:: Article

Impossible Literature

Lars Iyer interviewed by Antônio Xerxenesky.

Originally published in Portuguese at the IMS blog, to mark the publication of Iyer’s ‘Nude in the Hot Tub’ manifesto in Serrote magazine, issue 12.

3:AM: Other than an essayist, you are also a fiction writer. Is your manifesto connected to your fiction, and do you think it may help explain your approach to novel writing?

Lars Iyer: Sometimes, it is by saying stupid things, simple things which you would never usually allow yourself to say, that you say something valuable. I tried to say something simple, something stupid, in my manifesto – something I felt strongly, and which I wondered whether others might feel. As for my novels … I have always wanted to attain the kind of stupidity of which Beckett spoke in his only interview. ‘I invented Molloy and the rest on the day I understood how stupid I’d been. I began then to write down the things I feel’… It was a marvellously propitious stupidity, I’m sure you’ll agree…

Michelet writes somewhere of being a ‘link of time’; of opening between past and present, and maintaining that relationship, in spite of the tendency to forget and move on. Both my manifesto and my novels are intended to foreground the difficulty of maintaining such a link between past and present, between neoliberal capitalism and European Modernism. For me, neoliberalism has deprived us of the conditions under which a certain literature – the literature, in particular, of Modernism – thrived. The vanguards have disappeared because there is no one in particular to offend. Literary fiction lives on, but it has become, for the most part, a kind of kitsch, depending on the most schematic ways of presenting character, plot, etc. – on a ‘realism’, a standardised system of representation, that is completely at one with the generic models of taste on which advertising and marketing depend.

Wasn’t it ever thus?, you might say. Hasn’t there always been good and bad literature? Aren’t there still authors worth seeking out? Aren’t there notable books published every year? Why speak of ‘literature’ as such and in general? Why not ‘literatures’? The literary fiction of this country, or that? The literary fiction that speaks for this minority, or that? How absurd to think that ‘literature’, as a word, could connote anything that could be left behind! Hasn’t literature survived every supposed death?

Andrew Gallix suggestively distinguishes between two kinds of belatedness. There is the belatedness already present in Don Quixote: the novel as a ‘fallen’ form, coming in the wake of older forms. And then, there is the romantic and Modern dream of the ‘Literary Absolute’, which expresses belatedness with respect to a total work of art – like Mallarmé’s conception of The Book, for example. Such belatedness, for me, holds in particular for those Modernist vanguards which sought in some way to link art to politics, which sought to change life, to change the world. As I argue in my manifesto, the conditions for such vanguards have vanished, and with them a whole dream of Literature, with a capital ‘L’.

Good!, you might say. We have no need for those old idealisms! for retired Marxisms and anarchisms! for dead-end experimentation and vanguardism! Literature cannot change the world – and how absurd to think otherwise! The literary arts, in the end, have nothing to do with politics! History is over, and so, too, is a certain dream of what literature could be! Of what the arts could be! We are more modest now, you might say. We expect less of life, and less of literature.

Freud contrasted mourning with melancholy. You can ‘work through’ mourning, he allows, re-integrating the losses you have undergone into a new whole. Modernism mourned can be absorbed into whatever the period is in which we now live – Postmodernism, or post-Postmodernism. It can be studied, dissected, its authors profiled in the Sunday supplements. Its memory can be reactivated – why shouldn’t Modernist techniques inform the modern novel? Can’t contemporary literary fiction incorporate the lessons of the past?

But melancholy, according to Freud, continues indefinitely, and promises no new integration. And I am melancholy about our relationship with Modernism. Modernism is mute, in a certain sense. It doesn’t communicate with us. The link between past and present is broken. Literature survives today in literary fiction, which means literature no longer survives, or survives under erasure. The ‘realism’ of literary fiction is continuous with what Mark Fisher has called ‘capitalist realism’: the sense that our neoliberal present is the natural result of societal evolution, that it is eternal, that this is the only world there could be.

3:AM You make a solid defense of Vila-Matas’s metaliterary devices in your essay, that in writing on the impossibility of writing, he is creating one of the only possible forms of literature nowadays. However, don’t you think that this sort of device will become tiresome – and isn’t Vila-Matas destined to repeat himself?

LI: Writing on the impossibility of writing: it sounds very sterile and academic! It also sounds hackneyed: isn’t this what Blanchot wrote in the preface to Faux Pas? Isn’t it what Beckett said to Duthuit in their dialogues? But there is a crucial difference between writing on the impossibility of writing in the 1940s, and today. In a nutshell: the modernist experience of the impossibility of writing is still framed and validated as the impossibility of something worthwhile; but those times have passed, as I argue in my manifesto. Montano, in Vila-Matas’ novel, lives in an age which no longer accords literature its older prestige. There is something grotesque about the anachronism of Montano’s relationship to literature, which doesn’t mark that of Blanchot or Beckett. Montano’s problem is not the impossibility of writing, but the impossibility of experiencing the impossibility of writing. Montano only half-knows that he has come too late for literature. He nearly gets it. But for us, Vila-Matas’ readers, as well as for Vila-Matas himself, the situation is perfectly clear: Montano’s feeling of literary melancholy is laughable, even while we, too, share something of the experience.

Of course, I am not claiming that we should all write like Vila-Matas. But he has shown us the situation that the literary-fiction writer inherits, and the task that this situation gives to us: the task of registering what has happened to literature in the literary work itself; the task of writing without naiveté.

Will Vila-Matas repeat himself? He hasn’t done so in the books in English translation that I’ve read. Will his devices become tiresome? Not so long as they negotiate our relationship to Modernism as skilfully as they do.

3:AM: Scott Esposito, in his reply to your essay, claims that this sort of discourse may only be projecting its own limitations. How do you reply to that?

LI: Esposito’s essay is interesting, but I disagree with the way he frames my argument: I do not complain about the fragmentation of the novel; I do not seek for a work to overcome the fragmentation of our civilisation: far from it! And I disagree with Esposito’s account of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives: I don’t think it ‘exult[s] too much in its purposeful marginalisation to aspire to the world’. Bolaño’s novel, like Vila-Matas’, laughs at the impossibility of literature in our times. At its imposture. And at the imposture of beginning again – of writing, still writing, amid the ruins… It shows an exuberant melancholy very far from the ‘wizened resignation’ Esposito finds in my manifesto…

3:AM: Even though you create a link between Roberto Bolaño, Vila-Matas and Bernhard in your essay, they are very different novelists. Bolaño’s fiction is highly political, and his criticism of literature is much related to the fact that art (and literature) didn’t have any effect on stopping dictatorships and violence. Do you think that Bolaño’s approach to the subject of the end of literature is significantly different than Vila-Matas’s and Bernhard’s?

LI: What is the connection between these authors? A distance from literature as something possible for ‘us’. A distance from a certain modernism, which is inflected in a different way for each author.

In periods of revolution, Marx says, revolutionaries conjure the ghosts of the past to help them. The wardrobes and dressing up boxes of history are raided, and names, slogans and costumes tried on for size. The danger is that revolutionaries repeat what has happened as farce, merely parodying what has gone before. For me, the three authors I mention do more than simply parody past glories. They understand that the literary gesture itself is parodic.

Bolaño, perhaps more than Vila-Matas and Bernhard, foregrounds the grotesquery of this parody. The literary visceral realists seem no more than a farce, when pitched against the horrors of Pinochet-led Chile, against the laboratory of neoliberalism. Its political aims seem particularly pathetic. But there is a glory to this parody. Bolaño is not one of the literary Last Men. History hasn’t quite ended for him. In The Savage Detectives, perhaps more than in the work of Vila-Matas and Bernhard, melancholy blossoms into a kind of promise. The disjunction between Modernism and the present, between Literature, capital ‘L’, and Politics, capital ‘P’, becomes utterly unbearable. For me, that unbearableness allows Literature to appear in its impossibility, as a kind of present absence, as a kind of disappearance, and along with it the vanished legacy of Modernism.

Let me put it programmatically: Without a relationship to Modernism, no future. Without knowing that the relationship to Modernism is utterly impossible, no future. Without knowing that there is no future, no future.

Antônio Xerxenesky was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He is the author of the novel Areia nos dentes (2008), a postmodern Western, and the short story collection A página assombrada por fantasmas (2011). English translations of his work can be found at Words Without Borders, Two Lines Magazine and Granta: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 6th, 2013.