I Didn’t Want to Talk About Literature Before Having Sex
J.S. DeYoung reviews Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers (trans. Saskia Vogel)
In responding to a request to talk about the “polyglot” theme of her new novel, Lina Wolff has called it
a dream and, at the same time, a reality. Total comprehension and a fusion of languages, that is what the character Max Lamas thinks would be necessary to make him truly love a woman. He feels that the countries where he has lived and the languages he has learned have enriched him so deeply that he doesn’t want to reduce his worldview or adapt to a person who knows only one culture and one language. He sees monolingualism as a poverty of the soul. But then, love is rarely what one expects…
Love and languages, in particular those delicate codes of words and conduct between women and men, are at the centre of The Polyglot Lovers (trans. Saskia Vogel). Broken into three novella-length sections that tell the story backwards, the novel delves into the lives of its characters in a contemporary way: powerful men are conceited, shortsighted, wretched human beings, and women are the real adults in the room — but they can’t help but be corrupted by the desires of their male counterparts, and their own desires for them. It’s a funny, engaging, and vital narrative that excoriates the male gaze.
Lina Wolff seems to be making a career out of her attempts to throttle and shame the male literary establishment, and in her home country of Sweden she is a bit of a literary sensation for it. Before The Polyglot Lovers, she published two books: a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You, 2009, not yet translated into English) and her début novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (2016, trans. Frank Perry). The latter is a work of audacious postmodernism, full of randomised violence and cruelty, which categorically establishes that men are dogs. It also takes special aim at the pretensions of male writers: a riff that Wolff extends in The Polyglot Lovers, this time to Michel Houellebecq.
The novel opens with Ellinor, a rather prosaic woman from a Swedish village. Smart, unsentimental, and monolingual, unlike most of the characters in the novel, Ellinor’s narrative starts with a remembrance of her first love, a boy from her village called Johnny. This boy, who is full of piss and vigour, takes her to underground fight clubs, where she learns as a young woman to go mano-a-mano with men. Nothing has ever come close to fulfilling her like fighting, and no man has come close to replacing Johnny, who eventually dumps her because she gets a little chubby. Now, single and nearing middle age, Ellinor posts a laconic profile to a dating website, in search of, as she puts it, “the One”. Her profile bio reads: “I’m thirty-six years old and seeking a tender, but not too tender, man.” Her profile picture is allusive at best.
After fending off a number of dodgy males — boys who are mostly interested in sending her dick pics — Ellinor takes up a rather earthy flirtation with Ruben, whose emails she finds curious because “what he [writes is] a testament of sorts, an ugly realness that he was unashamed of.” For their first date, Ruben asks her to meet him at a bar, instructing Ellinor to “look like you’re for sale”.
Ruben turns out to be obese and physically unattractive. He’s a professional literary critic who has written a few books, including one on Max Lamas, his favourite writer. After confirming that she isn’t turned off by his size, Ruben invites Ellinor to his house. Upon arriving, Ellinor is too distracted by her own thoughts about sex to pay attention to Ruben’s strangeness. He confesses that he has spent the last few years paying for sex, and has forgotten how to be with a woman. To change the mood, he shows Ellinor a manuscript.
“I didn’t want to talk about literature before having sex, that wasn’t the type of experience I was after,” Ellinor thinks. She tries to get out of it. Instead, Ruben goes full fanboy (while in the nude, no less) about the manuscript he’s been lucky enough to get a sneak peak of. It’s the new book by Max Lamas, entitled The Polyglot Lovers. It’s about women, he says, their madness, which “interests” the author because of its “elasticity… reminiscent of the female body.” Did your eyes roll?
For most readers, I would guess that the scene after Ruben shows Ellinor the manuscript plays our like a rape. He tackles her, glass is broken, they both end up bloody. But surprisingly Ellinor won’t allow herself a rape victim’s narrative, relaying to the reader: “I’m not about to say that he raped me, because I’m not the kind of person who gets raped. That’s the way it is and that’s how it always has been, I didn’t learn to fight so I could end up a victim. … So no, I can’t tell you exactly what happened in the house by the sea that night.”
Unexpectedly, Ellinor and Ruben’s relationship doesn’t end here. In an act of revenge, Ellinor burns the only copy of the manuscript while Ruben sleeps. The next morning Ruben wakes Ellinor by asking where the manuscript is. She replies remorselessly that she burned it. Ruben, guilty for his actions, does nothing. Instead he invites Ellinor to stay because of a snowstorm that has halted taxis and train services. And so begins Ellinor’s extended time at Ruben’s, where she reads the books in his library — particularly those by Michel Houellebecq.
Wolff has admitted that Houellebecq’s novels are sources of fascination for her, while at the same time she finds them repulsive and depressing. “I think he gives voice to something widespread,” she has said, “to things that many women struggle against their whole lives, such as fears of not being enough, and of aging… [s]o I played with that gaze, gave some of my characters a ‘Houllebecquian gaze’” in The Polyglot Lovers. Among the novel’s cast of characters, Max Lamas is the most ‘Houllebecquian’, and it’s his voice that narrates its second section, which functions as a lengthy flashback on the origins of the manuscript.
At the beginning of this section, Max is mid-career and working on a derivative project for which he feels little interest, so he occupies his days by swimming, walking around the less inspiring parts of Stockholm, chatting with his Nietzsche-obsessed wife, and fetishising his ideal woman:
In my fantasy she was dark, short, curvy, and wore her hair in a wavy bob. She was a mélange of eight women I’d been with. The fantasy woman spoke a language I didn’t understand, rendering any communication impossible. It gave me the deepest sense of calm. If she was sad, I wouldn’t be able to console her. If she was happy, I’d notice nevertheless. I christened her Lolita, a name I found base but beautiful.
Max has other fantasies about young, polyglot women, perhaps because none of his current relationships are satisfying. They are mostly with older women or women he cannot connect with due to his snobbery.
Towards the end of this section, Max gives in to a lonely receptionist’s invitation to become his mistress, but upon waking beside her the next morning, he desperately wants to leave her bed and never return. She asks him whether she is the best lover he has ever had, because he was certainly hers. No, he says, thinking “of the many categories of repulsive people. … [I]t’s the inarticulate ones who are the worst of all.” He tells her that there’s something about her he can’t stand, that she is boring, inhibited, and old. It’s a crushing scene — more so when you realise that Max doesn’t even get her name. The receptionist “curses” him. It’s biblical, old-fashioned, and effective. Max suddenly cannot write.
In a narrative move that initially feels risky — but pays off — the third section takes a large leap from Stockholm to Italy, where we meet Lucrezia Latini Orsi. Up until this point the Latini family name has appeared only once, in a seven-line snippet from a magazine article the receptionist reads to Max. Lucrezia reveals that Max comes to the Latini family to write another article about them: an atoning project for his treatment of the receptionist, as it turns out. He is intrigued by Lucrezia’s mother, a woman who is kept in an asylum, but who is indeed a true polyglot like Max — and it is this woman who becomes the polyglot at the centre of his manuscript.
If my synopsis of The Polyglot Lovers feels clipped and disjointed, that’s because it is and because that’s also how the novel reads. Both of the first two sections come to a clean, economical full stop, while the third plays out to a satisfying conclusion. Structurally, the novel owes a lot to the conversational, lateral style of Roberto Bolaño, as well as the mirrored actions and character gradations of Vladimir Nabokov. Perhaps it’s tone deaf to name two male writers here, but Wolff herself has noted the richness of the male canon and contended that “there is no reason why a woman… should not stand on the shoulders of giants.” Here, she puts both influences to effective use. The novel seems to grow around you like a patch of weeds until you realise it’s being masterfully shaped, trimmed into an ornamental garden, as it eventually makes a compelling full circle back to Ellinor in its surprising and exhilarating final pages.
Wolff’s own distinctive voice has become clearer in this novel, too, as one that is piercing, clever, and delightfully cynical. Unlike in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, where she may have simplified or generalised her male characters somewhat, the characterisation here is more nuanced, demanding a more attentive engagement with the text and the characters’ motives and actions. Take for instance this bit of distorted yet surprisingly woke insight by the detestable Max Lamas:
The problem… is that if you write about anything but men, it gets political. I’d have been more than eager to write about something else. … I’d have more than wanted to write about women, homosexuals, dwarves, or the disabled. Or administrators, black people, communists, and fascists. I’d have more than wanted to write about all of these groups, if it would have done any good. The problem is that if you want to tell a story, then there’s only one untainted perspective, and that is the white heterosexual man’s. It is the only sheet of paper that doesn’t, so to speak, have a history of oppression.
Arriving at a point-of-view on this novel is difficult due to Wolff’s superb dialogical storytelling and subtle character portrayals. The women, while tough and smart, are not always the heroes; the men, while buffoonish and “sick”, are often misunderstood and afraid of intimacy and real love — they are, ironically, the least articulate.
The true beauty of this novel lies in the dynamism of polyglot theme, which sprawls out to fill all corners. There are characters who speak the “filthy ur-language of sexuality” and those who bemoan never learning “book language.” A few characters surprisingly consider Ellinor illiterate because she speaks only a Swedish dialect; another character code-switches, affecting a lisp depending on who he’s speaking with; and at the apex of the novel, two characters challenge one another over whether or not learning more than one language is worth it, because, as one says, “you’ll end up being unable to spell in your own mother tongue.” But there’s also the meta-polyglotism active in the novel: that of the writer, Lina Wolff, who organises the three dominant voices so well that they do not reveal the writer. Each one has a distinctive sound and perspective, and credit is due to Saskia Vogel for translating each of them in a way that preserves their idiosyncrasies without being jarring.
Wolff’s honest and prismatic vision of the sexual politics of our times is one that deserves our full attention — lest we forget how to even see one another through our own psychological projections. As she says, the polyglot theme is “a dream and a reality”. We dream that our lovers speak our language, but likely as not they speak their own, and if we do not stop and learn to interpret theirs — if we do not witness them as complete human beings — they will be lost to us, and so will real love.