Thursday, September 09, 2021

Dead Souls by Sam Riviere

Even before one begins reading Sam Riviere’s first novel there is despondency as one registers that the title is a duplication of the English translation of Nikolai Gogol’s Мёртвые души, the novel in which a character seeks to buy dead serfs from their owners but who have yet to be removed from property registers and are thereby still taxed. It suggests that Dead Souls is an already belated publication, posthumous even, perhaps following the fashion for novels with commonplace phrases for titles or as allusions to past glories; the incontrovertibility of the one winning credence for the other. 

As one begins to read, the suggestion is affirmed yet complicated by the repetitious and pedantic phrasing of the sentences, the italicised paradoxical reversals of sense, and the long speeches reported by the first-person narrator, which is an overt adoption of Thomas Bernhard’s prose in which pedantry and repetition form an intoxicating music, paradoxical reversals are commonplace, and telescoped narration displaces the narrative centre and the guarantee it provides. Concerns about belatedness are acknowledged as the subject reported by the narrator is a case of literary plagiarism by a poet called Solomon Weise, whose surname is a German word that can mean melody, the manner or fashion in which one acts, or wise – the Wisdom of Solomon of course – while other characters soon appear called Christian Buch and Christian Wort, surnames that mean book and word in the language of the country in which the Gutenberg Bible was first produced and whose religious establishment was challenged by words nailed to a door. 

Weise had been ostracised by the poetry establishment because new technology has detected that his poetry is not original, and the bulk of the 320 pages are filled by the narrator reporting his monologue over drinks in a Travelodge bar describing the highways and byways of his life since being forced to withdraw from a poetry scene dominated by two sinister groups called the scolastici and the grammatici. The digressions, both perplexing and entertaining, are reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Ballardian novels and which, to add to the despondency, Toby Litt says has much in common with the Contes Nocturnes of ETA Hoffmann. One narrates Weise’s retreat from London to the Norfolk town of Diss, an obvious allusion to the city of Dis, where Dante-like he encounters the damned souls of provincials, one of whom is an ex-prisoner of war who tells a story about becoming entranced by a fellow prisoner’s recitation of a poem in a foreign language, which later turns out to be not a poem at all but coordinates to an underground stash of riches which on being freed he can find and loot for himself. This is an obvious analogy of the various promises of poetry: an escape from the prison cell of the self it offers in the time of reading and, afterwards, the currency one can spend from one's fortress of cultural knowledge, and, perhaps most promising of all, access to mystic secrets concealed beneath the surface if only one can decode the poem, hence despondency for those who haven't read Gogol's novel, Hoffman's stories or know next to nothing about the manifold implications of the German Reformation, as they wonder if they shed light on the secrets of this novel and thereby of literature itself. All of which leads back to our initial unease with the belatedness and artificiality of its title and narration. 

As Solomon Weise ends his spoken-word Bildungsroman and parts company from the narrator, we no longer ask whether the allusions, analogies and the Bernhardian pastiche are clues and feel no need to go into search of the secret because we recognise it is a question and quest borne by the form and content of the novel itself and in the pleasure we take in following the highways and byways. The secrets of poetry or literature in general are nowhere to be found in publication, sales or recognition by the movements codifying the means of judgment (or in judgment at all), but in the perplexity of the reading experience itself, which appears to be too late, not an experience at all, or opposed to experience; posthumous, even.

Update: See a much better review by Huw Nesbitt.


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