Rob A. Mackenzie reviews Dead Souls by Sam Riviere (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021)
Dead Souls is prose fiction and concerns a subject Sam Riviere, author of three Faber poetry collections, knows well: poets! I think it is fair to say that the poets do not come over particularly well, seen through the eyes of his jaundiced, unnamed narrator – editor of a literary magazine – and Solomon Wiese, who tells the narrator his story through the night at a London Travelodge hotel bar during an international poetry festival.
Wiese is in trouble for two separate plagiarism sprees, the first of which feels like a fairly traditional form of plagiarism, the second extremely unusual. Lauded as an “emerging poet”, praise quickly turns to opprobrium when a submission Wiese makes to a leading magazine is declared a “crime against originality”, 96% of it derived from other poems. He finds himself “grey-listed” and realises he has no alternative but to disappear from the London poetry scene for a time. After a series of misadventures with some highly dubious characters, he returns and after initial acclaim, is “embroiled” in more trouble than ever.
That is essentially the plot, simply a backdrop for a satire on the poetry ‘community’. It’s hilarious, disturbing and provocative. Riviere deals with a range of issues, continually twisting and turning arguments on all sides of a question, often over several pages, and it’s important to note that the book contains just one paragraph from beginning to end, influenced by Thomas Bernhard. The technique lends the narrative a relentless drive, in keeping with the unwavering self-obsession of the characters. The prose is highly stylised, but not difficult to read or understand. Solomon Wiese’s 200+ page monologue is peppered with repetition and accumulation of detail as if searching, in real time, for the most precise phrase to hammer down every thought. Riviere also delights in inserting ridiculous (yet somehow representative) abecedarian lists of poets’ names, magazine titles and plot devices.
Barbed arrows are shot firmly into the posterior of poetry anthologies left to moulder on the shelves of secondhand bookshops, the seriousness of poets about their art and their inconsistent attempts at modesty … the desperate attempts of London poets to conceal from each other the parental support they’d all received allowing them to live in the capital
It’s impossible to cover the many topics discussed. Some are included mainly for laughs, I think, such as the narrator’s ruminations on poetry recitals: people only attend them in case their “absence was noted” and their own events are then badly attended in response, and their constant psychological desire to leave poetry readings in mid-flow stems from a similar impulse to the physical desire to urinate. Barbed arrows are also shot firmly into the posterior of poetry anthologies left to moulder on the shelves of secondhand bookshops, the seriousness of poets about their art and their inconsistent attempts at modesty (which one of these is real? And which a mere performance?), the desperate attempts of London poets to conceal from each other the parental support they’d all received allowing them to live in the capital … There’s much in this account of a fictional poetry world to kindle recognition from real poets. It’s beguiling, disquieting and funny, and at times the fire is lit rather close to home.
Wiese never believes he has done anything wrong by presenting other people’s work as his own. Since he was young, he’s been aware of a ‘”nothingness” that follows him around. He can’t pinpoint it, but he’s aware of its existence. Writing a poem on a blank sheet of paper feels less to him like creating something as making a nothingness disappear. His ‘own’ poetry was a regurgitation to get rid of the poems lodged in his brain i.e. other people’s poems. The second phase of his plagiarism is a bewildering absurdity (without giving too much away), but the principle is ingeniously the same. Despite Wiese’s excuses, Riviere makes his evasions clear. Wiese attributes what he does to “forces that were carrying him along”, rather than taking responsibility. When he describes how he went about finding poems to use, he claims it’s “barely worth relating” and “this part of his account couldn’t realistically be of any value.” He protests too much, I think! He convinces himself that the poems he takes are “indistinguishable anyway”, and therefore not unique works in their own right. In conflating standard and absurd justifications of plagiarism and also undermining them, Riviere does invite the reader to think through the issues more than if he had simply taken an obvious judgemental standpoint.
When Wiese escapes London and moves to the town of Diss (‘Dis’ was the sixth circle of the Inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy), just far enough away from the city to have no cultural life (other than “buggy racing”) and no grants for cultural regeneration, he is introduced to Max Mikkaels, who helps him plot a return to the London poetry scene using the new ‘Locket’ social media app. Mikkaels creates a mass of false profiles to follow Wiese and succeeds in generating a huge buzz about him among real people. Wiese’s subsequent astonishing live performances, however, lead not only to him being accepted back into the poetry scene, but also attract the attention of the “scholastici”, the powerful establishment poets of an ‘innovative’ bent (as opposed to the ‘grammatici’ who resemble the mainstream establishment). When Wiese falls out of favour with them, he must be punished. Indeed, the convention is that he must set the terms of his own punishment, and these must be exceptionally severe to satisfy the vindictiveness of the community. Wiese’s girlfriend, Phoebe Glass, who was entirely hostile to the establishment, until invited to join the scholastici herself, is the most enthusiastic of all to administer the punishment – out of concern for him, of course! “The more brutal and thoroughgoing his excoriation now, the more assured his eventual redemption would be, in her estimation”. She terms it “alternative justice”, which sounds almost Trumpian. Riviere satirizes those who appear anti-establishment but join in with the establishment when it suits them, and condemn outsiders with cruelty concealed behind a veneer of self-righteousness.
If you read the book, you become part of that cursed body of people that Sam Riviere has now shared his narrator’s confession with!
Or does he? This is Solomon Wiese, the accused plagiarist, lashing out at those who have condemned him, not the author. The novel drips with so much irony and gross exaggeration that determining what the author thinks is not straightforward. When Wiese describes London as a place which destroys an artist but that leaving it holds even greater potential for self-destruction, I wondered whether Riviere also sincerely thought that or if he was satirizing Wiese’s position. When the narrator says that his political views were just a product of his background and identity, leading him to support the “red team” and hate everything the “blue team” stood for, and that the moral authority granted by his unquestioning allegiance to the “good” side was merely “a predisposition, such was my lack of decisive input in arriving at it”, is that also Riviere’s view or is he ironizing the narrator’s cynical lack of faith in his own freedom of choice? Perhaps it doesn’t matter if it causes the reader to reflect, but most writers do write novels because they are interested in issues and subtly want to advance their views. As a poet who is no stranger to employing irony, I understand why this can prove difficult, and it’s perhaps even more difficult to achieve in a novel with opinionated, unsympathetic narrators.
One final point: Wiese unburdens himself by confessing his story to the narrator and then warns him that he will one day wish to unburden himself by sharing it with others. When he does, he will be seen as somehow intricately bound up in the confession, tainted by it, as will those he shares it with. That may seem like strange logic (and it is), but contamination by association is a fairly common trope today, especially on social media. If you read the book, you become part of that cursed body of people that Sam Riviere has now shared his narrator’s confession with! Normally, quoting from a novel’s final page necessitates a spoiler warning, but I don’t think that applies in this case. The narrator warns of “the judgement that was coming towards us as if from overhead, it was falling towards us like a dark shape from the sun”. The shadow, I sense, is meant to fall not only on the group of poets gathered in the Travelodge bar, or on Solomon Wiese, or on the narrator and the dissolute characters in the novel, but also upon the author, his readers and, no doubt, reviewers.