Sunday, December 22, 2019

All to end (the year)

One clear memory I have of David Lodge's review of The Book of God is that he described its author as being 'a novelist deeply influenced by Beckett'. It stuck in my mind because, at the time, in my very early days of reading books, I wondered how on earth a novelist could be influenced by such an author; it was, I thought, like being influenced by a field or a cloud. This was 1988. In March 1989, Beckett published Stirrings Still and I began to appreciate what it might mean. Later that year, thirty years ago today, Beckett died (I saw the news on Ceefax). So, as with my post on the thirtieth anniversary of Bernhard's death earlier this year, here are a few links to what I've written about Beckett on this blog.

However, the first thing I ever wrote for the internet was a review not for this blog but for Spike Magazine of the two biographies of Beckett published that year, and though I am reluctant to hyperlink (empathising with Beckett for his own reluctance to allow early work to be reprinted), I do so because the first line prefigures a theme in what I've written ever since: that it has not been easy assimilating Beckett into our culture in the way his mentor Joyce has been assimilated. The reason can be explained via a post from 2008 in which I quote Beckett explaining why his work changed at the time of Molloy following what he calls a revelation:
I simply understood that there was no sense adding to the store of information, gathering knowledge. The whole attempt at knowledge, it seemed to me, had come to nothing. It was all haywire. What I had to do was investigate not-knowing, not-perceiving, the whole world of incompleteness.
Such an understanding remains alien to English-language literary culture. Popular book discussion still promotes writing that offers knowledge: Ten books you need to read. Imagine being told you need to read the authors who Beckett admired for the flame that burns away filthy logic.

This year I discovered that the book in which Beckett said this was published without Beckett's approval; he thought the conversations were private. But it does include his important refutation of the label 'theatre of the absurd' for his plays. He was also filmed without his knowledge talking about a television play, perhaps the only time he ever spoke on film.

The longest posts on Beckett appeared in 2011, on his silence and on the second volume of letters

But going back to Stirrings Still: ten years ago, I wrote about its initial publication in Oh all to publish, a post that includes a photograph of the full text as it appeared on the front page of the Guardian. Around the same time BBC Radio 3 broadcast a reading by Barry McGovern, which I recorded on a C90 cassette at the time and whose words – such and much more – still echo in my mind. Here it is, digitised in three parts.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer

Imagine every novel published the last twenty years as part of an urban landscape, rising up against the horizon as you approach the outskirts of town, sometimes standing alone, as brash as a neo-Georgian mansion, sometimes piled high, storey upon storey, as imposing as a tower block, but mostly just rows and rows of near identical terraces. You wander through the streets imagining the lives of people in their rooms, what goes on behind their windows. Some look welcoming, others forbidding, but mostly indistinct, just rows and rows of near identical terraces. We speak of the death of the novel even as new estates pop up, too many to explore by foot, so we rely on drone footage to confirm that, yes, they're all the same, more or less. It is a kind of death, but one we struggle to recognise.


The modern novel has become the suburb of itself, its lawns of genre stretching to the horizon, parasitic on trade from the UNESCO world heritage site in the city centre to which tourists and connoisseurs flock, but is itself without stature, unsure of itself, constantly seeking validation. Lars Iyer's Nietzsche and the Burbs is where the teenage gang you often see wandering its streets hang out, bored out if its collective mind, full of loathing for the "dead-eyed boxes for the dead" that surround them – they live in Wokingham, after all; a placename that evokes so much to those of us who come from the south of England (so much of nothing) – and resort to drink and drugs to enliven an interminable present in which nothing happens. When asked by their Economics teacher about where the current financial system is heading, they cheerfully speculate:
Global economic collapse, miss, Paula says.
Hyperinflation, then a new Weimar, possibly a new Hitler, miss, Art says.
Stagflation, then another world war, to boost production, leading to mutually assured destruction, miss, I say.
Chandra is the gang's amanuensis and self-styled death-poet, quoting himself and the others as they sing parts of the chorus. They hang out together because they're members of a nameless, singerless band whose progress is frustrated because everything they play sounds like something that's been done before. "We can play anything we like" Paula says. "All this freedom, and we don't know what to do with it." Typical teenagers. But then a new boy joins the school whose composure and assurance intrigues them.
I think he has charisma, Art says.
I think he knows he has charisma, Paula says.
I think he doesn't care whether he has charisma, I say. That's what gives him charisma.
What's charisma?, asks Merv.
They see him write NIHILISM across his notebook and Paula decides he looks like Friedrich Nietzsche, so from then on is known as 'Nietzsche'. They read his blog with its dark aphorisms, quotations from Cioran, Beckett and the original Nietzsche, and with its forceful affirmation of life in its apparent meaningless. “Affirmation?, Paula asks. What does Nietzsche have to affirm? He lives in Wokingham, right?”

But his words begin to have an effect. They realise they have fallen unwittingly into nihilism. "We used to believe in music, we agree. What happened to us?". They envy the fish in the local river, able to live "drunk on pure water", much like Nietzsche's oblivious herd of grazing animals in his essay on history, and imagine a river of vodka: “A river into which you cannot step sober.” It’s the suburbs, they decide, that's happened to them, and only a philosopher of the suburbs can help overcome their predicament, and that philosopher is right before them. Nietzsche is persuaded to become the frontman of their group, which Chandra names Nietzsche and the Burbs. They proclaim that they will find a way forward with Nietzsche's philosophy channelled through their music. “But don’t the suburbs defeat philosophy?" they ask. "Don’t the suburbs mean the impossibility of philosophy?”

These are key questions, and not just for the teenagers. How can the ultimate questions of life be asked in the suburbs of the novel, where everything has been settled, where what happens is only a faint echo of crashing waves in a desert. As one of their teachers tells them: “Your hair keeps growing after you die. Things happen, but so what?”. The only way the big questions can be approached is through absurdity and hyperbole, which is why Nietzsche and the Burbs is narrated by awkward, angst-ridden teenagers, lightning rods for the approaching storm insensible to others, which for Nietzsche is the storm of speech, the speech of thought which rages through the novel. But as teenagers they are also saturated in the innocence and arrogance of the suburbs, a time and place in despair, without art, without philosophy. As such they are always ready to undercut pretention even as they aspire to it, such as when Paula asks Chandra what his poetry is for:
A rose has no why, I say. Nor does poetry.
The word twat has no y, you mean, Paula says.
'Nietzsche' is the necessary anachronism to spark something in the teenagers, in a similar way Wittgenstein is necessary to Thomas Bernhard's story Goethe Dies in which the dying poet demands the presence of the philosopher fifty-seven years before his birth. Indeed, it's worth comparing Lars Iyer's style with Bernhard's. As we are so used to the suburban novel, we've become used to suburban prose – show-don't-tell, free indirect discourse, etc. – so the philosophical hyperbole and choral singing comes as a wonderfully invigorating downpour. Though quite different to Bernhard's prose, it shares its intensity of music and the rare quality of ambiguity; we are never sure if its serious or comic, because it is both at the same time. Its permanent present tense, while also running through Iyer's Spurious trilogy and Wittgenstein Jr, is especially effective here in amplifying the mute horror of suburban life, such as when the gang visits the local pub:
   Mild suburbanites, all around. Mild surburbanites, mildly chattering—about what? Mild suburbanites, standing about, sipping their pints.
   Young men in shirts, in jeans. Young women in jeans. Young surburbanites, enjoying a quiet drink. Young surburbanites at play—looking just like young suburbanites at work. Young suburbanites, smiling and nodding, just as they smile and nod at work.
 And interweaving fascination and distance, such as when Nietzsche attends band practice:
Nietzsche, picking up the mic. Nietzsche, holding the mic to his lips. Nietzsche, opening his mouth just a little. Nietzsche, talking though not really talking. Singing, though not really singing. Something suspended between the two.
Each observation or action becomes one pulse in a series, with the effect of reducing agency and knowingness in the characters as they act and in the narration as it describes; something suspended between iteration and innovation. This is why Nietzsche and the Burbs is a clearing in the suburbs of the novel, neither part of the suburbs nor apart from it. It is where the lawns of genre become pockmarked by desperate moles, where the terraces begin to sink into the marsh. The end of the novel suggests that larking around in the light and shade of a clearing is the best response to the suburbs, and we realise as readers that's exactly what Nietzsche and the Burbs does, to glorious effect.

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