An Interview with Sam Riviere - Believer Magazine

An Interview with Sam Riviere

by Meg Whiteford
July 15th, 2021

I anticipated reading Sam Riviere’s debut novel Dead Souls for months after reading the description on some publishing site somewhere. A picaresque haranguing the poetry world in the vein of my beloved Roberto Bolaño and Muriel Spark? Bring it on. As I left my apartment the day of the book’s publication to head to the bookstore, a package delivered to my apartment waited for me in the entryway. I pried the bubble mailer open as I walked, as curious as Charlie Bucket wondering if his Wonka Bar contained his golden ticket, only I had no memory of ordering a candy bar, let alone a Wonka, metaphorical or otherwise. Inside was nothing other than a copy of Sam Riviere’s Dead Souls. The same book I was currently en route to purchase! I have no idea what this sort of serendipity means in relation to Sam’s novel, which skewers the poetry and publishing worlds of Britain (and by proxy, the United States) with layers of ranting, hypnotic monologues, and dialogue with a touch of grounding in the form of the recurring setting of a bar on London’s Waterloo Bridge. But I did know, as I intuited from Dead Souls, Sam values conversation in his work and life, and that I wanted to have one with him.

THE BELIEVER: The book reads like trying to find the center of a Tootsie Pop, which in turn makes me think, there is no author or narrator here and certainly no story because if everyone is unreliable and everyone is speaking for everyone else, what is behind what is said? Is this sort of annihilation of authorship and narrator of interest to you?

SAM RIVIERE: I had to look up Tootsie Pop! It has no centre? Yes, the novel is about a plagiarist, which is the annihilation of authorship in a fairly direct way, I suppose. At one point a character decides to claim a fictional story, a story about a boy made out of bark, as their own story—they feel the story describes them better than any purely factual story, and I think this impulse is something most people can relate to. But at what point does it cease to be an act of creative and meaningful appropriation—the everyday material of life, in other words—and become an act of plagiarism, committed in bad faith? This is a disputed border. I think my contention in this book is that things like our stories, even one’s true voice and also moods and private emotions and political orientations, are not restricted to individuals, but travel through them, and that some are highly contagious. The style or voice of this book I caught from Thomas Bernhard—but of course my experience or rendering of it is somewhat different from that of patient zero. I am sorry for using these metaphors but they do seem apt. Bernhard appears to be kind of a super-spreader, in any case. The kind of writer who can’t help but generate more writers. The narrator in my book speaks in the same manner as everyone else in the book, partly because he is giving voice to them as he tells his story, but also he is their mouthpiece, and they are speaking through him, like ventriloquists through a dummy—as in life, the voice and the story always seem to come from a point beyond the teller. I wanted to explore the real eeriness of that sensation. 

BLVR: How did you sustain interest in a narrative that takes place in one location—the Travelodge bar on the Waterloo bridge? Both personally, as a writer, but what techniques did you use to hold the reader there as well?

SR: The form of the book is of narrators nested within narrators—the main narrator’s account takes place pretty much in one place, the Travelodge bar near Waterloo, where he meets a poet, Solomon Wiese, who meets other people on the travels he describes, who in some cases meet yet other people, so their accounts are relayed back to the reader through several intermediate narrators, each inside the other. This interests me as I think it’s close to the fundamental purpose of grammar and syntax—the ascribing of agency and intention to absent people, who are reduced to names in the situation where their actions are encountered by a listener or reader. We have no way of verifying their stories, but we seem to have no problem accepting them and visualising them and taking a position on them, somehow disregarding the mediating role of the teller in all this. There is some tension here I think—the novel is partly concerned with maintaining artifice, and partly concerned with destroying it. 

BLVR: Toward the end of the book, the narrator Solomon Wiese keeps repeating his name until he annihilates—or as you say, destroys—himself—much in the way when you repeat any word it becomes nonsense. I did this, too. And then I ended up with: Solo Man Wise. Coincidence, or not?

SR: Haha, yes a coincidence! I like it though. I don’t know how wise Solomon Wiese is, really—I wouldn’t advocate his approach. The names of the characters became very important to me, and they’re always used in full. There seemed something talismanic, almost allegorical about them. Many are Germanic sounding, even though the novel is set in England. The name Solomon Wiese more or less suggested itself, but I later found out that Wiese means “meadow” in German, which felt vaguely appropriate—all of the characters are “fields” that in a sense contain other characters, besides themselves, in their stories. Every character is a site of activity, a kind of internal ecosystem of thoughts and ideas represented by different figures. This feels accurate to me but in a way that is probably more instinctual than intellectually justified. 

BLVR: Where on the poetry binary, the scholastici versus the grammatici, do you fall? Could you describe this binary for folks? And me?

SR: The scholastici and the grammitici are two rival clusters of poets, each affiliated with an elite university, and structurally opposed to each other, although there is very little discernible difference between their outputs. This is a version of a reality that occurs in every poetry scene I’ve encountered.  Personally—and this is not a popular opinion right now—I am pretty opposed to poetry groups, or even a poetry community, if such a thing can really be said to exist. Historically, at least in the Western tradition, a poet is an individualist—almost by definition, they operate outside the main social flow, have some distance from it as a result, and this enables them to respond to it in unusual ways. This is probably the origin of their social value. People seem to forget that displaying antagonism towards a community, questioning the claims of a community, and so asserting oneself as an individual, is only possible in the context of a community, and is a service to the community. Adorno was saying something like this, as far as I can remember. The idea of a group of these narcissistic social outcasts—poets—forming their own community, with its own consensus and its own social outcasts, who might eventually form a counter-community, seems awful and funny to me. That is basically the vantage of the novel’s main character—the outsiders’ outsider. 

There’s a part in the book where Solomon Wiese claims that everyone, as they age, becomes more and more particularised and individual in their patterns of thinking, and therefore increasingly isolated and unreachable—it sounds bleak when he says it—but I would have to argue this development can only be desirable for an artist. 

BLVR: I’ve never read Bernhard. Though now I feel I need him. And he has definitely formed his own everlasting, ever-growing community—I agree he’s a super-spreader, I love that term! What drew you to him? 

SR: People often say that Bernhard is depressing and that all his books are the same, but for me there is a real joyfulness in the work that emerges more fully the more of it you read—joyfulness in the negativity, which is enormously relieving and enlivening, joyfulness in the repetition, which becomes musical when initially it seems antithetical to music, joyfulness in the sense of his being open to saying—not anything exactly, but precisely those things that are most dissonant with the social context and literary culture into which he is supposed to fit. In other words, sentiments that are privately shared by many or all in similar situations. The first book I read by him is called My Prizes, where he lists each of the many literary prizes he has been awarded, and explains in relentless detail why each is completely worthless and was awarded to him only for reasons of cynicism and mendaciousness.  This book infected me with his style.. 

BLVR: Beyond Bernhard, I can also see your poetry background here. Perhaps that’s more apt an origin? The repetition of phrases, the musicality that brings to mind a round, or the chorus in a play. Were you thinking of choruses at all in the writing of this book?

They are connected. Bernhard was a poet first—as was Milan Kundera, I think, and Witold Gombrowicz—and like those writers he has a poet’s or perhaps a musician’s approach to structure and pattern, in that a totalising vision of structure and pattern is present, through repetition and variation, at all levels of the work—word selection, sentence construction, character, subject matter, narrative, even development between novels. I read him in translation as well, so no doubt I’m missing a lot. I like Muriel Spark’s idea of the novel as a “continuous poem” and in the best novels this seems to be the effect.

BLVR: Oh I love Murial Spark, specifically the Driver’s Seat. It’s breathlessly unsettling and a perfect gem. I never heard the continuous poem thing, and that makes sense now! 

SR: Dead Souls by Gogol was subtitled “a poem” by the author, despite being celebrated as one of the first Russian novels. Part of me—though this is an apocryphal claim, and mainly trolling—would like to argue for the novel as a minor branch of poetry, just the poetic form that happens to be most suited to the modern age. Kundera calls it anti-lyrical poetry—similar in spirit to the anti-poetry of Nicanor Parra, perhaps. Maybe whenever poetry gets too full of itself, anti-poetry emerges to reset the balance. 

BLVR: Why write a novel then?

SR: This is hard to answer—I could point to all the usual reasons, but I think while writing most of those reasons are discarded. The novel almost seems like theory by other means to me. Rather than figuring out a position on authorship, the ownership of language and certain sorts of content, I could set up a what if situation, and allow it to play out within certain limits. I interviewed Dag Solstad once, and one of my questions leant towards literary theory, at which point he claimed not to understand, and wouldn’t answer—refused to even think in those terms. The novel seems really opposed to the kind of thinking that theory demands—its demands are totally different; they are the inverse demands, almost. A lot of poetry, on the other hand, seems led by theory, which feels to me really the wrong way around—to be written after theory, as if seeking to substantiate it. So weird. Gombrowicz says in “Against Poets”—and this was his problem with poetry in general—that a poem should be able to survive outside the context of its being written. It shouldn’t only be able to live among friends, who share the poet’s set of assumptions. He says that such a poem can only bring shame on the poet! In a way, a novel is a piece of writing that will likely travel furthest from the author, into contexts that you might never anticipate. The question is if it can survive there, without any supporting scaffolding or breathing apparatus. 

BLVR: I’m curious if you think the monologue can be translated to film or any other medium other than writing/speech. I’m thinking of My Dinner with Andre which everyone says is one of the worst movies but I truly love it. It’s one long dinner conversation between playwrights. It’s so delightfully boring and devoid of plot, except the plot that comes through conversation.

SR: I’m so happy you mentioned this film! I love it too, and it was definitely influential in setting the entire book in basically one scene—in My Dinner With Andre, though the camera never leaves it, you travel miles from that peculiar old-timey restaurant, wouldn’t you say?

I really like Wallace Shawn’s other plays too—The Designated Mourner uses the to-audience monologue throughout, and I think The Fever was a one-person monologue at first, that he would deliver only to small groups in their own apartments. I would like to say that I hope my book is unfilmable, but I won’t, as it would be a disingenuous boast—but I suspect that any good novel is unfilmable without totally altering what it is.

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