Mourning the Lost Modernist Energies

Lars Iyer, “Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom: Lars Iyer Interviewed,” by Daniel Fraser, The Quietus 12 October 2014

Diagnoses of the death of literature are old news. We’ve heard it before. There’s a dying breed of cultural pessimist, which mourns for a lost world of old culture, for the time when Art and Literature were taken seriously. But there’s another kind of cultural pessimist, who mourns for the lost modernist energies that depended on the old cultural world as a kind of foil.

The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

La faim du livre

Along with Gérard Berréby, Augustin Trapenard, and Hervé Laurent, I was interviewed by Linn Levy for a piece entitled “La faim du livre” which appeared in the December 2013 issue of Swiss magazine Edelweiss. The article features on pp. 44-47; my interview is on p. 46.

La faim du livre

Edelweiss part en quête de la littérature contemporaine, des mots qui dérangent et se demande si être écrivain veut encore dire quelque chose par les temps qui courent. Quatre intellectuels se penchent sur ces questions et nous éclairent.

«Nous sommes les visages de notre temps», clamaient les futuristes russes, le poète Maïakosvki en tête, il y a exactement un siècle, pétris de la conviction que l’art qu’ils inventaient allait renverser l’ordre des choses, qu’en récrivant le monde ils façonneraient le futur. Et aujourd’hui? A qui appartiennent les visages de l’époque contemporaine? Peut-on encore écrire? Et quels sont, parmi le demi-millier d’ouvrages publiés cette rentrée en Suisse et en France, ceux qui tordent la littérature, l’éprouvent, l’inventent? Oui, dans quels livres trouve-t-on les questions que nous ne nous sommes pas encore posées? Difficile pour le lecteur de se retrouver dans le magma de fictions qui ornent les étals des librairies comme les marchandises envahissent les hypermarchés. Le divertissement, devenu la norme au risque d’endormir insidieusement les esprits, laisse peu de place au doute, la tension semble diluée, presque rien ne dérange, pas grand-chose ne dépasse. Alors, pour celui qui a faim d’autre chose que de spectacle et qui ne déteste pas être dérangé – «Etre scandalisé, un plaisir», assurait Pasolini –, il s’agit de résister en cherchant les lignes qui dévient, la littérature, la vraie, ce souffle qui a «la faculté d’empêcher la folie du monde de s’emparer totalement de nous», comme l’écrit Alberto Manguel. Quatre experts nous éclairent sur les mots d’aujourd’hui, l’influence du web, la mort imminente du droit d’auteur, celle de la figure de l’écrivain, sur le remix aussi, et l’irrévérence anglo-saxonne ou helvétique… L’éditeur Gérard Berréby, l’écrivain et professeur Andrew Gallix, le journaliste Augustin Trapenard et le critique d’art Hervé Laurent ont accepté de surcroît de dévoiler leurs titres préférés de la rentrée.

Andrew Gallix
Ecrivain, éditeur, professeur à la Sorbonne

L’écriture a cinquante ans de retard sur la peinture – triste constat de l’artiste Brion Gysin dans les années 60… «Et, pour le philosophe et romancier anglais Lars Iyer, la situation n’a fait qu’empirer. Le roman, censé échapper au monde des genres, est lui-même devenu un genre. Pour lui, la littérature est morte (comme la musique classique avant elle) et les livres que l’on peut encore écrire doivent exprimer la distance qui nous sépare de la grande littérature du passé. Cette «postlittérature» s’inscrit d’ailleurs dans un contexte politique et culturel plus général: pour Mark Fisher ou Simon Reynolds, par exemple, la modernité est derrière nous. Cette nouvelle crise du roman, symbolisée par Reality Hunger, le manifeste de David Shields, se traduit souvent par un rejet de la fiction.» Les idées se bousculent dans l’esprit brillant d’Andrew Gallix. L’écrivain britannique, professeur à la Sorbonne, collaborateur du quotidien The Guardian, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans, a lancé en 2000 le premier blog littéraire en anglais, «3:AM Magazine»1, dont le mot d’ordre est le très groucho-marxesque: «De quoi qu’il s’agisse, nous sommes contre». Un webzine si avant-gardiste qu’il a donné naissance à un véritable mouvement littéraire, The Offbeat Generation, regroupant des plumes anglophones non conformistes (Tony O’Neill, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy notamment), rejetant la culture dominante et le monde traditionnel de l’édition. «La littérature est quelque chose qui résiste, analyse-t-il. Même s’il n’existe plus vraiment d’avant-garde – le web l’a diluée en quelque sorte –, je remarque que l’écriture conceptuelle, expérimentale prend de plus en plus d’importance. Il y a toute une génération d’auteurs qui reste très influencée par la théorie poststructuraliste de Derrida, je pense notamment à Rachel Kushner. Il y a un autre courant d’écrivains, américains pour la plupart, qui s’inscrit dans la directe lignée de l’éditeur Gordon Lish – celui qui a en quelque sorte fait Raymond Carver. Pour eux, tout se passe au niveau de la phrase. Et, pour finir, je trouve passionnante et à suivre la scène littéraire qui s’est formée autour de la revue new-yorkaise n+1 (nplusonemag.com).»
1 http://www.andrewgallix.com / http://www.3ammagazine.com

Il lit:
Au départ d’Atocha, Ben Lerner (à paraître)
C, Tom McCarthy, L’Olivier
Nue, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Editions de Minuit

Fighting Fiction with Fiction

Bethanie Blanchard, “This Week in Books,” Guardian Australia Culture Blog Sunday 17 November 2012

Lars Iyer, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize — an award celebrating innovation in the form of the novel — has argued that the time for literary novels is over. In an interesting response, Andrew Gallix considers the death of realist literary fiction and the uncertainty of its future. “Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy,” he writes. Gallix highlights the historical development of the form of the novel, the limitations of mimetic storytelling, and the uncertain way forward for “fighting fiction with fiction”.

Literary Hauntology

Lars Iyer, “Outside Literature: The Lars Iyer Interview,” interview by Tim Smyth, The Quarterly Conversation 31 4 March 2013

In Vila-Matas, we find a humorous recapitulation of Blanchot’s sense that a certain way of literary writing is at an end, and that a new kind of writing, one which registers this end in some way, is beginning. Andrew Gallix has much of interest to say on the topic of the various “ends” of literature that have occurred.[2] In one sense, I want to say that literature is always ending! The end is eternal. It will go on forever. There can be no “apocalypse” of literature. And for that reason, there will always be more hot tubs, more lists, more distractions! But I also want to insist on the specificity, on the singularity of this end . . . I believe in it . . .

Let me risk pretension by putting as follows. Historically, any simple avant-gardist idea of a new literary practice necessarily reconsolidates the traditional institution of literature that it claims to critique. A literary practice that is ostensibly “outside” literature posits an “inside” of literature. By disobeying the police who maintain the borders of literature, they simultaneously confirm the role of those police; avant-garde practices depend on them. But what happens when the police leave their posts? What happens when no-one mans the border — when the sanctity of literature becomes a matter of indifference? There can no longer be an “outlaw” avant-gardism, because there is no law to transgress. But nor is there a literature self-certain enough, secure enough, to arrest, domesticate or tame its “outside.” The authority of literature has vanished. The house of literature is deserted. Granted, that house is haunted. There are such things as literary ghosts, even a literary “hauntology,” as Gallix calls it.

Present Absence

Lars Iyer, “Impossible Literature,” interview by Antônio Xerxenesky, 3:AM Magazine 6 February 2013

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.