Everyone behaves badly in The Polyglot Lovers — no saving graces. It’s a complex, shifting structure of sex, self-hatred and misogyny, examining what the author calls ‘the violence in the male gaze’. Its blithe disregard for social norms and finer feelings is exhilarating; it’s pitiless and scathingly funny. The women invariably make wincingly bad decisions. Feminism for the Fleabag generation?
Nothing is simple here, in a world as disorientating as a hall of mirrors. The novel has three parts, each with a narrator and the story is told backwards as it teasingly reveals its leading character — not a person, but a manuscript that will change all three narrators’ lives. Ellinor — ‘I’m 36 years old and seeking a tender, but not too tender, man’ — is online dating. She meets up with an alcoholic literary critic who shows her a manuscript he thinks is a work of genius. Typewritten, it’s the only copy in existence (never a good idea). Their night of drunken sex turns violent and Ellinor burns the manuscript in revenge, feeding it page by page into the stove. Worse follows.
Max is a writer whose marriage has gone cold. Despondently he dreams of an ideal lover, an assembly of his past women. He has not yet written the manuscript which met its fate at Ellinor’s hands: in this trickily mutable world, time shifts back and forth, the past never dead, the future feeding the present.
What happens next we learn from Lucrezia. She’s the grand-daughter of the aristocratic Roman family whose story Max is writing, having seduced the elderly matriarch. In the palatial mansion in Le Marché, he taps away at an old typewriter, working on what will become the doomed manuscript. Now Max is about to meet Lucrezia, ‘an autodidact in male devastation’, heading home from rehab: this will not end well. But nothing really ends, as both will learn in time.
The Swedish author Lina Wolff wrote about violence against women in her provocative novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs. In The Polyglot Lovers, sensitively translated by Saskia Vogel, winner of both a PEN award and Sweden’s top literary prize, it’s not physical violence but emotional damage that engages her. The men are uniformly ghastly, the women far from innocent.
Wolff sends up artistic pretensions, male ego and literary reputation — Michel Houellebecq is a target for some fine malicious insults. But the novel is knowingly concerned with writing itself, and its author has some heartless fun with the written word: on page 54, the manuscript pages ‘look as though they’d been out in the rain and a cup of coffee had spilled across them’. On page 232 we discover why. No spoilers, but if this were your manuscript you would not be happy.