Author Q&A: Lina Wolff

The Polyglot Lovers (And Other Stories, £10)

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In her debut novel Wolff took aim at Bret Easton Ellis and now she turns her pen on Michel Houellebecq. The authors represent a pompous and macho literary establishment that Wolff acknowledges before burning page by page. This smart, irreverent and compelling novel follows three characters at the beginning, middle and end of the life of a manuscript. 

When asked by her boyfriend if there was anything she wished a man would teach her, Ellinor says she’d like to learn how to fight. Is it a valuable skill for girls? 
I am sure it is, since it gives you the feeling that you are able to defend yourself, apart from being excellent physical training. But in this case, I wanted to juxtapose a rather stiffened, intellectual approach to life to a more immediate, down-to-earth attitude represented by Ellinor. Readers like myself might believe the greatest experiences in life are connected to literature. And when you get older, it can almost become an excuse not to live – or at least to live in a less fulfilling way – because you can always escape in to a narrative that is better than your own life. Thinking that perhaps I had stopped challenging myself I started with karate the year I turned 40. That I got out of my comfort zone is to say the least. I was nobody there. A beginner who had to adapt to the rigid hierarchy of karate. And who got beaten up three times a week. But I learned a lot and I am happy I did that. I met people I would never have met in my life as a writer. I also found another part of myself, a less talkative, more “doing” and “uncomplaining” person. Perhaps you can say it hardened me a bit, but it hardened me when I needed to be hardened, so it was basically good, or at least that is what I believe. Then, in a fight, my knee was wounded, and I had to stop training. Instead I began with yoga and meditation. I really see that as a spin-off from the karate. My conclusion is that our local “fight club” left an important mark in my life, both as a writer and as a human being.

The Polyglot Lovers is a novel within your novel which begins life as one thing and becomes another. Did your version of The Polyglot Lovers begin life in another form, or are we to imagine yours is Max’s second version?
As a fan of metafiction, I love that reading. How things begin and how they develop. I like to reflect on structure, but my narratives don’t develop in a structured way. When I wrote my first novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, I ended up thinking of the structure as a solar system, with my central character Alba in the middle, and the other witnesses circling around her, telling their stories. As for the polyglots, it all came clear when I understood it was the story of a manuscript. The birth, life and death of a manuscript, divided in three parts, with the same people connected by the same manuscript.

Tell us about the theme of the polyglot and what it means to you personally as a bilingual. Was the book written as a polyglot novel?
A new language, when you learn it in depth and stay for a long time in the country, provides you with a second soul. That is for me the true polyglossia. The capacity of seeing things in a completely new way, for good and bad. It almost makes you change your personality when you go from one country to another. I imagined that that was Max’s experience. A kind of cultural treasure, but also a loneliness, since it is difficult to find a person with the same combination of languages and cultures as yourself.

Another aspect of the polyglossia, on a more personal level, was the articulation of different worldviews. I wanted to write a fiction about, among other things, misogyny, how it works and operates. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin said that the writer’s role in a text is the orchestration of different voices, not to be the indicator of a moral imperative. I personally like that way of considering a narrative, and I like to read narratives where I have to wonder which of the voices is the writer’s real voice. Or if there is one.

Tell us about the themes of mirrors and contrasts in relation to class, geography, intellectualism, etc.
Mirrors reflect our persona, the effort we make to appear in a presentable and socially acceptable way to the world around us. But sometimes the mirror can give you a short glimpse of the shadow behind your persona. When I write, I am interested in that glimpse – what we see when we see it, and what the awareness, or the unawareness, of it does to us.

I think I talked about intellectualism and geography in my former answers, but as for class, well, that is a huge topic that I only partly touch in The Polyglot Lovers. I consider myself a privileged person in many ways, and I know that privileges always bring a certain blindness. Privileged people rarely think about their privileges. Privileges are invisible for those who have them. My grandfather was a journalist, but he never went to school. My grandmother came from a more bourgeois family, and for her the right to study was taken for granted. I know my grandfather always carried within him a bitterness of not having been born into the “right” circumstances. He thought about what he could have done if he had been given the possibilities my grandmother was given. But class is so much more than that. I grew up in the countryside, which has made me sensitive to the way some urban environments consider people from these parts of Sweden. It can be quite depressing to see how little the two understand each other.

Would you agree with the bookseller in the novel that if there is one author you should read it’s Proust? 
I think it is wonderful to imagine somebody who has never read finding a great pleasure in Proust. His work is so immensely sensual, and personally I have had some of my deepest reading experiences reading Proust. But I need to prepare for those readings. I could never read him in an airport or at a café. It requires something from me too, at least a very silent place. This should not be forced. How many Italians don’t read Dante’s Divine Comedy again in their whole life because they were forced to when they were too young? And the same with Spaniards for Cervantes’ Don Quixote? Reading is an art, less immediate than listening to music. Some works need maturity and practice, and then, hopefully, they can be enjoyed.

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