Lina Wolff spoke recently to And Other Stories about her perspective on the male canon (particularly Bret Easton Ellis and Michel Houellebecq) and her inspiration for her fiction, particularly her second novel The Polyglot Lovers, just out from And Other Stories in UK, Europe and North America.
And Other Stories: What was your starting point for this novel, the impetus and motivation?
Lina Wolff: I guess what I deal with on a deeper level is how to consider and approach the male canon, as a reading, writing woman. This is a very big question and I have the feeling I will spend a good deal of my writing exploring it, since it is also a question in the book I’m in the process of writing now. When I wrote my first novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, it was a quite immediate, physical reaction to the idea of violence against women being something infinitely cool, an always-returning element on which to build modern plots. Bret Easton Ellis’s books, for example, are certainly a provocation and an exaggeration, but the depiction of a fictive reality still makes people visualize it and become accustomed to it. That was partly what I reacted against when writing Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs; I wanted to propose another possible visualization. When writing The Polyglot Lovers, the process was more subtle and complex. I think that what I deal with here is also violence, but particularly a gaze of violence, though there is physical violence too.
Michel Houellebecq’s books fascinate me, but at the same time I find them a bit repulsive and depressing. As for women, his gaze is ice cold. I think he gives voice to something widespread, to things that many women struggle against their whole lives, such as fears of not being enough, and of aging. Shrinking thoughts. Being human is so much more than that. So I played with that gaze, gave some of my characters a “Houellebecqian gaze,” and then based the plot on what happened when they look at women like that.
Returning to the question of the male canon, there is an idea that women shouldn’t read it for fear of being indoctrinated by a masculine way of thinking. Well, I think we should read it, just as we should read female writers, because there is so much richness in both. There is no reason why as a woman one should not stand on the shoulders of giants. But some things need to be digested and some are, frankly, difficult to digest. This was my way of reckoning with them.
And Other Stories: Can you tell us about the “polyglot” theme in your novel?
Lina Wolff: Well, the polyglot theme is a dream and, at the same time, a reality. Total comprehension and a fusion of languages, that is what the character Max Lamas things 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, and the closest he gets to love is actually with Ellinor (even if it is just glimpsed at in my novel), and she is a woman who only speaks one language, and a regional dialect at that.
The polyglot ideal is a dream of being completely yourself, totally understood, totally seen, but I don’t think love works that way. If you want to experience true love, you have to give something up, or you have to be immensely generous with what you have. I think perhaps Lamas could be that, but he has to stop thinking about everything he needs, and start to think about what he can give. The only moment in the book when the seed of this is planted is when he for a short moment forgets about himself and all of his thousand needs and expectations.
For me as a writer there is also the dream of being a polyglot writer in the sense that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin intended it. Bakthtin’s polyglot, or dialogic, writer manages to organize the voices of a novel in a free way, and doesn’t reveal the writer. But that is a more personal aim.