now only to scholars. And it does interest me. But I wonder, in poring over the relevant texts, whether I am not in the position of the figure in Dürer’s Melancholia, who sits puzzled and bemused, among discarded things, things that he can no longer understand. The cultural world that made sense of the rue Saint-Benoît group, and the whole dimension of political and aesthetic optimism that belonged to it, seems to have disappeared.

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When I think of what Mascolo and Blanchot were looking for, in their reflections on the relationship between ‘literary responsibility’ and ‘political responsibility’, I feel overwhelmed, not only by what Walter Benjamin called ‘left wing melancholy’, but also by a kind of literary melancholy. It is not simply that the relationship between literature and community has collapsed, nor even that literature is no longer in contact with politics. For me, the meaning of literature itself – the very possibility of literature – has collapsed. Literature, like left-wing politics, seems impossible.

You mention the internet. When I first began to blog, I dreamed of realising a contemporary version of Blanchot’s and Mascolo’s never-achieved ambition for the multi-authored La Revue Internationale. I wanted to consider the way in which culture registers massive changes in our world – the impending environmental disaster, the becoming-routine of financial catastrophe, accelerated globalization, the rise of China and India as superpowers, the triumph of neoliberalism. That was my ‘hope in the dark,’ to quote the title of one of Rebecca Solnit’s books. But it was a hope that I never had the ability to fulfil.

3:AM: Spurious seems deeply concerned with rhythms of exhaustion and renewal. Or perhaps ‘renewal’ would be the wrong word! But Lars and W. look like quite untimely figures, less in tune with their own age than with one that’s already ended. ‘Old Europe’ crops up a lot, like a sort of lost world whose inhabitants, says W., ‘live in history, as we do not.’ What exactly has happened to history, in the world of the book? Are W. and Lars, like T.S. Eliot, in search of a past they can shore up against their ruins? If so, does their attitude towards that past differ at all from more conservative versions of cultural pessimism?

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LI: W.’s and Lars’s Old Europe is an amalgam of cultures and traditions characteristic of continental Europe in the last century. It encompasses philosophy and literature, as well as various religious traditions and left-wing political practices.

W. and Lars are particularly impressed by what they think of as Old European commitment. They hanker after the seriousness of Old European thinkers and artists, who were prepared to risk their happiness and reputation for what they believed in. Here, Dionys Mascolo is exemplary. He was said to be full of generosity to his friends, full of outrage at political foes. W. and Lars also admire the Italian thinker-activists of the ‘70s, and the contemporary Hungarian film director Béla Tarr, who all have something of the same ethical concern and personal integrity about them.

But, for W. and Lars, there are no figures who embody Old Europe more strongly than Kafka and Rosenzweig. No generation was more serious and committed than theirs. Their intellectual world was marked by a particular interest in Jewish religious tradition. Along with Scholem, Benjamin, Buber, Bloch and others, they were inspired to rethink the hidden, utopian dimension of Jewish messianism. Despairing of their times, they looked instead to the creative interruption of history that messianism promises, to the break in the chain of causality that messianism effects.

Some of these thinkers attributed a political role to the idea of messianism. Commenting on his own Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin wrote: ‘Karl Marx and all that nineteenth century socialism is but a different form of messianic faith’. For Benjamin, the socialist hope of a classless, egalitarian society secularizes the older, religious idea. In his Theses, Benjamin argues that a renewed religious reflection on messianism and its peculiar temporality might reinvigorate political thought. Which makes clear the link between the Jewish figures mentioned in Spurious, and many of the other thinkers quoted by W. and Lars. They are all thinkers of the ‘past’ in a certain sense, thinkers of Old Europe. They belong to particular traditions, be they religious or political. But they are also thinkers of the future, in that they anticipate a disruptive, creative moment that breaks into our present and sets us on another course. They thus have a shared conviction that the times in which they live are apocalyptic, in the original double sense of that word: marked by crisis and by promise, by despair and by hope.

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A sense of despair, and an accompanying sense of hope, is what is missing in the Britain of W. and Lars. As Scholem makes clear in his writings, recourse to messianic thought of the kind Kafka and Rosenzweig and their generation articulate, usually marks a period of historical crisis. Messianic hope is a desperate hope, a hope in the dark. For the characters of Spurious, this darkness takes the form of the looming financial crisis (the book is set before the collapse of the banks) and the coming climatic disaster. Their messianism lies in something apparently feeble: in the human ability to speak, to converse, their appreciation for which is drawn from the generation of Old European Jews whose thought they admire.

3:AM: If their world is little more than a wound left by the loss of ‘what is missing’, W. and Lars are at least aware of that loss, or that absence (as, in a Socratic sense, they seem keenly aware of their ‘idiocy’). Does Spurious suggest there’s a hidden grace in this kind of awareness, or a negative knowledge that can be extracted from it? I’m thinking here of when W. memorably urges Lars to ‘experience your failure’.

Maybe failure, as these characters suffer it, has a crucial connection to spuriousness. To be ‘spurious’ also seems similar to being ‘disadjusted’, in the sense that both words signal a situation of not being equal to something, or not measuring up to it. Many of the characters’ conversations concern their efforts to measure themselves against some missing symbol, some lost object. Re-reading the book before our interview, I was struck, again, by these recurrent acts of measurement. There’s the bit where they compare their friendship to that of Blanchot and Levinas; it falls short, of course. Elsewhere, Rosenzweig is said to be ‘the measure of all things’, to them. In each case, Lars and W. try, and fail, to coincide with some third term that’s irretrievably absent. Yet their failure somehow ‘preserves’ that absence, or makes it obliquely present to them. For example, doesn’t their mutual recognition that they are, together, ‘Brod and Brod’, not Kafka, nonetheless conjure up Kafka as a kind of pure possibility?

In short, Spurious seems to have quite a complex interest in the value of failure, and the potential of the negative. Do you have any further thoughts on this?

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LI: Failure is an inevitable aspect of the life of the would-be thinker, especially if, like W. and Lars, you hold that philosophical thinking bears upon what matters most.

You suggest that W.’s and Lars’s awareness of their failure might conceal a ‘hidden grace’, a kind of ‘knowledge’. In some ways, this is true, but only really when it comes to the realm of the ethical. W.’s and Lars’s awareness of their failure does not make them anything more than the failed thinkers that they are, but it does give them a (rather vague and pathos-ridden) desire to do good.

But then again, this ethical achievement presupposes another kind of failure, the ethical failure that comes from our inevitably falling short of the responsibility we have in respect of other people. W. and Lars are great enthusiasts for Levinas, whose fundamental idea is of the interpersonal relationship as asymmetrical: the Other is always ‘higher’ than I am, and always demands more from me than I can possibly give.

For Levinas, as also for Blanchot, we have each of us already been chosen by the Other. We have each of us been elected, and found wanting in this election. We have each of us been tested and we have failed in the test. Failure is, therefore, universal. Levinas borrows Zossima’s formulation from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Each one of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all.’ For Levinas, each one of us is a messiah to the extent that each one of us has been chosen to serve and to save other people. But most of us have failed to respond to this call. We are therefore both chosen and fallen. We are therefore guilty before the Other, guilty before all the human beings in the world.

What, then, of W. and Lars? Is there anything of what you call ‘hidden grace’ in their awareness of their failure? Might their general sense of failure, as thinkers and as friends, be understood as the beginning of wisdom, if only because it preserves a trace of the messianism that Levinas believes to be our universal condition?

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Perhaps yes. Perhaps W.’s and Lars’s awareness of their failure does give them a kind of ethical wisdom. On the other hand, W.’s and Lars’s awareness of failure consists in very little more than an endless acknowledgement of their failure. They do not act, like, say, Mascolo or the Italian philosophers they admire. They might know that they have fallen short of their constitutive messianism, but they have done very little about it. If they are, considered from the perspective of the tradition of the thinkers they admire, at the beginning of wisdom, ethical and philosophical, then they do their best to ruin this beginning. W. and Lars have failed – they know that. But they will only ever fail, over and over again. Every beginning is a false beginning. This is why Spurious never settles into what we would normally understand to be a plot, instead revolving over and again around the same concerns. The novel can only take the form of an endless circling around failure. It can only take the form of spuriousness…

But that might be its success. If the characters fail, Spurious, I hope, succeeds in remaining with that failure, preserving a distance between W. and Lars, and the traditions of thought they admire. ‘Since the destruction of the Temple, the divine inspiration has been withdrawn from the prophets, and given to madmen and children’, it says in the Talmud. W. and Lars are these madmen, which is to say, fallen prophets (though not false ones, perhaps). And Spurious is a fallen book of prophecy – the only kind of such book there can now be.

3:AM: I want to turn now to the nonfiction piece you’ve recently written; your ‘Literary Manifesto after the end of Literature and Manifestos’. There, the present predicament of art, or at least writing, is figured in terms that might tie in with some of what you’ve said about the failure of thinking. There’s a sense, again, of a certain ‘tradition’ that’s now grown irreparably distant. Summing this up, you say,

‘What was literature? It was the literature of Diderot, Rimbaud, Walser, Gogol, Hamsun, Bataille and most of all Kafka: revolutionary and tragic, prophetic and solitary, posthumous, incompatible, radical and paradoxical, a dwelling for oracles and outsiders, it was defiant and pathetic, it sought to break and alter, to describe, yes, but in describing, shatter; it was outside the culture looking in, and inside the culture looking out.’

So, what is lost is not just a roster of canonical names but also a set of styles, or strategies, or ways of seeing. You quote Pessoa on the paradoxical task of extracting beauty from an ‘incapacity to extract beauty from life’. Yet these days maybe we fail to lay claim even to that kind of failure. Despite this, you manage to move from mapping an absolute impasse (one where ‘even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us’) to providing prescriptions or, as you more modestly put it, ‘pointers’, for a literature after the end of literature. Unlike some other manifestos, the piece doesn’t describe death and rebirth (I think we’d be wrong to call it that) so much as death, decomposition, then, in your words, the search for ‘that last inviolate bit of bone’. I’d like to hear more about the motives behind this article. How do you think it fits with, for instance, the manifestos of an earlier literary Modernism?

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LI: You refer to the literary manifesto I wrote, published in Post Road and made available in the online version of The White Review. Writing a literary manifesto today is a laughably belated act. What is there to take a stand against? What does the future of the novel matter? Who reads, anyway? And who reads, who even wants to read, anything new? Ridiculous as it is, however, I hope that my manifesto plausibly diagnoses and responds to a real change that has occurred with respect to our relationship to literature.

In Vila-Matas’s Montano’s Malady, originally published in 2002, the eponymous protagonist feels trapped by literature. All of his experience is mediated through the great books that he has read. The world itself seems a mesh of literary tropes and associations. How will he cure himself? The search for his cure provides the comedy of the novel, because the cure itself is cut through by his malady. Overwhelmed by literary sickness in one city, Montano catches a train to somewhere else. But, as he admits, ‘this is a very literary thing to do’. And he is right. The move seems borrowed from the repertoire of great writers.

For me, the truth about Montano’s sickness is that literature, what is called ‘literature’, has very little to do with our world. Something has happened. Something has come between us and the world of literature we admire. And that ‘something’ has to be acknowledged if literature is to avoid becoming a kind of repertoire routine, like The Nutcracker at Christmas.

Reading Vila-Matas, I thought at once of Sebald’s novels. The first three of these I greatly admire. But not Austerlitz, which is so full of almost kitschily ‘literary’ details that it is really laughable. The characters wander about, solemnly ‘catching trains’ in the manner of Montano. It seems a simulacrum of seriousness. The pull-quotes on the paperback of Austerlitz tell us that it is concerned with great themes. But I find much of it fake and hollow, especially when compared with Sebald’s earlier writings.

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Much supposedly ambitious literary fiction seems to have similar characteristics. In attempting to distance itself from our marketized, neoliberalized, liberal-democratized world, it has become as stylized as bad high-fantasy. I want to read books that are commensurable with this world, in content and form, books that have abandoned a whole repertoire of literary gestures but which still, in some way, respond to what literature once was. I want to read books that make a problem of their inheritance, a problem of coming somehow after literature. I want to read books that register a sense of their own belatedness.

No more Solemnity. No more Great Themes written in a Grand Style. But no pastiche, either. No parasitism on older forms. I’m not making some claim here for ‘the postmodern novel’, even if Montano’s Malady might appear to be one of these – what with its narratives nested within narratives, its unreliable narrator, its exuberant playfulness. Perhaps Montano’s Malady is a postmodern novel. But it is the particular way that it reckons with the legacy of Modernism which interests me.

Reviewers have expressed frustration with the sudden transitions in Montano’s Malady, with the uncertainty of its ‘base’ reality and the tricks that it seems to play on the reader. But this frustrating pell-mell is, I think, a sign of the broader changes that mark our time: for whatever reason, and we can speculate about this, it is not only a certain literary style, but literature itself, that is no longer believable.

Montano’s Malady is not a lament. It is not heavy-handed, like Austerlitz. It isn’t Solemn or Serious in a kitschy way. It is swift and light. It is funny. It belongs on our side of the great divide that separates us from figures like Kafka. But, for all that, Montano’s Malady does acknowledge this divide. It does negotiate its relationship with Modernism, with the past. It does situate itself with respect to Old Europe and the ‘narrative voice’ of Old Europe’s great writers. And it does all of this in the present, in our present.

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3:AM: W. and Lars are, like their ‘real life’ counterparts, employed (in their case, maybe not for much longer) as academics. Several of your recent blog posts, which I assume relate to either Dogma or Exodus, are explicitly concerned with what we could call ‘the space of the university’ – a space now in the final phase of being shut down or ‘restructured’ by capital. Against the brave new non-universities of neoliberalism, we’ve seen W. sketch out an alternative ideal, whose points of reference are both historical (ranging from the University in Exile of the ‘30s to a fabled generation of ‘Essex postgraduates’) and also speculative, or utopian.

You’ve suggested above that the current conjuncture denies literature its former relation to ‘literature’. Literature is then forced to operate without easy access to most of its former resources. (Although, under such conditions, maybe literature is merely made modern again. That claim would rest on a transhistorical definition of ‘Modernism’ as something like a ‘truth’ of literature, or an abstract possibility; a truth or a possibility that it can fall, or be forced, into greater or lesser alignment with at any given historical point).

Whether or not you agree with that, has something analogous to literature’s death happened to thought more broadly? The destruction of the university denies thought the apparent security of a stable context. In a sense, thought is then forced into homelessness. Yet is there any measure of freedom in that? I mean, the outlook is certainly bleak, but is it in any way apocalyptic, with the double force of that word as you’ve described it? How could it ever hold out any promise?

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LI: Exodus, the second sequel to Spurious (the first, Dogma, is coming out in February 2012, and hopefully Exodus will follow it a year later), is concerned particularly with the university, celebrating the legendary generation of Essex Postgraduates of which W. is supposed to have been part, and anticipating new forms of university (the University in Flight, the University of Speech) of which W. dreams. The ‘exodus’ of the title refers to a departure from the British university, with W. leading postgraduates as Moses did the children of Israel.

As always in these novels, I’m both satirising W. and his wild hyperbole, and celebrating his idealism. Of course, I admire the attempt to set up spaces of learning outside the university. But state-run institutions, for which the university remains the template, are for me quite necessary because of the discipline they impose on study. ‘Homeless’ thought is not much of a prospect, despite the various non- and para-academic spaces (blogs, open access publishing companies, etc.) that have opened up on the internet.

You mention that Modernism might have revealed the ‘truth’ of literature. I am cautious about such a view. For me, the name ‘Modernism’ is too strongly tied to a time, perhaps also to a place, to become trans-historical in the manner you suggest. I can never quite see how Modernism could lift itself from its conditions to become something like a messianic ‘promise’ of literature. I don’t see how this promise would work now, when, it seems to me, we have been removed from the conditions under which what we call ‘Modernism’ was possible.

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What does this remove amount to? Few people now read as they once did. This is part of it. A whole idea of culture has moved out of reach. This is another part of it, although it is probably the effect of something else. I think the answer might lie in Fredric Jameson’s diagnosis of ‘late capitalism’, or in the Italian Marxists’ claim that there has been a ‘step change’ in the degree to which life is subsumed by capital. And I am drawn to my favourite blogs – Steve Mitchelmore’s This Space among them – because they reflect on such changes. Kafka said, ‘There is infinite hope, but not for us’. I would say, ‘There is Modernism, but not as the condition of our literature’. And perhaps there is no literature either…

3:AM: Your blog has drawn attention to a recent academic article on ‘The Rebirth of the Nouveau Roman’. The author of this piece identifies – in you, Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and others – the revival of ‘a literary tradition whose formal aesthetics represent an internalization of crisis’. The paper also gives a good quasi-sociological summary of the ‘institutional apparatus of publishers and critical venues’ that has underscored much of this, mentioning the likes of Melville House, Dalkey Archive and The Quarterly Conversation.

The article raises some interesting questions. There certainly seem to be clear connections between Rourke, McCarthy and the nouveau roman. At times though, the term’s application looks a bit too elastic. I’m not confident I could agree with the paper’s description of Josipovici as a ‘practicing nouveau romancier’, for instance. In your case, I think I hear echoes of the nouveau roman when your (anti-)manifesto calls for ‘an unliterary plainness’. At the same time, the aims of that piece didn’t immediately put me in mind of, say, Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel. What’s more, Spurious itself often reminded me of David Markson, surely not someone so easily categorised.

When it comes to books, I find it easy enough to articulate what I’m against. Mark Thwaite’s phrase ‘Establishment Literary Fiction’ does a good job of pithily capturing that. But I’m not so sure I can express what unites the contemporary writers I admire. Perhaps more interestingly, I’m not entirely sure such a thing should be expressed. I’d be keen to hear how you feel, not just about the pros and cons of the perceived parallel with the nouveau roman, but about the value of any such categories, when they’re applied to contemporary writing.

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LI: Daniel Davis Wood’s argument is very interesting. He claims that, among American readers in the wake of 9/11, there has been growing dissatisfaction with realism as a credible mode of fiction. This, says Wood, has led to increased interest in novels situated within a European literary tradition which is at best ambivalent to realism. He quotes Michael Rothberg: ‘While American novelists have [...] announced the dawn of a new era following the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the form of their works does not bear witness to fundamental change’. Flatteringly, Wood selects Spurious, alongside Lee Rourke’s The Canal and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, as exemplifying a form that does respond to fundamental change. Wood argues that the three of us, British men all, are nouveaux romanciers for our time, and that our work has found a warm transatlantic welcome for that reason.

I am certainly inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s famous essays calling for a new novel: for a novel to reject anthropomorphism in its presentation of the world; for a novel to deny the primacy of character; for a novel to present things that Robbe-Grillet describes as ‘hard’, as ‘unalterably, eternally present’, as ‘mocking the “meaning” assigned to them’; for a novel to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’, as Sarraute would have it; a novel to register what she calls the ‘vast, empty stupefaction’ at the world that is appropriate in the wake of the concentration camps. How do W. and Lars spend most of their time but in a state of ‘vast, empty stupefaction’? What else are the damp in Spurious and the rats in Dogma but unalterable and eternally present, mocking any meaning that might be assigned to them? The narrative technique of Spurious and Dogma is intended as a rejection of older forms of character-novel. I want nothing else than Sarraute did: to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’ in the novel and to ‘turn towards what is free, sincere and alive’.

In this sense, one might certainly recognize features of the nouveau roman in Spurious, as well as in the work of Rourke and McCarthy. And, if Wood is right, our novels resonate with American readers because of these features. But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

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Sometimes, I wonder whether my making claims of this kind is a result of my literary melancholy! Shouldn’t it be possible, if one only tried hard enough, to dream of a fabulously new novel to come, of a nouveau roman newer than the nouveaux romans of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, of an eternally nouveau nouveau roman which would always belong to the future? Mightn’t there be some fiery rebirth of the Modern in some faraway place, among writers who write new manifestos in the dream of restoring a revolutionary purity to their endeavours? But I can only say that it seems to me that literature has, in some fundamental way, run its course.

In 1967, Gore Vidal wrote:

‘The portentous theorisings of the New Novelists are of no more use to us than the self-conscious avant-gardism of those who are trying to figure out what the next ‘really serious’ thing will be when it is plain that there is not going to be a next serious thing in the novel. Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.’

‘Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end’: the funny thing is, I think that Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute knew this, or half-knew it, in the way they sought self-consciously to link their endeavours to Joyce, Proust, and Kafka. Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, would-be New Novelists, wanted to legitimise their struggle in terms of what had gone before! This would have been anathema to those whose legitimation they sought, to Joyce and to Proust and to Kafka, to those we call ‘Modernist’. But Perry Anderson has argued that ‘Modernism’ is a post-facto category, unifying a variety of movements and forms ‘whose own names for themselves knew nothing of it’. The very name of ‘Modernism’ comes too late for what it would name. For Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute to seek a nouveau roman that would somehow stand in the tradition of Modernism was, then, impossible by necessity; the writers of the nouveau roman were too late for the tradition to which they would belong because it had been constituted as a tradition to which they would belong!

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What were the reasons for this lateness? Once again, we would need a thinker like Fredric Jameson, or the Italian Marxists, to give us a real answer to this question. Or we would need to look at the researches of a new La Revue Internationale. Might they have to do with the rise of capitalist democracy, and the consumer boom that followed the war? Might they have to do with the erosion of the cultural power of the bourgeoisie, the traditional foil for the vanguard? Whatever the reasons, the very idea of the nouveau roman is already a sign of irreparable break with Modernism, which occurred almost as soon as Modernism emerged as a category.

As you note, Wood is quite elastic with respect to his notion of the nouveau roman, which seems, for him, to name a free-floating suspicion of realism and a messianic promise for literature. But for me, for whom literary melancholy is not a merely personal issue but a condition of writing in our time (and this is why I admire what I have read of David Markson, who thoroughly understands this point), no novel, least of all Spurious, could be a nouveau roman, and much less a nouveau nouveau roman! My novel, like all novels published today, is a roman after the roman, a novel that comes after the novel and after literature.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

David Winters writes fiction and literary criticism. He has written for The Millions, Bookslut, Open Letters Monthly, ReadySteadyBook, The Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and others. He is a contributing editor at 3:AM. His blog is called Why Not Burn Books?

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 15th, 2011.