“The Polyglot Lover” is the second incendiary novel by Swedish writer Lina Wolff. Unfolding in three loosely linked parts, each devoted to a single — and indeed singular — character, the book boldly, pungently and incisively chronicles sexual misadventures, artistic ambitions and a drastic decline. Three years ago it scooped up the August Prize, Sweden’s most prestigious literary award. Now, in Saskia Vogel’s skilled translation, Wolff’s novel is ready to work its strange magic on a whole new audience.
The first section is Ellinor’s story. Aged 36 and still looking for “the One,” she recalls her false starts with two deadbeats: Johnny, a sexist oaf who teaches her to fight and shoot, and Klaus, who carries with him an “odor of despair.” When she tries her luck on a dating website she hooks up with Ruben, a boozy, overweight literary critic, who invites her back to his Stockholm house for a night of passion — one that culminates with blood, vomit, broken glass and a burned manuscript.
Rather than cut her losses and run, Ellinor feels the urge to stay: Something, she decides, has been set in motion, “a chain of events that would turn us against each other but also, in a way, unite us.” Days become weeks, and Ellinor settles into a routine under Ruben’s roof. Then one day when he is out, a beautiful blind woman arrives unannounced, asking Ellinor for the manuscript she had vengefully destroyed and issuing a cryptic warning: “Ruben isn’t a whole man, and broken people break things.”
Wolff’s second section takes leave of Ellinor and brings in Max Lamas, the author of the manuscript. We are in more surreal territory, following Max as he encounters a receptionist with suicidal tendencies who asks to be his mistress and a man who claims to have a worm in his head. When the spotlight settles on polyglot Max, it illuminates his ruthless streak and his ultimate quest: to find a woman who is able to speak all his languages and thus truly understand him.
That desire takes him to Italy, the setting for Wolff’s final section. A new narrator, Lucrezia, describes how two years previously Max broke the heart and crushed the hopes of her grandmother, a marchesa — and in doing so precipitated the family’s financial ruin.
This is a novel full of colorful and candid characters who are eager to speak their minds and quick to flaunt their oddities. Through three markedly different voices, Wolff examines gender power play. Along the way, she upsets the applecart, mercilessly mocking male hegemony and skewering literary pretensions. What could have been angry and strident is instead caustic and mischievous: both a bracing wind and a breath of fresh air.
Not all hangs together, and even less makes sense. But Wolff’s constant supply of fire, bite and wit are compelling forces that propel us through all three of her riotous acts.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Polyglot Lover
By: Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.
Publisher: And Other Stories, 256 pages, $16.95.