“Somehow or another…you have to find your own path through contemporary culture. You have to dig your own burrow, following various transverse connections between things.” – Lars Iyer
Sometimes a book will really set off the fireworks. Spurious, by Lars Iyer, certainly set them off for me, once I finally unearthed it from my pile of library books and sat down to read it.
This slim novel is an amusing account of W. and Lars, two stymied academics who see themselves as failures, incapable of having any original thoughts. They visit each other in their respective English cities, travel to and speak at conferences, drink gin, puzzle over the mysterious damp that has overtaken Lars’ apartment, and have endless discussions about their failure to read, write and think. Though Lars is the narrator, what we learn of him comes mostly from the mouth of W., frequently in the form of insults which Lars faithfully recounts without putting up any defense.
As Lars and W. flail about in their scholarly friendship, they also talk about the coming end-times, yearn for an intellectual leader, and idolize Kafka – the great writer after whom it seems nothing is really possible. They long for something like an Old Europe intellectual community that would nurture their literary and academic aspirations. Alas, they have only each other – merely Brod and Brod, as they see themselves, in a world where Kafka-hood’s been denied them. Surprisingly, given all their pathos, self-deprecation and apocalypticism, W. and Lars remain oddly joyful.
But on to the fireworks I mentioned at the start of this post.
After finishing Spurious, with its many references to Kafka, I opened a collection of Walter Benjamin’s writings in which I’ve been dabbling for several months and chanced upon his essay “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death.” While reading the essay I was startled to find the names of two philosophers who get quite a bit of attention in Spurious. Where Iyer provides only surnames, Benjamin’s essay gives them as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig and also refers to the latter’s book, The Star of Redemption – which W. is reading in Spurious, though he says he can’t understand it.
Maybe this shouldn’t astonish me so much – maybe Cohen and Rosenzweig and The Star of Redemption are frequently mentioned alongside Kafka, but to stumble upon Benjamin’s piece right after reading Spurious and to find that both refer to the same rather specialized philosophers seemed the height of serendipity and synchronicity.
This web of association and surprise has returned my attention to Kafka, and I have just finished reading his very strange novel The Trial, with its dreamlike fog of bureaucracy, ambiguity and suspicion. I will be adding The Castle and Amerika to my stack of library books, but now I’m thinking – what about The Star of Redemption, and the writings of Hermann Cohen, maybe I’m meant to investigate them as well? Or maybe I should look into another of W.’s obsessions: the films of Béla Tarr?
OK, one last digression to wrap things up. Benjamin ends his essay with a look at Kafka’s twist on Cervantes’ story. Kafka has Sancho Panza setting loose his demon, Don Quixote, who he then “philosophically followed…and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.” In W. and Lars, Iyer has given us not so much Brod and Brod but a pair of hilarious and entertaining Quixotes – you’re unlikely to find more diverting philosophers anywhere.
Spurious was published in 2011, so it is hardly a lost or long-overlooked book, but in response to a literary questionnaire, Iyer refers to the website Writers No One Reads and says he already fits the description. So here’s a shout out. And if Spurious is to your liking, you’ll want to go on to his newly released sequel, Dogma.