A Bunch of Losers

Sam Riviere, Dead Souls

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781474617642

reviewed by Huw Nesbitt

Sam Riviere is a rip-off artist. In his new book Dead Souls, he can’t write a sentence without stealing someone else’s ideas, yet somehow this becomes its allure — let me explain. His new novel is a knockoff, a forgery, a fake, and is so full of deception that even its press contains outright lies. (Already a distinguished poet, Riviere’s Dead Souls is marketed as his prose fiction debut, when in fact this was Safe Mode, his 2017 ‘ambient novel’). Instead of writing an original text, he copies other people and brags about it before he’s even begun. His trail of half-arsed deceit begins on the cover, its title lifted from Gogol. It then continues to the epigraph where, smuggled between red herrings from John Clare and Marshall McLuhan, the first indication of his fraudulent enterprise appears — a passage from the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard: ‘It is the absurd ideas that are the clearest ideas, and the most absurd ideas are the most important.’ A good quote for a writer who trades in passing one thing off as another because that is exactly what Riviere does, his novel being not only indebted to Bernhard, but written as if it were his.

Dead Souls resembles Bernhard’s Gargoyles, published in English in 1970. Narrated anonymously by the son of a rural doctor, he accompanies his father on a series of disturbing home-visits, encountering: a ‘crazy industrialist’ living with his half-sister ‘like man and wife’; three brothers strangling exotic birds; a vicious musical genius imprisoned by his female sibling, and finally Prince Saurau, whose crazed monologue, comprising half the novel, repetitively describes various delusions, particularly his belief that his heir has become a communist intent on ‘liquidating’ him and their estate. Through this top-to-bottom portrait, Bernhard lampoons Austrian society, alluding to his later obsession with the malign, lingering post-war presence of Nazism in the central European nation.

Dead Souls has much in common. Aside from its absurd Germanic character names (Christian Wort [‘word’], Christian Buch [‘book’] and Amelia Albers), it is arranged as a sequence of strange encounters told in extended asides. Here, the narrator, similarly anonymous, an editor of a London poetry journal, takes the reader on a satirical tour of the UK’s poetry scene. He begins at a ‘Festival of Culture’ event on South Bank gossiping with the ‘head of a small publishing company’ about Solomon Wiese (‘meadow’), a poet engulfed in scandal. Previously lauded, Wiese’s career has been ruined through twice falling foul of ‘the quantitative analysis and comparison system (QACS)’, an industry-wide anti-plagiarism program designed to punish ‘crimes against originality.’ Following that, he frets about reading on behalf of a detained Ukrainian female poet, agonises over the audience member who disrupts it, recalls petty rivalries in the poetry circles of Bury St Edmunds, and speculates that a popular poet is in fact a PR creation built on manipulation and suicide.

Subsequently, the narrator bumps into Wiese and his partner Phoebe Glass at an event in London Bridge’s Travelodge bar. What unfolds — the bulk of the novel — is a Saurau-esque monologue told by Wiese detailing his rise and fall. As a child, Wiese explains, he became obsessed with nothingness, and that in adolescence, this fixation was transferred to verse. ‘[T]he writing of poetry was far more like deleting something,’ he says, ‘it was like pointing at something to make it disappear.’ In this ‘project of eradication,’ Weise regurgitates ‘the words of older poets, dead poets and poets still alive’ in order ‘to make [them] disappear . . . nothinged’. Having found fame in London’s poetry scene, his plagiarism is eventually exposed by QACS, and, cast down from the capital’s literary society, he descends into the underworld. Along the way, he meets techno-anarchists, mysterious boatmen, and is gifted a ‘small fortune’ by a former soldier. Using this money, he cons provincial poets via a social media app, buying their poems and using them as material for a spoken-word comeback that is eventually exposed again by QACS. Towards end, he reveals that he is undergoing “alternative justice” at the hands of Phoebe Glass, and in a moral twist, discloses to the narrator that his romantic rivalry with a poet in Bury led to a woman’s undoing.

In Dead Souls, then, Riviere transposes Gargoyles’ satirical premise to the bourgeois, self-important milieu of Literary London, portraying its participants as a figurative and literal bunch of losers. More fundamentally, Dead Souls also shares Bernhard’s linguistic anxieties. In German, Gargoyles is called Verstörung, ‘disturbance’, the novel circling around the disquiet that ‘Communication is impossible’ because language is a kind of monologue, composed not only of ideas, but material words that in themselves denote nothing at all. ‘All the things that people say,’ explains the prince, ‘are only in monologues.’ Dead Souls enacts this through its monological composition — one that in the end seems to communicate nothing but Wiese’s meandering, incoherent narrative — as well through its tautologous, Bernhardian sentences, whose empty repetition threaten to dissolve meaning into mere letters on the page. Compare Prince Saurau (‘What I said and what he said, everything I did and everything I thought and what he did, pretended to do, what I pretended to do and what he thought, it was all this stereotype’), to Dead Souls’ narrator’s summary of the excruciating tedium of British party politics:

We, the red team, had to uphold our end of the polarity, because they, the blue team, were holding up their end of the polarity, and they had to uphold their end of the polarity because we were upholding our end of the polarity.

Riviere’s novel also pursues this through its imitation of Gargolyes’s monologue’s within monologues, as in the following, part of a monologue from a dying writer, which is itself reported in Wiese’s: ‘But at least no poem will be written to commemorate me, the old poet said, and as the old poet spoke these words a church bell began to chime in the distance, Solomon Wiese said.’

In this instance and elsewhere, Dead Souls’s narration has a recursive ‘Russian doll’ structure, with the narrator’s monologue encompassing Wiese’s, whose monologue encloses others (e.g. the old poet’s), whose extended asides also feature other extended asides. The frequency of these ‘worlds with worlds’ disrupts the clarity of narration, making it seem as if there might in fact be no one ‘speaking’ at all, just text, as well as effacing the novel’s ontological ‘limit’ — the primary narrator, our editor. Or in other words: it is hard to tell who is saying what and easy to perceive that there might in fact be someone else secretly telling the story in a world ‘above’ or ‘below’ the narrator, i.e. the writer. In turn, this latter gesture blurs the boundary between the text’s ‘inside’, its fictional reality, and its ‘outside’, the society in which it exists, imbuing its obvious real-world ire with additional punch.

There is a simple word to describe Dead Souls: pastiche. In Italian, a pasticcio, from which the term derives, is also a type of flaky pie, but in English we are familiar with it as well via Frederic Jameson, for whom in Postmodernism it is simply ‘blank parody’ minus satire. What old Fred did not count on, however, is a writer pastiching a satire and aiming its parodic tone at different targets. Here, Dead Soul’s quarry isn’t simply dippy English nobs (I say this as one of them), but the commodification of the novel and its mystification as a unique cultural artefact. Today, literature’s pre-existing fetishisation as a consumable thing has become acute, partly thanks to preening idiots on social media parading books like other fashionable rubbish (luxury fast-food, hideous trainers, expensive cars, etc.). And like any fetishised object, the novel’s desirability has been enveloped by facile claims of novelty, authenticity and originality. Riviere sends this dumb charade up in his narrative about plagiarism and in his plagiaristic form, using pastiche, as the critic Ingeborg Hoesterey understands it, as a critical allegory. Instead of a novel of utterly unique qualities, we are presented with a copy of another author’s work in translation, an imitation of an approximation.

What's more, through its appropriation of Bernhard’s linguistic anxieties, it also proposes that language isn’t just a monologue, but polyphonic, composed of the (potentially mute) signs from everyday words and phrases, as well as from other languages and ‘intertextually’ from literature itself. (Think of ‘electricity’, coined by the Renaissance essayist Thomas Browne, or ‘all the world’s a stage’, a commonplace attributable to the Roman satirist Petronius). All of which is to say, the disturbance Dead Souls depicts is that, contrary to the publishing industry and its hangers on, literature is in some sense inherently derivative since it partakes in the self-cannibalising medium of language. To be sure, this is precisely the dread that engulfs Riviere’s narrator-editor. At the end of the novel, following this exhausting series of asides, he is left looking on in despair at the other poets in the bar. Fearful of ‘the judgement that was coming’, he tries ‘prevent myself from entering a state of absolute panic’, overcome by the apprehension that Wiese might not be alone in his crimes.

Huw Nesbitt can tell which egg came from which chicken.