Sam Riviere – Dead Souls

301-page books comprising a single paragraph do not always make for gripping reading. True there is Thomas Bernhard where the quality of the vituperation and self-mockery is totally convincing, and Roberto Bolano who uses many different poetic voices. But here we have a book by a poet, meant to be a take-down of the modern literary world, and it comes across as deeply annoying.

The ideas are good. Here is an outline of the narrative structure: A young male person is attending the biennial Festival of Culture at the Royal Festival Hall in London. He, our narrator, is being spoken to by the head of a small publishing company about a poet who was fallen out of favour, Solomon Weise. The poet has been ‘grey listed’ after getting a high score (not a good thing) on the newly developed QACS (Quantitative Analysis and Comparison System). This showed that his work was largely plagiarised from the work of other poets. But before our nameless narrator spends the night closeted in the Travelodge bar listening to Solomon Weise’s tale, he must do a reading for a Russian poet whom the authorities have held back at Heathrow. And we are exposed to far too many of his inner voices debating the worth of his actions. Is he actuated by self-interest? Is his cynicism thwarting a genuine attempt to assist others? But then another voice points out the number of poseurs and ‘appropriators of worthy causes’ who are everywhere one looks. He does the reading after many pages of self-scrutiny. And then goes on to meet Solomon Weise.

The narrator meets Solomon Weise in person on page 82 and from then on, we have Solomon Weise narrating his life story in minute detail.

His first incidence of plagiarism in primary school. His withdrawal from public life after he has been ‘grey-listed’, and his time spent in the town of Diss. There he works in a pub and becomes the beneficiary of a large fortune from a man whom he only describes at first as ‘the old man with black scabs over his head’. His name is Dmitri Radic, and he has gained his fortune by some illegal activity while serving in the military.

A little after this he meets Max Mikkaels who has developed an App called Locket to beef up popularity for poets who are in the emerging stage. One of my favourite bits of description of what seemed like a real person is this brief glimpse of Max Mikkael’s brother

They passed at the door a person on his way in, his headphones leaking music, and dressed from head to foot in sheaths of gloss streetwear, layers of bright webbing and shiny synthetic fabrics that hung like cloaks or priestly vestments… a dome-like baseball cap with an abbreviated peak, tattooed wrists and a pair of enormous orange trainers with various panels and inlays, some of which showed animated characters engaged in anarchic activities.

I love this excess. There is more in the same vein and it is like water in a desert.

With Max Mikkaels, Solomon Weise says, he travels to the homes of unknown poets and samples their work. ‘Samples’ literally, because as they are driving away from their meetings with the poets, Solomon Weise chews up the papers containing the poems and spits them out of the car. From this flow his spontaneous poetry performances, which are wildly popular for a time, but then again fail to pass the QACS test.

A great deal of this is highly amusing, and an interesting critique of the world of writing, but to have it all narrated by Solomon Weise, through 200 pages drove me to screaming point. The narrator’s ‘I thought’ for 80 pages, is replaced by ‘Solomon Weise said’ for another 200 pages.

Solomon Weise falls into a poetry clique called the scholastici, who make ‘fluent disclaimers’ (the phrase is used eight times on one page) about their education and backgrounds. They too judge him and find him wanting.  As he leaves us he is heading towards a ‘self-nominated’ punishment’ and making it clear he blames the narrator for everything.

You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

I think I agree with Lily Meyer of NPR in her assessment of the book. In comparing Sam Riviere’s book with Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives she says

I will say only that the latter loves poetry; the former doesn’t even know what poetry is. It seems unsurprising, then, that while Bolaño’s novel overflows with joy, excitement, confusion, and humor, Riviere’s is fundamentally dried out. It is a collection of ideas with no emotion. Why turn to fiction for that?

Her review here

https://www.npr.org/2021/05/18/997601221/dead-souls-is-a-smart-book-in-some-ways-a-good-one-also-its-unreadable

8 thoughts on “Sam Riviere – Dead Souls

  1. 301 pages is a mere pittance after finishing the forth book by Diana Gabaldon. The Outlander series is very compelling to the last page and that would be over 1,000 pages. Have you read them Gert?
    Leslie

  2. Oh dear…I’m sorry this didn’t fly for you as I recall altering you to a positive review. (The one in The Guardian, I think?) It does seem rather tiresome from your commentary on Riviere’s approach!

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