:: Article

Kafka’s Beard

By Anna Aslanyan.

Spurious mech.indd

Spurious, Lars Iyer, Melville House 2011

Some of you will have noticed a curious phenomenon emerging across the country. I am talking about a new breed of philosophers; somewhat dishevelled-looking, ragged jumper but good shoes, a bike helmet under one arm, a not-too-demanding job (a bit of teaching, a bit of proof-reading), little money, a lot of ideas. And, crucially, a beard, not a full-blown one, just a designer stubble gotten out of hand. The image should be familiar to you, go to any literary do or political meeting and you will soon find yourself talking to one of them. They are alert, friendly, but not overly so, always keen to tell of their fresh thoughts urbi et orbi. Let’s come back to this movement later if, indeed, a movement it is.

If it is, and if there are rules for joining it, the author of Spurious qualifies, at least in the sense that he is a good talker, has plenty of ideas and, importantly, a beard (at the last count). His sidekick W. (whose real name Iyer inadvertently blurted out to a group of followers, but this is no place to disclose it) has his own facial hair ambitions: “W.’s impressed with my stubble, he says. Am I trying to grow a beard. We should both grow beards, we agree, and shake on it.””The book is a series of conversations between Lars and W., interspersed by the narrator’s accounts of damp attacking his house. They are seasoned discoursers, and to watch their verbal ping pong is equally amusing and educational.

W., Lars’ friend-cum-nemesis, seems to be the fiercer of the two. It is he who swoops on his interlocutor every now and again, urging him to admit a number of things, particularly that both of them are failures, and reminding him of their many spiritual leaders. The latter form an orderly queue; among them are Kafka, Béla Tarr, Franz Rosenzweig (who was, it transpires, Kafka’s teacher), as well as some unnamed visionaries. But it is Kafka the pair always turn to, worshipping him and blaming him for everything. Their story goes like this: … we opened The Castle. It was quite fatal – there was literature itself! We were finished.”

After this brutal start, Literature […] couldn’t help infecting our philosophy”sounds like the right diagnosis; however, when it comes to physical illnesses, the picture is more blurred. W. has been ill for most of his life, but never got a single thought out of his condition. He is, of course, disappointed – after all, it worked remarkably well for Kafka and Blanchot.

The friends never stop asking themselves, What would Kafka do in our place? – for instance, when contemplating whether to move to another wine bar while the night is still young. “But that’s the point – Kafka would never find himself in our place, they eventually conclude. Being a beardless teetotaller, he naturally wouldn’t.

Both characters entertain plans to escape – into music, Hinduism, Greek -–but these never take off. They do go on European trips though from time to time, and these palliative measures are mildly helpful. Here is an account of W.’s time in Germany: Morning to night, he drinks like a European. Steadily. That’s the secret.” Sitting in Continental bars, talking to each other about the End Times and all things apocalyptic, the friends dream, for a moment, that [they] are real European intellectuals.” When Lars develops a cough, his hope strengthens: “Perhaps I’ll become tubercular […] and that will be the making of a true European intellectual.”

Kafka’s legacy inevitably brings the conversation to Max Brod, so unselfish in his promotion of Kafka, yet so given to a vague and general pathos, [who] has always served as both our warning and our example.” The narrative is, in fact, based on doubles – you are told that even the figure of the Messiah, which is constantly being evoked, is traditionally doubled. The characters themselves are no longer sure who is who in their tandem, a sense that is supported by Iyer’s apt use of third and first person. After much musing, W. declares: “We are Brod and Brod […] and neither of us is Kafka.””

It is, indeed, a cleverly written book, masking deep ideas – and you’ll have to read it in full for these I’m afraid -–behind endless banter. You are bombarded with aphorisms in the spirit of the pedestrian is the true proletarian.”The penetrating damp in Lars’ house calls for a Talmudic inquiry.” It is a symbol, needless to say – whole religions have formed around less, so you stumble from “damp returning to damp to a golem of damp, to, erm, damp dreams. And if W.’s crie de coeur, ‘Brods without Kafka, and what’s a Brod without a Kafka?’”is a bit repetitive, his ‘Give me a sense the world’s about to end’”is really uplifting.

Anyway, all this incessant chatter”can get tedious, even in a slim book like this, but somehow it doesn’t. Iyer pulls it off helped by humour, and the reader happily trips over yet another joke each time the narrative becomes too heavy on ideas. The importance of humour in many things, from sex to DIY, has often been stressed, but I don’t recall anyone easing it into philosophy with such elegance. Perhaps that’s what this new movement is about – the bearded thinkers are manifestly cheerful and ply their trade without putting on their serious philosopher’s hat.

W. the ideologue sees their path through the apocalyptic towards the messianic, which will involve a lot of drinking, preferably Polish-style (apparently, Poles know how to pace themselves, unlike our boozers). Messianism and mathematics are W.’s pet subjects, although he is the first to admit he understands little of the latter – no more than the German of the book he is meticulously studying. Large quantities of Plymouth Gin are consumed during the pair’s conversations, on the rocks, no mixer mentioned, which may be the tipple to go for if you are pioneering something of this kind. There may even be a European tinge to it: while I never figured out what is that clear stuff Parisian intellectuals drink in their street cafes first thing in the morning, a friend assures me it’s gin, difficult though it is to believe.

The anxiety you feel about W.’s appearance builds up towards the end as you learn of his alarmingly hermitic habits. After all the suspense, it is a relief to find out on that he now looks increasingly “Talmudic […] with his beard and long ringlets” – it makes you want to pat yourself on the head for such insightful trend-spotting. You’ve guessed it, you’ve discovered it before everyone else has, this new European way to philosophise: grow a beard, book a budget flight, get some drinks in, interchange each sip with bite-sized wisdoms; above all, don’t take yourself too seriously, let the others do it for you. And don’t forget: for every two hirsute Brods there is a clean-shaven Kafka.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 13th, 2011.