Lars Iyer’s My Weil is a brilliant comic novel overflowing with music and compassionately drawn characters.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“Iyer… takes seriously his theme of existential dread. Memorable characters make this a singular exploration of the human condition.”
When I was a teenager, living in the south of England, my friends and I listened to music to discover a way of not feeling numb. Music loved for us, was ecstatic for us, was hateful for us, was spiritual for us; it even prayed for us. We sought music that felt necessary – that had to exist: a music of absolute intensity that soared in its despair; for which it was possible to live or die, and that was all about the possibility of living and dying.
This is what we found in the great music of Manchester from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Mancunian bands including Joy Division, The Fall, New Order and The Smiths conjured up an imaginary northern England: Manchester as rust-zone, as sleeper, a city amputated from the prosperous south.
No accident that I moved there to study. I’d take solo Sebaldian walks round what is now called the Northern Quarter, with its abandoned half-ruiend warehouses, whole trees growing from their roofs. I’d walk Castlefield canal towpaths at night. That Manchester, with its regeneration in the late ‘90s and its new skyscrapers, has been disappearing ever since, and with it the melancholic terroir of its best music.
In My Weil, I wanted to remember the defiance of that music, its antagonistic energy, compared to which so much of what was to come seemed disappointingly unmad, unfurious, unqueer; just verse-chorus blandishment watered down and down.
What is the source of that defiant melancholy? There’s the heavy air of the city, the louring clouds and perpetual rain of the English northwest. There’s the Irish world-weariness brought by its immigrants (all of The Smiths were second-generation Irish migrants). There was the bleak post-war cityscape, full of bomb sites and soot-covered buildings (Bernhard Sumner of New Order said he didn’t see a tree until he was fourteen). There was the long history of industrial decline, unemployment, deprivation – the sense of a future robbed, of strandedness, of time stretching out into nowhere.
True, Manchester cheered up in the ‘90s. The burgeoning of the gay village, the arrival of ecstasy in its world famous nightclubs. The city was no longer a boondocks. Investors and financiers, gentrifiers and speculators, transformed the cityscape with statement architecture, with steel-balconied warehouse conversions: monuments to credit; the science fiction future, all streamlined and silvery.
But the characters of my novel dream of battering back the mancunian regenerators, of rewinding to an earlier time and re-opening the figurative cracks and the crevices where you used to be able live unnoticed and unbothered on government benefits. They dream of reawakening the old, abandoned city, and with it, the conditions of great mancunian music.
Joy Division, Ceremony
Joy Division were the band above all others for the characters in my novel (for me, too.) Ceremony is the last song they recorded, in the week before Ian Curtis hung himself on the eve of an American tour. Curtis’s body was found kneeling, bent over, the palms of his hands pressed together, as though in prayer. And that’s what you hear in this infinitely sad music, so desperate, so involuted …
New Order, Ceremony
The same song, but recorded by New Order, who were born from the ashes of Joy Division. Ceremony again, sung by Bernard Sumner, sounding more tentative, more frail – fitting for a band, barely in their twenties, who were still in mourning for their lead singer. This was a couple of years before they discovered sequencers, built their own synths and went to the disco; before Blue Monday.
My characters are struck by Ceremony’s yearning, as if it were searching for something, some kind of connection …
Vini Reilly, Requiem
Guitar magician Vini Reilly commemorated the death of the great mancunian impresario Tony Wilson with A Paeon to Wilson. It was an act of appreciation and gratitude; Wilson was a fosterer of fellow tricksters and heretics, founding Factory Records as what was essentially a conceptual work of art, and opening the Haçienda as the pleasure palace that mancunian youth deserved.
It’s the destiny of figures like Wilson, and all the other mavericks named here, to become approved outlaws and culture heroes, part of just another middle class frontier myth, affording vicarious thrills through the books and films made about them. Which is why a special power of recall is necessary to bear witness to their brilliance.
This is what my characters seek to cultivate, constructing their own private Manchester from bits of video footage, music, old clothes and random artefacts. And that was my aim in writing My Weil: to wander through that part of myself called Manchester.
The Smiths, You’ve Got Everything Now
Mancunian melancholy with a queer touch, a camp touch: the Smiths. The early Smiths had a defiance – England, Morrissey thought, really owed them a living. In the years of unemployment after he left school, Morrissey pretty much gave birth to himself anew from a personal mythology of ‘60s Coronation Street stars, failed glam acts, obscure northern comedians, forgotten kitchen sink dramas, Shelagh Delany’s collected works and books brought home by his librarian mother. And then Johnny Marr knocked on his door …
Greatness followed. But it was early Smiths, the Smiths of You’ve Got Everything Now, when Morrissey still burned with indignation at only just escaping a botched and obscure life, which bashes itself against the grey mancunian sky most gloriously.
What would have become of Morrisey had he gone to university like them, my characters wonder: if he’d studied literature, published a poetry collection or two, become a creative writing lecturer? His despair, they decide, would have been alleviated and hence never crushed into diamond-like brilliance; it would never have set itself alight, like a black sun. Did university stand between my characters and greatness? Was that the reason they are lost in sloth, anomy and overwanking?
James, Hymn to a Village
Is becoming great a matter of will, of deliberation, or is it something you stumble into, which occurs because you’re part of a scene?
Back when I was studying for a PhD – the inspiration for the action of My Weil – my fellow students and I had a packed Tuesday, starting with lessons in classical Greek, followed by Heidegger reading group, and then an afternoon game of badminton. After that, pints at the Sand Bar; drunken spuriousness and chat.
Joining us one Sand Bar evening was James guitarist Larry Gott, stepfather-in-law of a fellow PhD student. We pressed him for Manchester music anecdotes, for stories of the great names before they were great names and pondered the old question about the conditions of greatness.
We concluded that what Brian Eno called ‘scenius’ was what mattered: a sense of common, antagonistic endeavour, for networks that permitted, even celebrated, nonconformity. Was there any scenius in our own PhD student network: in our ancient Greek studies, reading groups, badminton practice and Sand Bar drinking? we wondered. Probably not.
Buzzcocks, Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)
During my years of PhD study, I was the live-in tenant of a well-loved figure in Manchester, the maverick philosopher David Melling, who was the embodiment of the ancient Greek virtue of megalopsyche, magnanimity or, literally great-souledness, opening his large Chorlton house to guests and tenants from all over. Much of My Weil takes place in and around a fictional version of David’s house in the mancunian suburbs of Chorlton.
Despite an intense dislike of popular music, David played a walk-on role at important moments of mancunian musical history, having taught and housed more than one member of Buzzcocks, and taken a shine to winsome ruffian Sid Vicious when he welcomed the Sex Pistols to the Lesser Free Trade Hall at their famous first gig in 1977. A legendary night (though David didn’t stay), at which so many of Manchester’s future musical luminaries were present. The beginning of the mancunian scenius …
Happy Mondays, Wrote for Luck
It wasn’t all melancholy in the mancunian ‘80s; it wasn’t all about Sex Pistols-inspired new wave. The Happy Mondays followed their own star to give us a Mancunian street funk, a lumpen Funkadelic, conjuring up a whole way of life: Scally gangs, heading into the Haçienda from the squats on Friday; unemployeds, not up till three or four in the day, smoking a few pipes, necking a few brews, microdots at the ready; out for the night, a day and another day, and not coming down until Monday.
The characters of My Weil arrived in the city long after the Haçienda closed, but still dream of a time when the mischievous mancunian ‘lumpenproletariat’ (as they think of them) still roamed the earth; when it was possible to take a lumpen approach to your PhD students, taking a decade or more over your studies, dreaming your life away in a squat.
The Fall, Eat Y’Self Fitter
‘He really is that guy you really hoped you could be, but weren’t. If you’re in band, you really don’t want to care what anyone thinks, but you do. And you really want to be able to crank out an record every nine months, but you can’t. And you’d love to keep surprising people and baffling your critics by every three albums or so turning out your best album, but you don’t’. Henry Rollins is speaking of Mark E. Smith, leader of The Fall, the seminal, long-lasting north mancunian group that threw together rockabilly garage surf, country ‘n’ northern, M.R. Jamesean channellings and rancorous prole art animosity.
Smith, who fled the formal education system aged sixteen, was a visionary, a mythographer, a Salfordian Blake for our times, always kept working, disdaining fashion; instinctual, but also autodidactically intellectual; looking askance at both left and right, always humorous (blackly humorous, sardonically humorous); holding onto working class common sense; open to art high and low. It is as such that he’s an exemplar to my over-educated characters, particularly in his gleeful, sarcastic dancing in the video for Eat Y’Self Fitter.
How is that Nico, chanteuse of the Velvet Underground, ended up living in Manchester, and in untrendy north of the city at that (she drank in Foresters, Prestwich, where Mark E. Smith was a local)? An Amazon in biker boots, self-contained, self-possessed, otherworldly (even other-dimensional says the great memoirist, James Young) who had long since renounced her glamorous past to pursue her own mournful artistry. Manchester reminded Nico of Berlin; she was happy to make her home there. Her ashes were eventually scattered on the moors above the city. Still, the question remains: what was Nico doing in Manchester?
A similar question could be asked about the Simone Weil of my novel, a version of the French philosopher, revolutionary and mystic of the 1930s and 40s, who is reborn as PhD student in contemporary Manchester. Why? But why not? It throws both the city and the real Simone Weil into relief. The incongruity is the point: the very distance between them, like the electrical potential difference between cloud and earth that causes lightning, makes things happen. Lightning strikes; my characters find the leader who, they believe, might spur them to greatness.