Lars Iyer’s ‘My Weil’ is his latest book to poke very smart fun at what he reveres: philosophy and its most profound practitioners
Since 2015, Iyer, 53, has taken refuge in the creative-writing faculty of Newcastle University, where for many years he worked as a full-time lecturer in philosophy. There was a long stretch when the philosophy department was improbably (and, it seemed, tenuously) housed in the school of chemical engineering. Some feared it was on the brink of closure. Its fortunes have since improved, but Iyer has stuck with the new job.
It’s highly plausible cover: In addition to his academic output, Iyer has published six novels, the latest of which, “My Weil,” came out Tuesday. They’ve been widely and warmly reviewed, gaining a passionate following — especially among those in academia and its splash zone.
Iyer writes about people pursuing a life of the mind, sort of. His characters are mostly students of various stripes: competitive drinkers, epic layabouts, operatic whiners. They lament that they’ll never live up to the philosophers they worship or come up with ideas even close to the same caliber. The winding circuitry of their conversations yields some electrifying jolts of truth. Yet, when the characters bump up against some revelation, they flinch. “True thoughts pass infinitely far above us, as in the sky,” one of them imagines. “They’re too far to reach, but they’re out there somewhere.”
These books might seem daunting. The most recent ones imagine legendary philosophers reincarnated in odd places: Wittgenstein lecturing to undergrads in Cambridge (“Wittgenstein Jr.”), Nietzsche as an angsty high-schooler (“Nietzsche and the Burbs”) and now, Simone Weil getting a PhD and helping the poor in Manchester. But crack them open, and you find they’re funny — a little bit Beckett, a little bit “Veep” — and weirdly poignant.
Merve Emre, a critic and professor at Wesleyan University, described Iyer as, “to use a kind of annoying scholarly term, a truly dialectical writer.” She added: “These novels would be intolerable if they were self-serious! But he’s always allowing you to inhabit that contradiction and then making fun of it and himself.”
“I love high modernist seriousness,” Iyer said. “On the other hand, I find it ridiculous. I like to poke fun at it. Both these things are at war within me at all times.”
He once aspired to write in the style of Thomas Mann or Marguerite Duras, but he couldn’t carry it off. It just didn’t feel plausible. He blames that on his Britishness: It’s a national trait, he said, this allergy to pretension. While Europeans are busy producing monumentally admirable art, “What do we do?” Iyer asked of his countrymen. “We fool around, we laugh. We take the mickey out of ourselves, out of other people.” Over a video call, he shrugged, with a broad smile. “There we are.”
Iyer was brought up in the prosperous, sprawling suburbs of southeast England, where Hewlett-Packard and Dell were headquartered. The town, Wokingham, was a place of solutions: “life solutions, employment solutions,” he said. “And the idea was, you go to university, get your proper qualifications and find your way into one of these businesses.”
There, the teenage Iyer and his friends started a band. “I was the singer. And I was a terrible singer! Terrible singer, terrible songwriter.” Their music was an imperfect outlet, because it ultimately couldn’t express what they felt, Iyer said: “this horror, this hatred, this dislike, this ardency, this intensity.”
Drawn by his love of Joy Division and the Smiths, Iyer went to Manchester for his undergraduate degree, and when he returned to the south, and found work at a few of its tech companies, he felt even more out of place. “I really just couldn’t get on with the world down there,” he said. So he lit out to Greece, where he wound up living among monks in Patmos for seven years. Eventually, sitting on the beach, he realized: “Well, I just don’t feel any enthusiasm about this place. I can’t relate to what’s happening here. I have to go home. I have to go and confront the realities of my life.”
The turning point came when he got funding to study at Manchester Metropolitan University, where people “were very, very serious about philosophy,” he said. “That was wonderful, to meet that seriousness.” It inspired him to dedicate his life to philosophy, or at least to try.
Iyer writes fiction, he’s often said, because he failed as a philosopher. His novels are like glacial lakes, carved by the retreating ice of his efforts.
He’d once hoped to make some modest contribution to the field. Okay, he thought: You write one book on a philosopher, on some work of theirs — Iyer wrote two about the French intellectual Maurice Blanchot — and after that, it’s time to write something of your own.
So, in December 2003, Iyer started a blog, where he wrote about philosophical matters in a way that he hoped would appeal to a general audience. As light relief, he began posting short vignettes, sometimes about his heroic battles with the moisture in his flat (“Like Jacob with his angel, I wrestle with my damp”) but largely about escapades with his friend, whom he called W., traveling to conferences and strafing each other with verbal abuse.
“What I found was people actually really enjoyed them, much more than the other stuff,” Iyer said. “The other stuff they thought was hopelessly pretentious! And they enjoyed the humor.”
The blog attracted the attention of Dennis Johnson, co-founder of the independent publisher Melville House, who was hooked by the concept of a lament for the humanities doubling as a buddy comedy. “Also, it was literally just fall-down funny, even if you didn’t quite comprehend what was going on,” Johnson said.
At Johnson’s invitation, Iyer shaped this material into a novel, “Spurious,” which he followed up with two more books about W. and Lars, “Dogma” and “Exodus.” The duo have been compared, by Iyer himself and others, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But Iyer had utterly failed in his original aspiration.
“In describing that failure, in conveying it, in bringing it across to an audience, in some sense, you’ve won,” he said, grinning. “It’s very peculiar. You’ve managed to make good on your failure. You’ve made something of it, and what you’ve made is something literary.”
The novels since that first trilogy haven’t been more conventional, exactly, but as Johnson put it, they’re more “classically plotted, with a full-on cast of characters interacting.” In “My Weil,” a saintly young woman who calls herself Simone befriends a gaggle of grad students: the narrator, Johnny; Ismail, a filmmaker (“the stuff they show in art galleries, not on TV”); Gita, who works at an antiques shop; the lovelorn Marcie.
Iyer’s version of Weil charts a path of compassion in the face of brokenness and evil — much to the grudging awe of her classmates, who spend most of their time reveling in how much they hate everyone: undergrads (“Aren’t they appalled by their sheer number?”), business students (“Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their diseases of the soul?”), master’s candidates (“creatures of the surface”), themselves (“We’re too old to be students, really. There’s something grotesque about it”). Spend enough time swimming through this, and it’s easy to imagine how Iyer’s characters would ridicule his own employment — raining down great cadenzas of scorn for the whole enterprise of creative writing (italics theirs).
“My colleagues are great, and our department is very, very successful,” Iyer said. But he readily admits: “My interest is totally in philosophy. I don’t really read contemporary fiction at all — not because I despise it or dislike it. I just don’t even know it.”
But teaching undergraduate writing does have its rewards. “The atmosphere in class is very delicate. It’s very important to maintain trust in one another,” Iyer said. “When I taught philosophy, the students didn’t have the same investment in the subject area. They didn’t attend as often. They didn’t really engage with the ideas as deeply — often they didn’t engage them at all, really.”
Writing workshops don’t deal in ideas, at least not often — but in them, you can give students confidence, improve their writing, help them to see writing as just one way to live creatively. Iyer, though, distinguishes a creative life from a philosophical one. Intellectual endeavor, he said, involves sacrifice.
Iyer hasn’t practiced the dedication of some scholars he admires, who “haven’t done the normal things; haven’t had a romantic relationship, haven’t had children.” But his innate intensity emerges in other ways. Suspicious of the ease of word processing, he usually drafts his manuscripts by hand, and he has banned television and laptops from the family home. He bought a flip phone only last year. He says he never wants his children, ages 13 and 9, to see him on a computer. Iyer fantasizes about taking this even further — living on a small farm, growing his own food. “Unfortunately, with the pressures of life, I can’t do that at present. But I’d love to one day.”
During the summers, free of teaching, he shuts himself in and pulls 16-hour days — reading, taking notes, writing or at least trying to. Not fiction, he clarifies. In a sense, the university perch he secured by publishing his novels bought him this: precious time for real thought.
Writing this profile made me wonder about my own failures, unspooling fractally: failure to pursue more honorable literary forms; failure to ask the right questions; beneath it all, the failure to read well. Iyer wrote novels of ideas, I knew vaguely. But I enjoyed them purely on the level of sensation.
So Iyer surprised me by saying what he’s working on next: a novel set in a philosophy department but strongly centered on romantic relationships, a subject he’s tried to write about for years. “Now I feel I might have the skills it takes, maybe, to write about these matters,” he said, reporting that doing so was a struggle. Reviewers have often praised his comic scenes, but what he liked were the scenes full of yearning. Longing. He wanted readers to be totally emotionally overwhelmed. He was uncertain whether he’s ever managed to coax that reaction.
I asked Iyer about the last day he remembers thinking well. He said it was the day before he handed in the draft of “My Weil,” when he spent time adding more to a scene — just a couple of extra bits, emotional things; he wasn’t specific, just some stuff.
“Otherwise, I never feel that,” Iyer said. “I always feel like, Oh my God, it’s a disaster.”
That fleeting feeling, that sense of total absorption, might have been just an adrenaline rush. You must always guard against satisfaction. Still, he felt he had done something worthwhile. Such days, such good days, are rare. Almost nonexistent.
POST AUTHOR: Sophia Nguyen