Dead Souls

A satire on the cultural sector, which uses humour to play with ideas about literary convention and value, Dead Souls is also a series of philosophical enquiries, with plagiarism the preeminent theme. Set in a slightly warped world where poetry has become immensely lucrative, the novel explores the case of a plagiarising poet, Solomon Wiese, publicly shamed for presenting the work of obscure poets as his own. Riviere is keenly interested in cultural capital, and one senses that, for him, plagiarism has come to seem symbolic of the way in which cultural value functions more generally. The book itself steals or borrows a title (from Gogol) and a style (from Thomas Bernhard), so, if originality is the ultimately fetishized good, then Riviere is enacting his own disavowal of such value. 

In keeping with Bernhard’s style, the novel is structured entirely without paragraphs, with a looping, recursive narrative. As the novel opens, we meet our narrator, ‘an editor of mid-circulation literary magazine’ in conversation with ‘the head of a small publishing company’ at a Festival of Culture. Through repetition, these initially innocuous descriptions become more and more slyly pointed as distinctions of status, just one aspect of the novel’s merciless satire of the arts ‘food chain’. This accounting is thoroughgoing: capturing the importance of novelty in ‘the culture cycle’ and the mechanisms of social currency (how currency is ‘siphoned off’ by adroit association); as well as the importance of family money and ‘elite educational institutions’ (12) for individual success. This puncturing of any fantasy of the arts as uncontaminated by larger social and political ills offers another similarity with Bernhard – whose work often paints art and artists in a grotesque light; in the play Die Macht der Gewohnheit for example, which finds fascism and dictatorship rife in the Salzburg Festival. In Dead Souls, the condemnation of the arts – and specifically poetry, seemingly the form least likely to be contaminated by late capitalism, is both absurd and not. Riviere’s vision of an alternative society in which there are ‘rich poets’ is both ludicrous – a satirical caricature of the social and political sins that are rampant elsewhere – and an indictment of the ways in which the cultural sector has succumbed to the same evils. 

Riviere recognises that art has become part of the problem, both feeding a sense of complacency and adding to our alienation. On his way to a poetry reading, where a comfortable audience ‘soak up’ poems of political dissent as way of confirming their distance from any real risk, the narrator looks out at views across London, noticing how streets and buildings have been ‘embalmed’ by footage, ‘making them impossible to access even when you were standing in front of them’ (40). The representation in art (‘a high-budget documentary film’ 38) has replaced the original. The notion of simulacra here suggests that even when confronted with an original we are so surfeited with other people’s perspectives that a kind of unknowing plagiarism is inevitable and endemic.

If originality is one of the sacred tenets of artistic value that the book delights in gleefully confounding, then another is characterisation. A title page lists each character in order of appearance – but in the narrative itself, the characters are the merest ciphers, mechanisms for the ideas that are the true focus of the novel. This blatant disinterest in characterisation is a frequent source of humour: as when the narrator notices his ex-girlfriend, Genia Friend, and her new boyfriend, Piet Durcan, ‘the taciturn South African’ (8), who, in a droll play on the business of having to find fresh ways of describing a character, reappears moments later as ‘the South African roaster’ (8), both of whom are never seen again.  All the names have an odd feeling of potency, of excess meaning – which is largely to do with the fact that they are always used in full, another technique of Bernhard’s. Both the use of full names and jokes like one about the South African rely upon repetition for their effect: a comic technique which simultaneously adds and removes meaning and value. The repetition implies an additional meaning, but the joke is that there is none. 

There’s a similar dynamic at work with the use of italics, which seem to promise precision, but don’t deliver.  When Solomon is musing on the elite group of poets called the scholastici, a group of ‘high-profile yet elusive poets’, his account circles around the same descriptions: they’re a ‘select group of poets’ ‘an elusive and inaccessible poetry clique’, an ‘exclusive poetry clique’ (267). He finds their ‘formal bearing and style of speech’ disconcerting, they are ‘very crisp’, ‘altogether too dry’, ‘with.…their crisp facial expressions and dry verbal expressions’‘their unrelenting crispness and dryness’ (266). The italics imply profundity, perhaps even revelation, but this expectation is made ludicrous by the vacuousness of the repetition. The italics promise abundance and the repetition empties it out. As a form of humour at the expense of literary convention, it might seem ‘altogether too dry’, but actually it’s a kind of written slapstick that makes you snort out loud with laughter.

However, there is movement despite the repetition – information is gradually added, and the impression is deepened. The effect is akin to being in someone’s head, as a thought process circles round and round particular phrases, but it’s very different to what we have been schooled into expecting on the page.  The technique is both strategic – for comic effect – and a closer approximation of consciousness. The novel seems to suggest that rather than us inhabiting language, it is language that inhabits us, as phrases drop into our heads and take up residence. The novel also suggests that, given this porousness, we must understand plagiarism as a concept that goes beyond literature – and see it instead as a reality that encompasses memories, feelings and gestures. Rather than a depth model of selfhood, we should acknowledge a much more shallow paradigm, with the self as a mere container for feelings and thoughts that are perhaps more external and collective than we’d like to think.

Riviere, Sam. Dead Souls. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021

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