Believe the Blurbers
Dead Souls (A Novel by Sam Riviere, NY: Catapult, 2021, 289 pp.) is a rare example of a book containing believable blurbs. This wild gallimaufry of a novel, which runs a monologue through almost three hundred pages of text, without pauses for paragraphs or new chapters, is a tour de force of literary mania. Reviewers have pointed to possible influences: Roberto Bolaño, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino. One blurber, Nicolette Polek, describes the novel as “a rare and brilliant pleasure, a coiling, searing fugue of a book that takes our deranged culture and pulls forth from it a box of stars.” She’s right. Or, to put it in the fully neutered style in which the book is written, they are right.
There are chapters of sorts, but you have to figure them out yourself. In the front matter the author provides a kind of contents page—not labeled as such—listing names of characters as names of chapters, along with the pages where they start. Begin with an introductory chapter (not listed in these “contents”), then go, first, to “Zariyah Zhadan,” p. 32: this is, presumably, Chapter One. Proceed from there, filling in the chapter numbers beside the given name and page number. Chapter Six comprises two named characters. We end up with “The Scholastici,” p. 253, which is the last of twelve chapters.
What we may consider the introductory chapter consists of a dialogue between the unnamed narrator of the novel—we will refer to him hereinafter as N—and “the head of a small publishing company.” The two are in attendance at a literary conference in London, the Festival of Culture (FOC), which furnishes the background setting for the whole of the book. Himself the head of a small publishing company, Sam Riviere has obviously attended many such events and has a perfect feel for the ambiance. N is “an editor at [Casement], a mid-circulation literary magazine.”
This conversation, which consists all of reported speech (no direct quotations), is presented as a monologue running in the head of N. While reporting the words of the head of the small publishing company (HOSPC), N is only half listening to him, as he is preoccupied with his own interior thoughts. This pattern of perpetual monologue dominates the text of the novel and accentuates a central point: that everyone is a hopeless narcissist and a dead soul.
Although the spiel of the HOSPC is of little interest to N, does, in fact, utterly bore him, it so turns out that “the drift of the argument” is the central issue of the book: “the noticeable lapse in quality of literary production over the past half decade,” leading to a crisis of confidence and even “widespread debilitating anxiety” throughout the publishing industry. People, it seems, are not buying and reading books much anymore; the market has endured “its most troubled and unpredictable period in recent history.” For some reason—never, by the way, believable—readers in the UK have turned to poetry, as if poetry “harboured some innate form of truth.” The HOSPC debunks this idea, however—as does the overriding message of the entire book—offering his opinion that no real poetry any longer exists. For some time now, opines the HOSPC, there has been not one iota of poetry in the poetry being written and published. There has been, rather, nothing but fake poetry, or, to coin a word, fauxetry.
In having their conversation at the FOC, the HOSPC and the narrator are playing a game in which “ruthlessness was a given.” This game—played by everyone among the poets who attend the conference—involves power, a subtle establishment of pecking orders. N is careful not to listen too carefully to the spiel of HOSPC, by way of demonstrating that this man’s opinions mean little to him. But he, as well as the reader of the book, listens closely enough to establish the primary plotline of the novel. Amidst the shockwaves in the publishing industry, industry bigwigs have desperately sought out a solution. They have, consequently, come up with QACS, the quantitative analysis and comparison system. A team of software engineers have built a plagiarism detection machine “of a sophistication hitherto not imagined.”
Now it will be possible “to identify such features as the machinations of plot, the structural dynamics of narrative and perspective, the balancing of metaphor and the density of descriptive language, tactics of rhetoric such as repetition, assonance, anaphora and apostrophe, the intersecting arcs of major and minor characters and the patterns of their outcomes, the pacing and delivery of dialogue, the physical laws of fantastic worlds, chronological distortions, and even the biologies of imaginary creatures. They also had in their sights the most elusive quality, the style of the work, which would be objectively defined at last . . .” This goes on for another whole page, but, in essence, what the QACS can establish is “an absolutely individual fingerprint, the soul of the book.” As a result, an author’s sacrosanct individuality will be enshrined, and plagiarism of any sort made impossible.
Henceforth, only absolutely original literary works will be published. Given the derivative quality of so much literary art—after all, the Western canon is built upon the way dead great masters have influenced the living—the bar for failing the QACS test has been set extremely high: your work must be rated as 96% derivative. So the HOSPC informs our narrator in their long conversation, a poet named Solomon Wiese has failed, his recently published book of poetry having hit the number right on the nose (96). Wiese, consequently, has been cancelled. The word “cancelled,” so popular recently, is never used in this novel, but cancellation, among other recent fads in contemporary wokery, is one thing this book is about.
Solomon Wiese, so it later turns out, is the main character of the book, and his story—the tale of a disgraced, grey-listed author—is prominent in the narrative. The structure of the novel is unique, given that SW does not step physically into the action until the beginning of what I calculate as Chapter Five (p.80), when N first encounters him sitting, with his girlfriend of sorts, Phoebe Glass, at the bar of the Travelodge Hotel—where poets attending the literary conference have gathered in the evening for a bout of socializing and heavy drinking.
At the point when SW and N meet, in Chapter Five, there is a switch of narrators. While ostensibly still narrating the novel, N gives way at this point to SW, who spends the rest of the book telling his sad story to N, and to us, the readers.
The Saga of Solomon Wiese, In Brief
After his having failed QACS and having been named a “grey-listed” author, SW lays low for a time, then attempts a comeback. He begins making public appearances in London venues, reciting poetry that—according to the HOSPC—is genuine poetry, not the usual fauxetry. His audiences are enthralled, some devotees even declaring his extemporaneous performances “a new order of creativity.” The HOSPC explains why the recitations are received with such enthusiasm and why even he considers SW’s poetry “genuine.” His explanations (see p. 25-26) are not convincing, even muddled; I, at least, have trouble following his reasoning. At any rate, the upshot of all this is that enemies of SW surreptitiously record Solomon’s presentations and then submit them to QACS. This time they come out—guess what?—ninety-eight percent derivative!
Immediately everyone, including his erstwhile fans, turns on SW, demanding “apologies, response, recompense, consequences.” Does all of this sound eerily familiar? It should, to us who live in the world of social media, where anyone who sins against the commonly accepted shibboleth must be forced to apologize. Must be hounded, in fact, out of his/her life, “cancelled.” As the novel draws to a close SW has been convicted of heresy by some sort of literary kangaroo court and sentenced to a severe punishment. But we’re getting way ahead of the story here.
After SW takes over the narrative N sits beside him at the bar and listens to his sad tale all night and into the morning. Why? There are constant reminders that for his own good N should get up and leave. SW, after all, is a pariah amidst the other poets at FOC; everyone shuns him. By sitting beside him at the bar, N is in danger of having the notoriety rub off on him, of being ostracized as well, or even worse. He sits and listens. By page 250 he has been sitting there for up to six or seven hours. At eleven a.m., when Phoebe Glass and Solomon Wiese finally leave the bar, our N still is sitting there. Explaining why is important, but that’s for a final reckoning at the end of this review. Meanwhile, there are a lot of other things happening in the plot of the novel.
Chapter One: Zariyah Zhadan
After his long spiel in the introduction, HOSPC bows out of the novel, along with his wife the dentist. They stick their heads back into the narrative briefly on p. 81, where what is to be their subsequent life is outlined in a burst of hilarious comedy. The book is rife with such pleasurable comic touches. As for other incidental characters, there are a scads of them. The first of these is a Ukrainian poet, Zariyah Zhadan, who never actually makes a physical appearance; she has been detained by customs officials at Heathrow, but N has been designated, in lieu of her, to read translations of her poems at the conference.
Where does the author get the names he uses for his characters and what significance do the names have? Some of the surnames (Buch, Wort) are German words relevant to the major theme of poetry and publishing. As for Zariyah Zhadan, I find no evidence anywhere of “Zariyah” as a given Ukrainian name, so I suppose he just made that one up. The word zarya means “dawn” in Russian, but I think Ukrainian has a different word for dawn. Zhadan is the surname of the well-known Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan, author of The Orphanage and What We Live For. Other examples: Phoebe Glass seems to have a vague connection to Salinger, recalling Holden’s sister Phoebe in The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family in other works. The surname Glass appears to be Jewish, as is the name of the poet Solomon Wiese. Why give such an obviously Jewish name to the main character? Dunno.
The plot of the novel concerns, largely, the fortunes of SW and the consequences of his having been put through the QACS software, twice. But a prominent subplot features the narrator and the way realization of his own dead soul gradually dawns on him. This process begins with his reading of the Zhadan poems at the literary festival.
Since Ms. Zhadan cannot attend, N has the unenviable task of reading her poems in English translation to about a thousand spectators who are “eager to soak up statements of political dissent,” especially given the opportunity to congratulate themselves on being supporters of good versus evil. Good, of course, embodied in the heroic Ukrainian people, and evil in the perennial bugbear and villainous oppressor, Russia. This book was published before the war began, but castigation of the bugbear was already well established all over the Western world. The fact that Zhadan has been held up in British customs and cannot attend increases the righteous indignation of the audience. They are there not to hear the poetry. The actual text of the poetry is irrelevant, since, first and foremost, the human animal relishes a chance at some easy sanctimony.
For N, who has been designated reader of the poems to this audience, the poetry is irrelevant as well. While reporting on his performance at the reading, he never bothers to quote a single poem among those he reads. Narcissist and dead soul that he is—almost without exception every single character in this book is a narcissist and dead soul—N is most concerned about potential critical reaction to his appearance.
Featuring hypothetical board members in his interior “imaginary boardroom,” N runs through all the pros and cons of his having agreed to read Zh’s poetry. These imaginary denizens of his personal inner sanctum—the voices battling each other inside him—are much more important to him than any real human beings, including, say, a spouse or close friend, whom he, N, apparently does not possess.
With their polemic running inside N’s head, taking various points of view on the reading he will be giving, the voices are actually bits and pieces of fiction. What N is doing is putting together a strange fictional performance with an audience of one, himself. The inner actors amount to more dead souls, playing out a personal drama for the lead dead soul, our narrator. Of course we have already seen something similar in his “dialogue” with HOSPC, actually a monologue that N does his best to avoid listening to. At one point N calls the inner voices “my imaginary inquisitors,” and the inquisition they put him through—which is, rather, a self-inquisition—ends up getting him nowhere: “I replayed this sequence of thoughts, which it seemed to me I had retrodden to exactly the same state of impasse.”
While doing the reading N imagines how he might look to the audience. “I appeared, it seemed to me, basically as a pained, beleaguered figure, straining to lift the name that I appeared beneath—literally, as the name of Zariyah Zhadan was projected onto the backing screen with accompanying Cyrillic script.” ЗАРЯ ЖАДАН. “The only worthwhile thing about the evening,” he imagines the audience members imagining, is the announcement at the beginning that Zhadan is not here, having been denied access to the U.K., detained at Heathrow. As if they were to declare, with that easy sanctimony, “Aha, more oppression on the part of nasty governmental forces; we’re against that.”
Something odd happens at the performance. While reading his next-to-last poem, N hears a strange sound emerging from the darkness where the audience sits: “someone running a finger around the rim of a wine glass.” As we are to learn later, a similar episode occurred when N was a young poet in his twenties, with “all of the egotism and unshakeable self-belief” of the young. The culprit producing the sound at N’s poetry reading back then was—as apparently is now as well—a man named Christian Wort. More on him later. The sound of the wine rim at the Zhadan reading disconcerts mightily our narrator N, makes him feel as if he had been doing something reprehensible and had been caught out doing it. And of course he—as well as nearly all the other characters in the novel—really has been doing something reprehensible: acting despicably human. In a way it is as if the disrespectful sound of a finger on the rim of a wine glass runs in the background of the whole of Dead Souls, a novel demonstrating human behavior at its absolute worst.
Sam Riviere has a wonderful feel for the many little (and big) hypocrisies that we human beings perpetrate. Crowd behavior is one of his specialties. We have already been informed that the audience at the Zhadan reading has come here largely by way of self-congratulation for being on the side of political good. At the end of the reading applause from the audience “was loud and extended, but also unemphatic, adequate, completely formulaic.” Like so much human applause on so many occasions the hand-clapping here is perfunctory, a demonstration of faked enthusiasm.
Later on we get an account of how “deadly words of praise” are wielded like swords and spears at poetry recitals. No one escapes these praise-words, which “turn every poet into a virtual pincushion of words of praise—deadly because all these words are absolutely insincere, and when one realizes the insincerity of the words they all detonate, destroying the overpraised poet.” Riviere does not make the analogy, but something of the same could be said for blurbs full of overpraise on the backs of inferior works of fiction. This is a common occurrence, and I sometimes wonder why the writers do not refuse to print the blurbs: “No. Leave the BS off the back of my paperback; too much of that insincere praise for my mediocrity will bubble up and blow the whole thing to smithereens.” As I mentioned at the start, however, the paperback of Riviere’s Dead Souls is heavily blurbed with praise, but you get the feeling that the blurbers here are sincere. The praise is deserved; the words are not deadly.
How do those attending the Zhadan reading react to the sound of the finger on the wine glass? Once again in a perfectly human way. As N writes, at least some of them “acquiesced to the disturbance—perhaps some of them secretly approved of the disruption.” So, in the upshot, we get an odd blend of emotions—a mix of immiscibles typical of the human animal. People sit there “with all their worthy feelings and with Zariyah Zhadan’s lofty poetry,” taking, meanwhile, like wicked, malicious children, a perverse pleasure in the way someone disrupts the reading and mocks the reader. Once again, human, all too human.
Background Detail on the Narrator and the World of Poetry
Chapters Two, Three, and Four, titled, in succession, Christian Wort (Ch. 2), Jessica Lake (Ch. 3), and Zelda Green (Ch. 4), fill us in on background events in the narrator’s life. With the beginning of Ch. 2 we get something more of an actual story, a secondary plotline for the novel. This involves, first of all, how the narrator in his university days—as he read a long poem in a pub—was treated to the rim of a wine glass, and how he later got his revenge on Christian Wort by going out with Jessica Lake, who, as we are later to learn, is the sole character of rectitude in the whole novel.
Christian Wort is overtly heterosexual, which strikes N and his fellow undergraduate poets as somehow embarrassing. Being hetero has gone out of fashion. Then again, he still “reads books in their entirety,” which shocks them. We don’t learn much more about Christian Wort in the chapter named after him. N runs into him shortly after the Zhadan reading at the literary conference and the incident of the rim of the wine glass (see p. 61-62), but—in what is a glaring burst of reticence—puts off telling us about this meeting until forty-five pages later.
What do the poets at the FOC do all day long? “They had spent the entire day attending recitals or giving recitals, listening to lectures or giving lectures, chairing panel discussions or participating in panel discussions, giving interviews or conducting interviews, buying poetry collections or signing poetry collections, asking long, meandering questions in the Q & A or attempting to answer long, meandering questions in the Q&A . . .”
Our narrator N does none of these things. Once a serious poet, he has not composed a poem in a long, long time. He is convinced of “the deadly relativity of literary judgments and the deadly relativity of the value of literary works.” He believes in the “undeniable inconsequence of practically all of the literature being produced . . . pouring out as it did from institutions and writing programmes in an unstaunchable, undifferentiated torrent.” By the way. This book concerns itself with the state of poetry and literary fiction in the UK, but much of what is treated here has direct application to the literary scene in the U.S.A. as well. The following brilliant description of “the sound of the poetry world talking to itself” in the Travelodge Bar could be set in the U.S.—just change some of the British spellings of words to American and you’ve got it.
“To my left, as I entered, I saw Alex Warrington, author of The Good Son and Giving Grace, latterly editor of Albion Poetry, in conversation with Bea Fielding, author of Visiting Songs, winner of an Ern Michaels Award and the Simone Horowitz Award, whose back was almost touching the back of Claire Cluny, author of Back to La Mancha and The Harbourmaster’s Ruin, also winner of an Ern Michaels Award, who was talking animatedly to Daniel Wake and Esther Foley, authors of Wide World and Limn, among other publications, and winners between them of Ern Michaels and Preface awards, who parted to allow Frankie Tipton through, author of Mirage Property, which was shortlisted for the Shaw, Preface and Matlaske prizes, who had just left a conversation with George Corley, author of Five to Eight Chipmunks, Hannah Peach, author of Quick Fix, and Isobel Berger, author of Marquee Croquet; behind them I could see the back of Jake Clemence’s head, the author of sadder and my problems are slowly becoming your problems, which was the winner of a Playhouse Award, and, in profile, Kacey Brathwaite, author of Sea Chart, winner of the Preface Award, and A Tune Below, among other publications; to their right, in a tight circle, I spotted Lindsay Stonebridge, whose collections included Fire Milk and Hear/Say, and who had been nominated three times for the Matlaske Prize without actually winning it . . .”
This goes on for another full page. Note how to be anyone in the world of literature or poetry you have to have won at least one of the plethora of literary awards that now dominate that world. Are the winners deserving? The entire narrative in Dead Souls suggests that none of them are, and that all of the literary works mentioned in the passage above are worthless. Try this for an experiment. Try picking up a prominent American literary journal and reading, say, a prize-winning short story published there. You may well have the experience—I myself have had it—of concluding your reading with a sense of bafflement: what? That story won a prize? That story is a piece of fluff, so mediocre that it’s not worth even publishing.
Although working as an editor at a literary magazine, N has not been to a single poetry recital in five years. Bored to tears at the last one he attended, he had an epiphany: that “not a single person in the audience really wanted to be there.” To sum up: N once was a poet, once even thought the calling of poet was a noble thing. He no longer is a poet and disdains the calling of poet. He no longer attends poetry readings or any other of the manifold events of a literary conference. He realizes that the world of writing, reading, publishing fiction and poetry is a total, senseless farce, that only “fauxetry” is written now, and has been the dominant genre for some years. So why does N go on being employed as an editor of a small literary journal, reading—actually only skimming perfunctorily—submissions from poets and deciding which ones to publish?
A good question. Quite possibly N goes on doing what he does because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Then again, the implication of this book read as a whole is that not only the publishing industry in the UK—and quite likely all over the world—is a sham and a farce. So is every other possible occupation or endeavor. The novel swerves occasionally out of the main topic—the state of contemporary poetry and literature—to treat other institutions. For example, we have a few words on British politics, a senseless business in which the “blue team” battles incessantly with the “red team.” Meanwhile the poetry world “reproduces the political power structure in miniature” (73-74). Much later in the book, describing SW’s dealings with a provincial poet, Max Mikkaels, Max’s younger brother steps briefly into the narrative, only long enough to demonstrate his being utterly in thrall—like all modern young people—to nonsensical, mindless modes of contemporary mass consumption.
Chapters Three and Four, titled respectively “Jessica Lake” and “Zelda Green,” don’t tell us much about the two named characters. Only later do we discover that N has not been totally forthcoming about his relationship with Jessica. As for Zelda Green, as a real person she never actually makes it into the narrative. The episode describes N’s conversation with her at the Travelodge Bar, which is not really a conversation at all. Rather it is one more example of N’s inner monologue. He spends his time with Zelda cogitating about her status as a “cultural commentator,” something like what they call today an “influencer.” The only Zelda Green whom we meet is the Zelda Green of N’s rampant conjectures in his thoughts about her. This continues a pattern evident from the very beginning. The solipsist N lives a life wrapped up in his own inner thoughts, making little direct contact with the world at large.
Solomon Wiese and the Death of Poetry
As mentioned previously, when we get to Chapter Five (titled “Solomon Wiese”) on p. 80, the leading character, SW, steps into the novel bodily and takes over the narration. The rest of the book features his life and misadventures. Sitting beside Phoebe Glass at the bar of the Travelodge Hotel, he tells his story to the narrator. At this point N becomes a passive listener for the duration, although he still remains a central character; his centrality is obvious in the final pages.
After eighty pages of indirect, reported speech, run through the solipsistic mind of N, we finally get some direct quotations now, although they are not put in quotation marks. “I don’t know if you believe in the destiny of the poet,” SW says to N. “We [poets] start off believing that we’re special, don’t we, Solomon Wiese went on, but we keep this knowledge secret . . . the thing that we believe makes us unique, we later discover, is the thing that is shared by absolutely everyone, and everyone desires the same things that we desire—yet we are still convinced that we possess a unique ingredient . . . and this powers our pursuit through life . . .” The passage here, as usual, is much too long to cite in full, as SW, like N, is a compulsive spewer of words. In essence, SW is asserting his belief in the poet’s special vocation, although a small voice inside him—and inside any poet—whispers, “You don’t really believe that.”
But, so it turns out, SW really is unique as a poet, and his sui generis personality is evident early on. He tells about how, when he was a boy, he already had a strong desire to disappear. As we learn later, just about everything that he does is in aid of this impulse toward evanishment—including his writing of poetry. SW has always felt as if there were a certain nothingness that followed him around. Manifested as a vicious nihilism, the nothingness sometimes leads him to commit acts against his will. For example, there was the time when he as a schoolboy accidentally on purpose kicked a soccer ball on the playground into the face of a teacher, gentle Mrs. Hewitt, who was just then bringing a cup of scalding tea to her lips.
As for his poetry, “It was this nothingness that had attracted him to poetry in the first place, without his realizing it.” Writing poetry for him “was like deleting something . . . It tapped into his deep desire for disappearance.” The first time he set eyes on a poem he felt “the presence of the familiar nothingness, . . . the encroaching absence. The blank space invading the pathetic structures that were built to hold it at bay, the complete futility of those structures and the chance to see them overwhelmed at last.” For SW “poetry was the gradual replacement of things in the world with their absence,” and his early poems “a project of eradication.” For him “poetry became one big extermination project.”
SW both writes and reads poetry all in pursuit of this personal extermination project. He has read scads of old poems. Keats, Tennyson, Shakespeare? No names are mentioned. He writes poetry by way of discarding the old words accumulated in his head: “he wanted these old poems nothinged.” His writing, he says, is “merely the pretext for the act of purging myself of these useless thoughts, from hundreds of all-but-forgotten poetry books.”
SW voices an opinion widely expressed, earlier in the novel and later: that poetry is already dead, or at least moribund. “The recent spike of public interest in poetry, in the wake of the industry-wide publishing crisis, was only an illusion, a distortion, Solomon Wiese said, and soon that illusion would be dispelled, revealing poetry to be in an even weaker condition than before its artificial revival.”
As for now, poetry is sustained in a kind of transient afterlife in one or another fashionable fad poetry movement: “zonal poetry, or yellow hammer poetry, or xxx poetry, or wicca poetry, or velvet poetry, or uvular poetry, or triumphalist traditionalist poetry, or sloomy poetry, or ritualistic poetry, or quiet poetry, or pylon poetry, or optical poetry, or nostalgic nationalist poetry, or macro poetry, or literal poetry, or joke poetry, or icicle poetry, or house of horror poetry,” etc., etc. (for full list see p. 100). Not myself conversant with modern poetry movements in the UK or elsewhere, I have no idea how many of these movements actually exist. Tried googling “sloomy poetry,” and the internet was no help.
Soon, opines SW, some ten years at most, there won’t be any poetry left, “its remaining parts . . . farmed out to younger and more vital art forms . . . new cultural movements . . . all thoroughly corporate commercial traditions . . . routine formulas in the emergent corporate, commercial media culture.”
So here’s how SW’s position as poet is unique. With their deliberate or subconscious commitment to “fauxetry,” all the other poets attending the literary festival and playing the phony requisite games contribute, we assume, to the death of genuine poetry. But SW all his life, in his pursuit of “nothingness,” has been actively working toward poetry’s annihilation, writing and reading poems with the aim of making nothing of them. In his muddled logic he holds two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The first of them is that a poet, including him, is something special, with a vocation and destiny. The second is that (1) the first idea is balderdash, and that (2) poetry is dying and deserves to be dead. SW will contribute towards its utter demise in the poetry that he writes.
Given SW’s commitment to use poetry to replace things in the world with their absence, given that his poetry consists of the words of other poets, which he is engaged in extirpating, it is no surprise that his first published book of poetry fails the QACS test. He might well have anticipated the QACS verdict, but he reacts with rage, terming the programmers “a roomful of proficient and soulless machine operators, against the anguished spirit of the poet.” More dead souls, those software engineers, but who in this book is not a dead soul?
SW is in the service of a nebulous nihilism that pervades the novel. He dreams at one point of a friend who has “a stain on his shirt and silvery grey skin.” (More on the leitmotif of silvery grey later on). This leads SW to speculate on friendship. “What is a friend, precisely, at this juncture in history?” he asks. Then he addresses the narrator: “In fact, where are your friends?” N, of course, like, apparently, everyone else in the novel, has no friends. If he has a spouse or even relatives still alive we are never told. SW’s only apparent friend/lover is Phoebe Glass, who at the end of the book will betray him and lead him to his ultimate cancellation—his metaphorical effacement from the earth. “Friendship is an invention,” says SW, “and it is a convention that has outlived its usefulness.” SW has gone so far as to write all his former acquaintances, officially abrogating whatever friendship they once had. He calls these letters “termination of friendship notices.”
After the original QACS verdict making him a grey-listed poet, SW adopts the “intensely romantic” role of the outcast, goes about viewing himself from a few paces behind, “as if he were seeing himself from inside the area of nothingness that continued to accompany him wherever he went . . . he had begun to spy on himself . . . to watch himself going about his daily activities, in his oval of romantic isolation.” This is not the only time that Riviere’s Dead Souls reminds me of something out of Kafka or Nabokov. Specifically here, of the narrator of Nabokov’s novella The Eye.
The Adventures of SW in Provincial England
London, according to SW, is the epitome of evil. The capital city makes “insatiable demands” on the satellite cities, with its “relentless suction of energy and vitality for its own bloated and absurd cultural production.” The “romance of living in London” draws in people (poets) from the peripheries only to destroy them. Consequently, after he becomes a grey-listed poet, SW flees London and seeks redemption in the provinces.
He goes to live in the provincial city of Diss, where the sole “cultural activity” and the one all-abiding obsession is “buggy racing.” Next come several chapters (Chapter Six through Chapter Eight) featuring various bizarre characters whom SW meets. We don’t have the space here to discuss these in detail (Christian Buch, Amalia Albers, The Other Christian, Dimitri Radic). CB and AA specialize in “ahistorical distribution strategies,” believing that current literary activity is pointless, since history is already complete “as of a century of so ago.” There is nothing left to do but “archive work,” reorganizing materials that already exist. SW’s first encounter with them features a hilarious silent battle in a library between SW and CB: SW’s weapon of choice is the fake yawn, while CB responds with theatrical sighs.
These chapters depart somewhat from the major theme of poetry’s demise and the narcissistic literary life, and at least one of them—Chapter Seven, detailing the weird shenanigans of “the other Christian”—might well be omitted from the narrative altogether. The ancillary characters here reinforce another central idea: that nothing much can be pinned down as tangible reality, and that everyone seems to be leading a dream life. At the sanitorium where the other Christian ends up “he felt as if he had awoken from a dream to find there was no life to return to, that the dimensions of life had failed to snap into shape around him.” Everyone walks around in a malaise, life is semi-real at best, and “the only literature that was actually needed by anyone”—so CB and AA discover upon meeting two strange creatures, “boat dwellers by nature”—is the miracle book these men have in their possession.
In Chapter Eight, while working in a pub in the city center of Diss, SW meets Dimitri Radic, a lame man whose bald head is covered with black scabs. This is another character with a bizarre past, one who is “seeking to unburden himself of something.” This something, “a small fortune” that he has come into, ends up, eventually, in the possession of SW, who uses the money to stage his return to the London literary scene. The theme of the unburdening comes into play once again in the final pages of the novel.
The central issue of poetry and its discontents returns when SW meets a young provincial poet named Max Mikkaels (Chapter NIne). Max has been using a “media platform,” an internet app called “Locket” to promote his own poetry and to make connections with other provincial poets. The Locket platform has given new hope to poets who have been excluded from—or to unpublished poets who never have gained entry into—the “in crowd” of poets who move in London literary circles; those very poets we have met in attendance at the literary conference (FOC).
Collecting Dead Souls: The Old Poet
SW pays Max Mikkaels from the “small fortune” he has come into to set him up a profile on Locket. MM then generates a mass following for SW. He brings scads of imaginary fans of SW into virtual existence, calling this “a migration of souls.” Soon even genuine new users of Locket begin jumping on the bandwagon that rolls along in praise of SW. In setting up SW’s profile, MM briefly considers making him “the poet without poems.” Sounds contradictory, but “In fact, there were many of these individuals already in existence, if one admitted that the things they called their poems were nothing of the sort . . . not poems at all.”
MM does not take this idea to its logical nihilistic conclusion, but the novel as a whole presents a situation in which there are no genuine poets left. A further implication is that maybe there never have been any real poets. Not a single poem is cited in this book as exemplary, and not a single famous dead poet is named as an example of what a genuine poet should be.
MM and SW begin driving around the countryside, tracking down suitable regional poets who have joined the Locket community. These will not only be enlisted as followers of SW; they also will sell their poems to SW, who—upon returning to London—will begin making public appearances in which he regurgitates a medley of these poems to an enthralled audience.
The unrecognized provincial poets, mostly old, are well paid to sign away “their rights to assert themselves as the authors of their poems,” but for many of them the money they receive is secondary in importance. Above all, they are eager to see their overlooked, unpublished poems printed somewhere at last. Chapter Ten, “The Old Poet,” is a hilarious account of how MM and SW, “the aspiring young poets,” make a sort of pilgrimage to the deathbed of a man living in a little village. The ostensible purpose of their visit is to pay homage to a writer of an earlier generation. The old poet’s wife receives them joyously, unaware that their real mission involves buying dead souls, i.e., poems that SW can appropriate for use in his own devious machinations.
This old poet hates modern poets who engage in unacceptable behavior, e.g., “poets who jog.” He is an advocate, rather of “the sedentary, addled life that all poets lead, or should lead, a life of sitting down and reading, and pursuing all kinds of intoxication of the senses.” He has no illusions about poets as servitors of high ideals. “All poets [he avers] are dangerous narcissists. Poets are the most dangerous and megalomaniacal of all types of writer, and writers are the most dangerous and megalomaniacal of all types of people.” Furthermore, writers in person are “fundamentally uninteresting people” who have systematically destroyed their friendships and “mercilessly strip-mined their families for material.”
The old poet’s wife has entered him in the Locket program, but this well-intentioned act has brought him nothing but grief. Now fellow villagers, having discovered there is a poet in their presence, have made him something of the village poet laureate, requiring, even demanding that he write poems in commemoration of village life: the marriage of a daughter, the birth of a pig.
Blacklisted by the London literati, some of whom were once his friends, the old poet has not been able to publish his poems for twenty years now, although acquaintances of his with the right connections have published at will (so he complains) their mediocre works. He mentions another poet who lives near him. She, “one of the finest poets of my generation,” has been equally ostracized by the nefarious forces of London literary cliques. At this point the reader may perk up: “Aha, real poets; we’re finally going to meet some real poets (the old poet and his friend who lives nearby); we’re finally going to be treated to the citation of a genuinely wonderful poem.” But no such luck. After purchasing the old poet’s works SW finds them to be “without discernible qualities . . . quite characterless.”
SW’s Brief Triumph and Rapid Fall from Grace
At this point in his life SW has already ended most of his friendships by sending out “termination of friendship notices.” But the official termination is hardly necessary, since, according to SW, “Every person alive becomes increasingly individual and particularized as they grow older, and therefore increasingly lonely and isolated.”
With his influence from the Locket app—and his many followers—with his stash of new poems, bought and digested from regional failed poets, Solomon Wiese returns to London and becomes, briefly, a celebrity. Note that he does not take the purchased poems with him in manuscript form; he does not even bother to read any of them. True to the almost surreal nature of the novel’s plot, he literally chews up and pulps the poetry he has purchased, then regurgitates the essence of the poems at his newly organized poetry readings. By chewing up the poems and reducing them to pulp SW makes of them what, in essence, they already are: “an indistinguishable mass of more or less inert language and feeling.”
At his appearances in London SW goes before his audiences totally unprepared, “trusting the recital of poetry to the nothingness, where the poetry of the regional areas was stored.” Now, paradoxically, the nothingness has been replaced with “an abundance of thoughts and images, culled from scores of unsung regional poets.” As he releases the mass of poetry effortlessly from his mouth, he feels as if he were “releasing these words back into the nothingness they had come from . . . it was just as it had been when he first came to write poems; he was expelling this unnecessary mulch of words from the world, getting rid of it . . .” His readings are an immediate success, his audiences ever larger, ever more enthralled. Once again, we are asked to believe the unbelievable: the fact of the enthrallment. Here, as everywhere else in the book where someone is declared a genuine poet, no evidence, i.e., no poetry, is cited in proof of the excellence.
Of course what SW is doing here is something he has dreamed of doing all his life: obliterating and annihilating poetry, assigning it to the Nihil that he serves. This, of course, is congruent with his own deep desire to disappear, to consign himself to the same nothingness, to utter evanishment from the earth. After he begins his new poetry recitations in London, SW feels a certain momentum to his life, a theme; he trusts implicitly in “forces that were carrying him along.” He has a series of dreams in which “he was led through the city by a young woman with prematurely grey hair, grey hair that was really preternaturally silver.” That “young woman with silver hair” would walk next to him, a comforting presence, “which translated into an untroubled confidence in the forces that were carrying him along.”
The Silvery Tint
The woman in the dream who will walk with SW turns out to be Phoebe Glass. More on her later. As for the image of the silver hair, this is a leitmotif of the whole novel. At one point (p. 105) SW describes one of his recurrent dreams, associated with his lifelong desire to evanesce. His friend’s face in the dream “had a strange silvery tint to it. When he looked more closely, his friend’s skin was of a colourless tone that reflected the light almost in the matter of a metallic object.” Most importantly here, this detail reminds the narrator of his encounter with Christian Wort earlier at the FOC (following the incident with the rim of the wine glass). Later on we get a description of the “metallic lustre,” and the “silvery tint” of Christian Wort’s skin.
In describing his schooldays, SW tells of listening to Mrs. Hewitt read at storytime the tale of “a boy made of silver bark.” The next year, in a different class, he retells the story “almost verbatim” for a storytelling project. This was the first piece of writing he ever did, but it was, in essence, plagiarized, and he was “publicly disgraced for theft of the bark boy story.” Despite this, he still feels as if he wrote the story himself, as if it belongs to him. Once again here mention of the bark boy’s “silvery, strangely old face” reminds N of the “ashen complexion” of Christian Wort the previous evening at the FOC.
On the eve of his return to London from Diss, SW has an erotic dream featuring Amalia Albers, who emerges naked from a black pond and chases after him. “As she rose from the pond he saw her skin had a silver shine to it, the colour of silver pines. Her skin had turned to silver bark, her hair was full of wet leaves.” Finally, SW has one more dream, in which he is “imprisoned with the poets he used to know in a kind of creativity camp.” There the poets are forced to enter the inner sanctum of the facility, where some sort of enforced creativity went on. When they emerge “they would be missing fingers and toes, or their skin and hair would have aged, turning a strange silvery colour.” This dream comes late in the book, shortly before SW is run through QACS for the second time and cancelled definitively.
Although it is difficult to determine the exact role of passages describing the silvery tint, they are certainly connected with SW’s striving toward nothingness and evanescence. At the point where a human being’s cancellation is complete, he or she will fade out of this life into the silvery metallic lustre, which, at least for SW, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The Neutering of Contemporary Life and Literature, the Vogue “Cancellations”
A kind of sexual neutrality, homosexuality, or even sexual perversion, characterizes most of the male poets featured in Dead Souls. In describing his early life as a young poet in his university years, the narrator suggests that heterosexuality among himself and his peers was a rarity. Notwithstanding that, he did have a brief relationship with Jessica Lake, but he avers that nothing sexual happened between them. Later, much later, we learn that he was up to something kinky and degrading with Jessica, and this influences the ending of the novel. The one certified genuine heterosexual in the novel, Christian Wort, a man with a lame leg, turns out to be sexually perverted; he, as well as N, vents his perversions on the innocent and decent Jessica.
As for SW, he is a heterosexual of sorts, although he has mostly male acquaintances, and all of his friendships with females end with a “disastrous seduction attempt.” Back in London after he becomes an influencer on Locket, he cannot stop wishing he had at his disposal “a shopgirl with a fat bum.” Whatever sexuality is expressed in this novel, it always seems more than a little bit perverted, decadent.
The neutering of modern lit and life is suggested by the use in Dead Souls (overuse) of the plural “they” pronoun throughout. Pronouns, so the grammar books tell us, should agree in number, person and gender with their antecedents. Of course, under the influence of feminist politics they has long since been dragged—kicking and screaming—into usage where he or she is grammatically correct. Here’s a typical example, from a passage quoted above: “Every person alive becomes increasingly individual and particularized as they grow older . . .” This they, which should be he or she, forced to perform in a role where it does not, grammatically, fit, has become de rigueur by now, probably acceptable to the vast majority of readers and writers in the twenty-first century. Recently transsexuals have begun using “they” as their personal pronoun, vastly complicating the whole pronominal mess, but this issue does not arise in Riviere’s novel.
Take, for all that, this extreme example of neutering usage, which is typical of such usage throughout all of Dead Souls. It occurs in a passage where SW describes what happens to him and leads to his ultimate downfall; he listens to someone else’s confession of turpitude, then repeats it, after which the confession of turpitude attaches itself to him personally. Here the correct English is given [in brackets].
“We should be careful whose confessions we listen to; we should be wary of the things we overhear . . . as these confessions have a tendency to attach themselves to us, to attach themselves to the listener, and, if repeated, in some cases, become intimately associated with the listener, and if repeated often enough, in some cases, they can even become part of the listener’s own experience, so that the listener ends up believing that the events described in the confession happened directly to them [him/her], in some cases, when in reality they happened to an acquaintance or friend who had confided in them [her/him], and so they, the listener, end up [he/she, the listener, ends up] taking on the consequences of this confession, as if they are [she/he is] one and the same person as the original confessor, when they were [he/she was] only ever the listener and repeater of the confession. They mistakenly come to view themselves [She/he mistakenly comes to view herself/himself] as the confessor, when they were [he/she was] only ever the handler of the confession” (p. 273). The book is rife with such passages.
Although Sam Riviere does not mention the recent brouhaha over publication of the novel American Dirt, excoriation of that work as not politically correct is congruent with the mood and themes of Dead Souls. According to the proponents of wokery, an author is no longer allowed to write, say, a novel featuring the tribulations of Mexican characters unless that author is certifiably Mexican. After the frenetic attacks on American Dirt, the novel and author have now been “cancelled.” According to Latino writer Alex Perez, the result is that “the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals. This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of fifteen.” In other words, the style and themes of novels have been emasculated, neutered. Rather than fight the forces of tyrannical wokery, American publishers—pusillanimous all to the last man and woman—have hunkered down and surrendered.
Perez’s interview was published in Hobart Magazine, after which the whole editorial staff of that journal arose in sanctimonious fury and quit. Perez, subsequently, was mocked widely on social media (NY Times, Jan. 26, 2023).
Off on another tangent, but here is one more example of the current obsession with “cancellations” of literary figures and their works, one of the central themes of Dead Souls. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine a year ago there have been vocal and persistent outcries—not only among Ukrainians, who, certainly have the right to voice extremist views, but all over the world as well—to cancel utterly and all-comprehensively the entirety of Russian literature. The argument is that any work of literature by a Russian writer, even what may appear totally innocent, is somehow intrinsically tied to the promotion of Russian imperialism. In a recent article in The New Yorker (“Novels of Empire,” January 30, 2023) the writer Elif Batuman—an erstwhile lover of Russian literature—faces up to the problem and declares Russian lit wanting.
As if in proof of the old adage, “You can always find what you’re looking for, if you look hard enough,” Batuman combs through certain Russian literary works with a fine comb and discovers what she is looking for. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s motivations for the crime he commits—the murder of an old pawnbroker—are the central issue of the whole book. Raskolnikov does not know why he committed the crimes, perpetually running various possibilities through his deranged mind. This led one of my students once to call the novel not a Whodunnit, but a Whydunnit. Batuman centers in on only one motivation, the issue of the Napoleon complex, and, pushing this to extremes, decides somehow that Raskolnikov committed murder by way of promoting Russian imperialism: “The logic of Raskolnikov’s crime, I realized, was the logic of imperialism.” Okay.
As if that were not enough of a stretch, she addresses Nikolai Gogol’s immortal piece of farce, his story “The Nose,” in which a nose escapes from the face of a rather frivolous man and goes off to lead its own private life, while its owner pleads for it to return. Scholars have sought out the “meaning” of this story for eons of ages and found, exactly, none. A favorite “interpretation” is the Freudian one: given Gogol’s problems with his own sexuality and his fear of women, the story features a “castration complex,” with the nose standing in for the penis. Based on zero evidence in the text, Batuman comes up with a similar discovery—that this story is all about the absconding of the Little Russian (Ukrainian) nose from the Great Russian face. Once again “the interests of the empire prevail.” The runaway nose (Ukraine) is apprehended and forced back where it belongs: on the phizog of the Great Russian empire. One more work about Russian imperialism!
The Scholastici (Chapter Twelve)
Late in Dead Souls we are introduced to a clique of “high-profile” British poets who “seldom entered the vulgar arena of the poetry recital,” and who are “products of elite educational institutions.” These academic types write dense, incomprehensible poetry that claims to transcend the bounds of everyday meaning. The Scholastici speak in a formal way, with a certain “crispness and dryness.” They put on a pose of being far removed from mundane pursuits, but actually they are “grimly obsessed with popularity and relevance.” These people are, in a word, what are more commonly known as “upper class twits.”
Through the woman who becomes SW’s sort of girlfriend late in the novel, Phoebe Glass, SW makes a connection with the Scholastici. Consequently, he is forced to attend their perpetual symposiums, which present “a whole day’s worth of impenetrable narcissistic drivel” churned out by dreary academics. Oddly enough, SW, like the Scholastici, believes still in “the poet’s calling,” or “the destiny of the poet,” although he realizes the “grotesque proportions” of such a belief. It remains at the center of who he is as a person, and relinquishing this belief “would entail the wholesale destruction of his personality.”
Phoebe Glass as Traitor and Psychopomp
Featured early in the novel as denizen of N’s university town and friend of Jessica Lake, Phoebe Glass reappears in Chapter Eleven. After his return from exile in the provinces, SW encounters her on the streets of London. She makes her living now as sign holder, walking the streets with a flashing neon arrow. No one, including PG, knows the purpose of the arrow or what it advertises. PG comes to live with SW, although their cohabitation is brief.
PG has now become a poet, and she has somehow aligned herself with the Scholastici. Her main role is that of denunciator. According to her, the arts are now “riven with a bare-faced hypocrisy and self-serving mendacity.” The whole publishing industry is “obsolete and deserving to be razed to the ground,” and “outputs of the so-called artistic processes were identical to the outputs of the bowels.” Does the message sound familiar? It should, since it is the overriding message of the entire book.
“The arts [opines PG] are a kind of self-defeating joke that everyone involved in them was aware of, but for some reason having a bad joke as an occupation was accepted.” One of the biggest problems [goes on PG] is that “men were still dominating the conversation,” ensuring that no woman was allowed to speak. Here we have the feminist viewpoint, quiet for much of the book’s action but now given carte blanche to rant on the boorishness of men for three solid pages (245-248).
PG disapproves of nearly everything and everyone in contemporary life with one exception: her old friend Jessica Lake, “a genuine artist and extraordinarily gentle person.” Jessica, at least so we are told, is utterly decent. If so—no evidence is ever presented in proof of her artistic excellence and probity—she is the only decent person and true artist in the whole novel. Oddly enough, this one character who, ostensibly, reeks in rectitude, never even makes another appearance in Dead Souls after Chapter Three.
PG and SW begin living together at the high point of SW’s whole life. His London poetry recitals are acclaimed; he is in great demand. At his performances he “channels the material harboured by the nothingness.” He streams words harvested from the unsung regional poets, “back into the nothingness where it belonged,” basically regurgitating substandard poetry for admiring audiences. No explanation is given for why the regurgitated pulp is so well received, although SW feels that his spontaneous poetry is undergirded by some cryptic form, as if he were “delivering encrypted information to the audience.”
Phoebe Glass, meanwhile, has begun writing poetry full of her withering criticism of all possible institutions. Inspired by the genuine sweetness and righteousness of her old friend Jessica Lake, PG has emerged as “a legitimately wonderful poet.” So says SW, but we don’t believe it for a minute. As usual, no poetry by PG is cited as evidence of her merit, and, given her hyper-critical, carping personality, we doubt that even Jessica Lake’s loveliness could inspire PG to write great poetry.
SW is briefly aligned with the Scholastici as well, but soon feels himself trapped in the world of their dreary symposia. He begins castigating himself with “interminable inner monologues,” attacking himself through expletive-filled rants that endlessly repeat his own name. At this point he makes the mistake of telling PG how a friend in London had confessed to him that in watching on TV the police wielding truncheons against demonstrators, he himself (the friend) had wished briefly that he could have been one of those with a truncheon.
PG promptly reports SW to the Scholastici, who accuse SW of having confessed that he loves truncheons. See above, under “The Neutering of Contemporary Literature,” the passage about how one must be wary of listening to confessions, for all too often the sin confessed attaches itself to the listener. PG and the Scholastici now decide that the sinner/confessor SW must be punished. First, they run transcripts of his recent poetry readings through the QACS portal once again. Naturally, he fails the test for the second time and is declared guilty of plagiarism. They decide, at this point, to take him out of the equation. Why it is up to the Scholastici to judge and punish literary sinners is anybody’s guess. His nominal girlfriend, PG, is assigned to SW as a kind of guide or psychopomp, who will lead SW to his “public excoriation,” a vague business that seems akin to an open-air execution.
At this point all the regional poets whose poetry SW has purchased and regurgitated feel betrayed. They jump on the bandwagon of retribution, which rapidly gains momentum. Those who had attended his spontaneous poetry recitals and acclaimed them, praised them, immediately join the mob of detractors. People love jumping on the bandwagon of a good, healthy denunciation, hooting their schadenfreude as the tumbrel rolls past. Now PG, the ringleader of the mob, declares that it will be her joyful privilege to guide SW through an alternative justice system, so that he can purge himself of his sins by going voluntarily through his self-nominated punishment. What will the punishment consist of? We don’t know for sure, but today at noon he will be put through something self-nominated—i.e., he himself will agree to it or even suggest what it is to be. In accord with the severity of his sins, the punishment must be harsh. SW suspects that they will take his hands. Once again here the reader feels as if he (they!) were in a novel with a nightmare plot, something like Kafka’s The Trial, or Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.
PG believes that the punishment is well deserved, for SW’s own good. She claims in her self-righteousness to “have his best interests at heart.” She sees her duties in guiding SW toward his self-nominated punishment as a way of “redeeming somehow the monstrous treatment of Jessica Lake.” As SW explains, “Her project to correct me is nothing other than a vigil for her old friend.” But at the forefront of those who once persecuted Jessica is the narrator. SW blames N for “driving her into the arms of a certain well-known poet, who treated her monstrously.” Presumably this poet, described as walking with a limp, is Christian Wort. We aren’t sure what, exactly, N, with his “particular sexual mores,” did to Jessica Lake. Or what, later, CW did to her. Something kinky and perverse.
The Unburdening into Reburdening
SW recalls the time when he, as a young man, used to obsess over the idea of giving himself until age thirty to make something of himself. Failing that, he would “take himself out of the equation,” merging, in effect, with the “nothingness” that has always surrounded him. As he and PG leave the Travelodge Bar, on their way to his apparent execution—not saying goodbye to N—this dream of an early evanishment from the earth is about to come true. Others have decided now that he must be taken out of the equation. SW should feel here a certain satisfaction, given that he has played a major role in disposing of poetry, “cancelling” it, as he has always wanted to do. He should also take heart in that he is making his way now toward the “silvery bark existence” that is the embodiment of his ultimate drowning in Nihil. A man who his whole life has dreamed of cancellation will now be cancelled.
After SW and PG leave the bar we are left with the narrator. Embroiled in SW’s manic tale, we may have forgotten that N is another central character in the novel. Left alone in the bar, N feels his total dependence on the forty or fifty other poetasters in attendance at the FOC. “I was nothing but a house for thoughts and feelings about them.” He appears unaware that given his proximity to the apostate SW, given that he has sat at the bar with SW for hours on end, listening to his confession, the fellow poetasters have now ostracized him. The sin of the teller of the tale has rubbed off on the listener to the tale. He realizes that now he must “withdraw into my own endless complexes,” into total isolation. The novel ends as N finds himself fighting against “a state of absolute panic,” feeling a “judgment that was coming toward us [himself and his fellow poetasters] from overhead . . . falling towards us like a dark shape from the sun.”
N has good reason to panic. The implication is that he may be the next to face the “taking of the hands.” Early on in the novel his encounter with Christian Wort at the FOC also foreshadows his impending cancellation. After the incident of the finger on the wine glass at the reading of the Zhadan poems, N encounters CW, perpetrator of the incident (see p. 61-62). He has a queasy feeling about this encounter, avoids telling us what happened. He returns to the scene of the meeting only forty-five pages later. Here he describes CW, whom he has not seen in ten years, as looking dreadful, having “an air of sickliness about him.” CW, it becomes obvious, is also a bearer of the “metallic lustre” or “silvery tint” (107); he is associated with the ominous bark boy of SW’s childhood.
Once again here N cannot bear to finish describing the encounter with CW; he takes it up again only on p. 197, where he describes CW’s requesting his witnessing some documents for him. Hardly bothering to glance at the documents, N adds his signature, “swiping his thumb in the box as indicated,” after which the spectral CW passes the document on to a “delivery drone” and hastily absconds. A hypothesis: the document that N signs may well be his death warrant, his own confession to the kind of “gnostical turpitude” (to use the term from Invitation to a Beheading) that dooms characters of this novel to cancellation and evanishment. Soon N will face the fate of SW; forced to choose his “self-nominated punishment” and metaphorical execution.
Just before he departs SW tells N, “I have almost unburdened myself of my confession . . . I am on the verge of completing my unburdening.” We recall what we have been told earlier: about how one who listens to another’s confession takes on the burden of the confession himself, is assumed by others, and, eventually, even by himself to have been responsible for the reprehensible deeds confessed to. N’s prospects for the future are dimmed as well by the animosity PG holds for him. He has not confessed to anything yet, but he is, for all that, guilty.
Another way of looking at the document CW has the narrator sign. N has taken on the burden of SW’s sins now and must find a way to unburden himself of those sins as well as his own. His confession becomes the text of Dead Souls, which he has written and published—the act of publication being crowned by his signature on Christian Wort’s tablet—thereby unburdening himself by placing what was his burden on the shoulders of the readers of this book. What am I doing in writing this extremely lengthy book review? You might say I’m doing more unburdening of the burdensome message I have absorbed. What is the gist of that message?
Nihilism and Misanthropy
A few parting thoughts on Dead Souls as a whole, its primary message. A central question haunts the reader of this book throughout: if apparently all poets alive today in the UK are, to one degree or another, frauds and fakes, is there any good poetry still out there and any good poets? By the time we get to the Scholastici in the final chapter we may be hoping that these academic denizens of the posh class will prove to have written something worthwhile. No such luck again; these upper-class twits are shown to be equally fraudulent.
Not a single poem is cited in this novel about poetry. A whole novel about poetry without any poetry. We must take the narrator’s word that all modern poetry is bad. But, then again, if the author wanted to dispute the narrator’s conviction he would have to cite at least one good poem. He does not. Here’s another issue, never raised. What about the grand tradition of poetry in British literature, which boasts of some of the best poetry on earth ever written and some of the best poets? Are these dead poets equally flawed, purveyors of fauxetry? Given the tenor of the whole novel, which is, essentially, nihilistic, I would guess that N—had he raised the issue—would have found Shakespeare and Keats sorely lacking in talent as well.
About the nihilism. Note, e.g., the comment by N on “the deadly relativity of literary judgments and the deadly relativity of the value of literary works.” This suggests that there are no standards left by which we can judge what is a good poem and what is a bad poem (or novel). Any literary work is good or bad according to whomever might be reading it at the time. You don’t like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, say, well, that’s fine. In recent years lots of feminists and other proponents of wokery have come out against Anna Karenina, which remains, nonetheless, the greatest novel ever written about a woman, and most likely the greatest novel ever written, period. As mentioned above, recently all of Russian literature, and all Russian writers have been accused of being accessories to Russian imperialism, to the crime of invading Ukraine. Although Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his journalistic writings, is guilty as charged of extreme Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism, dragging Tolstoy and his works up to be judged is a much iffier proposal.
While I have been known to excoriate the mass fiction produced by much of the American MFA racket, I am prepared to admit that there is still some good fiction being written today, even by a few of the MFA-ers. Good poems are out there. And good novels. You just have to look long and hard at times to find them—taking into account the many meretricious positive reviews and blurbs.
But Dead Souls proposes not only the utter bankruptcy of the literary industry in the UK, and presumably all over the world. It amounts, as well, to an utter condemnation of all human institutions, and of all humanity. Throughout the whole of this essentially nihilistic, misanthropic novel, all the characters are narcissists. No one is shown to have any redeeming social or moral virtues. Not a single person is revealed to be living anything other than an utterly stupid and pointless life. Okay, supposedly Jessica Lake is an exception, but she barely even shows up in the book, and no evidence of her virtuousness is provided.
Each of us on earth—so goes the message of Dead Souls—is a dead soul, thrashing about in a desperate, but useless attempt to find something about life that is not totally senseless. No one, furthermore, has any real friends, and the very idea of friendship is exposed as a lie. All males are hopeless in their inevitable boorish harassment of women (so says Phoebe Glass). England as cradle of democracy is a sham. Read three pages near the end (p. 279-81) on the UK as the most despicable country on earth with the most despicable people, “their cruelty hidden behind the famous English veneer of civility.” “The British with their ducking stools, gibbets, whipping posts,” etc., with “the quintessentially English taste for public humiliation.” Imagine what N would come up with if asked his opinion of America and Americans these days. Ask and shudder to think. Say something good about the human race, Mr. Narrator. Please? No chance.
Dead Souls and Dead Souls
Nikolai Gogol subtitled his immortal Dead Souls, Мертвые души, as A Poem (Поэма). One wonders if Sam Riviere, before borrowing the title, read or reread the original Russian classic. In an interview available online Riviere mentions that Gogol called his novel a poem. This, quite likely, inspired Riviere to use the same title and to make his book into something of a poem as well. If that is true, if the manuscript of Riviere’s book constitutes a lengthy convoluted poem in prose, it is—paradoxically—the only poem that appears in a book about poetry devoid of poetry.
Resemblances between this new Dead Souls and Gogol’s original are few. Riviere seems to have made little effort to take off on episodes, personages, or stylistic devices from the original. Here, for all that, is one example of a Gogolian sort of thing that shows up early on. At the beginning of Gogol’s DS, as the rogue swindler Chichikov, the central character, drives into the provincial city where the action is to be set, two idle peasants debate whether one wobbly wheel on his carriage would make it to Moscow or Kazan. “Just then, as the chaise was driving up to the inn, a young man strolled past, attired in white dimity trousers, very narrow and very short, and a swallow-tailed coat, with some pretensions to fashion that disclosed a shirt-front fastened with a bronze pin of Tula design in the shape of a pistol. The young man swung round, inspected the turn-out, clutched his cap as a gust of wind threated to blow it off, and strolled on his way.”
Gogol has a way of breaking all the literary rules, playing by his own rules, and getting away with it. Here, after the detailed description of the young man, we expect him to be, perhaps, named in the next paragraph, and to play some further role in the novel. He is not named, nor does he ever show up again after this brief appearance on page one. Something similar happens in the early pages of Riviere’s DS, where the narrator’s ex-girl friend Genia Friend and her new partner, Piet Durcan, “a burly, reticent South African,” step briefly into the narrative. They walk in and out of the book only this once, never showing up again, and N remarks, “Somehow I knew it was the last time I would see either of them.”
Russian peasants were indentured serfs, legally owned by landowners until the abolishment of serfdom in 1861. Chichikov’s swindle involves buying up dead souls (dead peasants or serfs) from local landowners in provincial Russia. Rather, he buys the legal rights to own these serfs, who, although deceased, will remain on the tax rolls and, therefore, will be legally still in existence until the next census is taken. Using his ownership in these dead souls as collateral, he plans to take out a mortgage on a landed estate, becoming, in effect, a landowner. The point at which SW most resembles Chichikov is when he and Max Mikkaels journey around the boondocks of provincial England, buying up the works of forgotten or unpublished poets and gathering fake followers for his profile on the internet. These “dead souls,” the phony followers and the useless poetry, enable SW to return to London, launch his comeback, and revel briefly in his new fame as a poet.
Of course, in both novels the meaning of the title is all-embracing. Many different persons and many institutions are dead souls or possess souls that are dead. One of the big and unexpected reversals of the Gogol novel is that the dead peasants (dead souls) are revealed, even if dead, to have more vibrant and lively souls than any of the landowners or city officials, all of whom possess the deadest of souls. Gogol uses the power of creative words, in the mouths of those who sell or buy the souls (peasants) to reanimate them. The oddest thing about Gogol’s self-described “Poem” is that the most unexpected of characters in the novel are poets of sorts, or at least have a streak of poetry in their souls. In fact, the burly, bear-like landowner Sobakevich turns out to be the most unlikely poet in the history of Russian literature. As he ecstatically describes to Chichikov individual dead peasants he has for sale—in trying to drive the price up—his poetic fancies in words make these demised men much more real in the flesh than him, or Chichikov, or any other of the flawed characters (dead souls all) who inhabit the narrative. Another unlikely poet—the fount of unrestrained creative fancy—is the slapdash, utterly immoral (but hilarious) Nozdrev.
Ask practically any Russian about Nikolai Gogol—a man born and bred Ukrainian, by the way—and you’ll be informed that he is a satirist whose Dead Souls is a bitter satire on the graft, cronyism, corruption that dominated Russian life in Gogol’s time, early 19th century—still does, in fact, today. Sure, they’ll tell you, there’s a lot of humor in the book, but Gogol’s laughter amounts to “laughter through tears,” and read as a whole, DS is a sad business. This utter nonsense, which originated with the most influential nineteenth century critic, Belinsky, doyen of the civic-minded literary critics of Gogol’s time, bloomed and spread abundantly, like the most pernicious of weeds. It was perpetuated through the years of the Soviet Union, then by dunderheaded high school teachers even after the Union collapsed and right up to the present day.
Nikolai Gogol himself—except when he had a quill pen in his hand and turned his fiction writing over to some genius of a neuron deep in his brain—was the most pedestrian of thinkers. He had no idea what he was doing in his fiction, so when the civic-minded critics founded the “Gogolian School of Literature,” based on social and political criticism, he went along with them. Okay, if they are calling Dead Souls a satire that must be what it is.
There is a huge gap between satire and irony. As someone said, “Satire is a lesson; irony is a game.” Gogol is, essentially, not a satirist at all; he is a supreme ironist. Gogol’s DS evolves basically out of Pushkin’s effervescent novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, another coruscating piece of light irony invested with genius. When Gogol, who was a consummate actor, read passages from his DS to selected audiences at the homes of his friends and patrons—performing all the characters in different voices—people were literally down on the floor, holding their sides with laughter. The book is funny, but not bitterly funny; no one is “laughing through tears” and sighing over the corrupt state of the human soul, and that spirit of joyous freedom in hearty, gut-wrenching laughter is probably what makes Dead Souls the best novel in the whole canon of Russian literature. Maybe the second best, after Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Great works of literature reach out to us in strange ways over the years. The best novels remain eerily applicable to events of our times. So it turns out, Chichikov lies when asked by local bureaucrats where he plans to resettle the peasants he has purchased. He says “In Kherson Oblast.” Later on, under the influence of drink at the party the locals throw for him in celebration of his acquisitions, he finds himself actually dreaming of being a landowner near Kherson, setting himself up there, accompanied by his dead souls. With a population today of 284,000, Kherson, a port city, is the administrative center of Kherson Oblast, located on the Black Sea and Dnieper (Dnipro) River in modern Ukraine.
Fast-forward to present time and we find all sorts of bizarre Gogolian things going on around Kherson, which is a hotspot in the present war. From March through November, 2022, Russian forces occupied the city—founded by Russian Empress Catherine the Great with the help of one of her most influential ministers, Grigory Potemkin. Forced to evacuate Kherson, the Russians took with them the remains of one more dead soul, Potemkin himself, who had been interred in St. Catherine’s Cathedral. Don’t know what Putin plans on doing with Potemkin’s bones, but, given Putin’s obsession with the Great Russianness of anything in Ukraine, the bones will probably be reinterred with high honors at some sacred spot in St. Petersburg. If you happen to be in the environs of Kherson, look carefully and who knows—you may spy the ghost of Chichikov living with his dead souls on a landed estate not far from city center.
Getting back to Riviere’s DS, we find that what we have here is genuine satire, not, like Gogol’s DS, light but profound irony. Certainly the author has a great sense of humor, and there are funny passages throughout. But, taken as a whole, the book is a bitter satire mired in misanthropy. In all of Riviere’s novel not a single poet appears, including the narrator, who, at least in part, is based on the author. Nor does a single decent person appear. Nor does the all-redeeming spirit of hearty laughter. Riviere’s book, often brilliant, worthy of high praise, is, yes, a poem, a wild, manic piece of poetry in prose, but, taken in its entirety, a sad and misanthropic poem.
U.R. Bowie, author of Buggy Disquisitions: Insect Critiques of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (audiobook forthcoming)