Friday 1 July 2022

'It made me extremely happy...'

 Acting on a hot tip from a trusted source, I did something I rarely do these days: I read a new work of fiction. Well, almost new – Sam Riviere's Dead Souls was published last year – but since then, after a slow start, it has, I gather 'taken New York by storm'. If so, that's a surprise because it is, among other things, a very English work set in a very English scene – specifically the English poetry scene. Not, however, the English poetry scene as we know it, but strangely transformed into an exaggerated, hypertrophied version of itself by developments in what we must take to be the near future, as it is much like the present, only that bit worse. In particular, a piece of software, the QACS (quantitative analysis and comparison system), capable of detecting plagiarism, or rather duplication, in any writer's works and thereby triggering a career-ending pile-on, has had devastating effects on prose fiction, leaving only the poets standing – or, in many cases, falling victim. Solomon Wiese, a poet who thought he had found a way around the software – and was not in any normal sense plagiarising – is a recent casualty, and it is his story, told in the course of one night in the bar of the Travelodge by Waterloo Bridge (which, we are told, has an all-night licence and is therefore a magnet for poets), that forms the bulk of Dead Souls. Listening to Solomon Wiese's tale is an unnamed narrator who is a poetry editor and translator and has just delivered a reading of works by an absent Ukrainian poet to an audience none of whom, the narrator realises, actually wants to be there, but all of whom feel obliged to show their faces and maintain their positions in the fiercely competitive and fissiparous world of the English poetry scene. Solomon Wiese's tale – indeed the whole novel – is told in one unbroken paragraph, conventionally punctuated but tending towards very long sentences, often packed with subordinate clauses, qualifications and clarifications, and anchored periodically by the reminder 'Solomon Wiese said' (in the manner of the 'Austerlitz said' at the end of the torrential sentences in Sebald's Austerlitz).  This way of writing reminded me strongly of another novel I read recently – Javier Marias's The Infatuations – and, as with the Marias, I enjoyed being carried along on these great surging rollers of prose. As a satire, Dead Souls is gloriously bitter and very funny, increasingly funny as it (and the night in the Travelodge bar) goes on. It's a thoroughly unusual novel, English in its subject matter but in style and spirit very far from what we might expect of a contemporary English novel. It is rather wonderful that such a big mainstream  house as Weidenfeld & Nicolson should have published it – hats off to them, and to Sam Riviere for having produced something so bracingly original and so hugely enjoyable. 
The back jacket is covered with blurbs so peppered with reviewers' adjectives that I suspected they might all be part of the satire (alas, they are not) – 'Mordant, torrential, incantatory, Bolano-esque, Perec-ian' ... 'Beautiful, intricately humane and gut-wrenchingly funny' ... 'Sublime, legendary, delightfully unhinged'... 'Whip-smart, razor-sharp, wise-funny'... I'd agree with one blurber's conclusion, though: 'It made me extremely happy, and I dreaded it ending.' Me too. 

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