Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2016.
Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Lina Wolff’s career as a novelist has got off to the kind of start that most writers can only dream of. Her first novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, won the Vi Magazine Literature Prize and was shortlisted for the 2013 Swedish Radio Award for Best Novel of the Year. Now her second novel, The Polyglot Lovers, has won the 2016 August Prize – named after August Strindberg and one of the most celebrated and prestigious literary prizes in Sweden.
The novel is divided into three sections, each with its own narrative voice. As the deceptively simple plot opens, we meet Ellinor – a small-town 30-something who has been taught to fight like a boy, and is now on the lookout for ‘a tender – but not too tender – man’. She meets Calisto, a literary critic with a taste for violence, who has been entrusted with the manuscript of a book – also called ‘The Polyglot Lovers’ – that will provide the link between the three parts of Wolff’s novel. The manuscript is by Max Lamas, a writer idolised by Calisto. The novel-within-a-novel tells of the polyglot Max’s yearning for the ‘perfect woman’ who ‘can speak all his languages’, a yearning that will lead him to an aristocratic Italy and to Lucrezia, who provides the third narrative voice and is the granddaughter of a marchioness.
Key to all three sections is the male view of women. That Wolff is interested in how women are represented in literature, particularly in terms of sexuality and violence, should come as no surprise after her first novel, whose title namechecks Bret Easton Ellis – a writer who has been accused of misogyny and targeted by the American National Organization for Women. And here in The Polyglot Lovers, the writer Michel Houellebecq – who also has a reputation as a misogynist – is another regular presence. Tellingly, in a recent interview with Svenska Dagbladet, Wolff revealed that her intention was ‘to play with [these writers] in fiction’ and provide her ‘answer to the way they portray women, sex and violence’. Her novel holds up a distorted mirror (mirrors being another leitmotiv) and shows them that their writerly approach to women is not without consequence, as if to say ‘Here you are – this is what it looks like from where I’m standing’.
The Polyglot Lovers, however, is no mere feminist tract. It is a magnificent novel: funny, clever, engaging and surprising. Its characters are complex, unpredictable and occasionally unlikeable, but never less than totally believable and deeply human. Wolff’s often straightforward, unaffected yet precise prose is counterbalanced by the series of sometimes improbable, dramatic events it describes, creating a laconic effect that finds its most perfect expression in the ‘prosaic’ Ellinor, who seems to live out her decidedly un- prosaic existence at a distance. As the writer Max takes over in part 2, the style becomes more rarefied; he imagines his fantasy ‘polyglot lover’s physical and verbal extravagance’. But here too, as he also pictures her ‘enormous, white, milk-scented breasts’, bathos and wry humour are never far away.
There is so much to take in, so much food for thought in this deep, multi- faceted novel that a single reading is perhaps insufficient. What is certain, however, is that in the wake of its triumph in Sweden, The Polyglot Lovers can look forward to its own polyglot future – and to a richly-deserved international success.