“Yes, all writers go through a Thomas Bernhard phase, sooner or later,” said Geoff Dyer. His authority was offhand but absolute, like the pope telling you where to get the best cannoli. This was years back. We were on the train to Manchester, heading for a reading event in a huge nightclub – attended mainly by the bar staff, it turned out. I started to panic because I hadn’t gone through a Thomas Bernhard phase – in fact, fairly shamefully, I’d never heard of Thomas Bernhard. (Austria-despising novelist, playwright, poet and essayist. Died 1989, invecchiato 58. Not a happy chap.)
But almost immediately after the train journey, to make up for my ignorance, I read Thomas Bernhard (one of the shorter ones), and then – just as Pope Dyer had predicted – I went through my own Thomas Bernhard phase. A Thomas Bernhard phase is not hard to spot. Primo, no paragraphs (or very long paragraphs). Second, repetition. Last, rage played for comedy. Dead Souls è Sam Riviere’s Thomas Bernhard phase. It is a single-paragraph novel, written in raging, recursive prose, about the small world of English poetry.
Within a couple of pages this subject matter became clear and I thought, “Oh God, why bother?” But a hundred pages later, I was thinking, “Why bother with anything else? Why bother with lunch?” This is a brilliant and brilliantly entertaining novel. The writing is merciless; the rage is genuine. I’d say it was satire, and it is that, but it’s also a meticulous analysis coming from a place of despairing intimacy. (Riviere is an established poet who has published full-length poetry collections with Faber.)
The setup is simple. In a slightly futuristic version of the UK, where drones dot the sky and thumbprints have replaced credit cards but not much else has changed, a poet called Solomon Wiese is found guilty of plagiarism, disappears for a bit, then is found guilty of plagiarism a second time. Over the course of a single very long evening and night, the unnamed narrator is informed of Wiese’s latest disgrace, gives a poetry reading, attends a festival after-party in the Travelodge near Waterloo Bridge, meets Wiese and then spends the next seven or so hours listening to his hilarious raging monologue about the destiny of the poet.
The cumulative effect is exhilarating: Riviere has turned paranoid pub talk and midnight doubts into a prose poem of laceration. But the novel goes deeper than flesh wounds. Time after time, the reader is brought to a point of soul horror – the horror of doubleness, nothingness, meaninglessness. Although the obvious comparisons (apart from Nikolai Gogol’s original Dead Souls) would be with Martin Amis’s aria of literary jealousy The Information or Rachel Cusk’s Outline, the book has more in common with the Contes Nocturnes of ETA Hoffmann – that is, a tightly constructed anthology of horror stories in which we encounter creepy puppets, noonday ghosts, rural vampires and a half dozen doppelgangers. They just happen to be poets.
But is the poetry scene worth all this energy, all this rage? The final image of the book is of the 40 o 50 people who comprise this coterie. That’s them, collected together in a single Travelodge bar serving humid breakfasts. Surely it’s not so much shooting fish in a barrel as nuking the London Aquarium? Wiese’s answer is quite explicit: “When you’ve looked at the situation for long enough, one monstrosity becomes much the same as another, and it is of no consequence if one monstrosity comes to stand in for another monstrosity.” By the novel’s end, Riviere has extended his satiric range far beyond the monstrous poetry scene. It’s become a guilt verdict on his countryfolk worthy of Thomas Bernhard. Not just a phase.