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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Polyglot Lovers

Lina Wolff

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To purchase The Polyglot Lovers

Title: The Polyglot Lovers
Author: Lina Wolff
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 249 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Polyglot Lovers - US
The Polyglot Lovers - UK
The Polyglot Lovers - Canada
Les amants polyglottes - France
Die polyglotten Liebhaber - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : thoroughly enjoyable; cleverly structured

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Aftonbladet . 29/8/2016 Kristofer Folkhammar
Le Devoir . 3/3/2018 Fabien Deglise
Les Echos . 5/2/2018 Philippe Chevilley
Le Figaro . 8/2/2018 Bruno Corty
Göteborgs-Posten . 29/11/2016 Ingrid Bosseldal
The Guardian A 5/6/2019 Joanna Kavenna
The Spectator . 18/5/2019 Lee Langley
Svenska Dagbladet . 16/8/2016 Josefin Holmström
Swedish Book Review A (2017:1) Kevin Halliwell
TLS . 24/5/2019 Yelena Moskovich
Wall St. Journal . 26/4/2019 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Romanen är full av självförhärligande mäns pretentiösa fantasier om kvinnorna de åtrår, och dessa kvinnors sätt att orientera sig i det heterosexuella spelet. (...) Men framförallt handlar det om tempot. Takten. Det där blixtrande, högklacksklickande rappa berättandet som för varje mening vrider upp intensiteten i texten. Det går fort. Texten och dess berättare växlar klipskt mellan vardag, häftigt känslopatos och mild absurdism. (...) Wolff skriver en sorts svärtad, hjärtslitande satir över könsmaktsordningen, där tempot i den svängigt uppfinningsrika -- och sjukt snygga -- prosan komplicerar, roar och jävlas med de vältaliga älskare hon tagit sig för att porträttera." - Kristofer Folkhammar, Aftonbladet

  • "Le coeur du monstre, la peur de la solitude, la méchanceté ordinaire. Voilà ce que sonde Lina Wolff dans ce roman orageux sans être chaotique, porté par la richesse d’une écriture qui s’est laissée influencer par les expatriations et les voyages de l’auteure en Espagne, en Italie, en France -- elle est revenue aujourd’hui vivre en Suède --, mais surtout par l’esprit et le corps des langues et des cultures qu’elle y a côtoyées." - Fabien Deglise, Le Devoir

  • "Lina Wolff porte le même regard ironique et désespéré (un brin plus joyeux tout de même) sur le monde que l'écrivain français. Ecrit dans un style alerte et cru, le roman Les Amants polyglottes offre une variation drolatique sur la solitude des hommes et des femmes, leur acharnement à mal s'accorder ou à se désaccorder, sur l'aventure qui surgit d'un rien..." - Philippe Chevilley, Les Echos

  • "Det här är en roman med ett långt liv framför sig, som, även om jag möjligen framställt det som motsatsen, värjer sig mot varje enkel uttolkning." - Ingrid Bosseldal, Göteborgs-Posten

  • "This is all totally improbable, but the impossibility of the story seems quite deliberate. (...) Wolff’s writing is pared down and laconic; Saskia Vogel’s translation is excellent and perfectly conveys the haut-cynicism of the original. (...) The result of all this cleverness and torment is a highly enjoyable absurdist comedy about love and desperation, and male geniuses who are feted, and female geniuses who are ignored -- and how despite this invidious state of affairs, we might at least agree that book reviewers are the worst people of all. That is, apart from novelists." - Joanna Kavenna, The Guardian

  • "Its blithe disregard for social norms and finer feelings is exhilarating; it’s pitiless and scathingly funny. (...) 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" - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "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. (...) 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." - Kevin Halliwell, Swedish Book Review

  • "The novel moves around itself with a sort of ceremonial power. Recurring elements, such as fire, deftly gauge the temperature of female seething. (...) The novel as a whole is enveloped in a somewhat gothic, sensuous atmosphere, reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier. (...) The Polyglot Lovers is a quiet rapture -- unsparing, startling, mesmeric, and told with the soberest of grins." - Yelena Moskovich, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Polyglot Lovers is presented in three parts. Each is narrated by a different character, but they converge around author Max Lomas -- the middle narrator. Max's manuscript, 'The Polyglot Lovers', is also central to the novel -- figuring significantly both as regards its content as well as simply as physical object.
       The manuscript, and what happens to it, is unavoidably central, but it's the characters in The Polyglot Lovers that are Wolff's focus; the manuscript is a convenient physical manifestation/synthesis of the male gaze and the taking advantage (in its broadest sense) of women -- and as such also allows several of the women to ... express their ... chagrin, and take it out on something. So, early on, the manuscript is burned (in its entirety) -- and, as we later learn, it had previously been rather personally and thoroughly defiled.
       The accounts are nominally but not strictly chronological, as both the second and third sections are partially retrospective, the final part in particular going back several years and filling in the circumstances of how the manuscript came to be written. Wolff also fudges her three-perspectives-in-turn presentation by allowing Max to pop up in the final part -- in the form of a long letter -- and in this way have some more say again to round things off.
       The three parts do converge and are shown eventually even to overlap some, but seem, a first, largely self-contained and separate. The first is narrated by Ellinor, who hooks up, via an online dating site, with literary critic Ruben. Thirty-six year old Ellinor has had some intense relationships previously, notably with longtime boyfriend Johnny, but also has an impulsive streak, which helps lead her to hook up with Ruben -- venturing (for the first time in her life, surprisingly) to Stockholm and not balking at heading straight home with this stranger.
       Ruben is no prize catch physically, and doesn't go about things very romantically either; when things get physical -- as they quickly do -- they get very physical, and not in a good way. For all that, Ellinor still sticks around. She quickly pays back one violation with another -- very differently but also, in its own way, outrageous (and slightly problematic in that the hurt she inflicts is surely worse for a third party who has little to do with her at that point, author Max, than for Ruben) -- and after that she hangs around in Ruben's home for quite a while, a strange but somehow satisfactory temporary domestic arrangement.
       Ellinor is no great reader, but she's eventually intrigued by Ruben's stash of Michel Houellebecq's work -- and quite the stash it is: a real devotee, Ruben has: "two versions of every book, one in French and one in Swedish". It's also really a stash: Ruben has his Houellebecqs hidden behind another row of books, as if embarrassed to show them front and center on his shelves.
       Ellinor also eventually encounters Ruben's blind wife, Mildred, when she comes by looking for Max's manuscript -- desperate to have it because she believes: "it's the only thing that could have saved him at this point", from: "Some sort of disintegration. Age. Disillusionment. Disappointment.". But that's not going to happen .....
       (Readers probably wonder by this point why idiot Max only has a single copy of his manuscript, and why he didn't hold onto it for all it was worth, rather than giving it to Ruben for assessment (a reader who, on top of it all, takes his sweet time over what he believes to be a masterpiece). Wolff does eventually offer an explanation of sorts -- including that: "To force it through a photocopier would have been to kill something undefined ..." --, but that's not entirely satisfactory either. But for Wolff's purposes the physical object that is the (unique) manuscript is more important/useful than the text itself.)
       The second section shifts to Max, presenting the author -- another Houellebecq-fan (The Possibility of an Island, in particular) -- who is having difficulties connecting with his now Nietzsche-obsessed wife and lets himself be drawn into an awkward liaison with a suicidal receptionist (which does, however, allow him to denounce: "The madwoman in the attic..." at one point). He also meets Mildred -- introducing himself also by explaining:

     "I write, too, I said.
     "Yes," she said. "About sex, right ?"
     "No,." I said. "I don't write about sex. I write about love."
     "That's what all men say," she said. "But actually they're just writing about men. Men and sex."
       He defends himself by arguing:
The problem is that if you want to tell a stroy, then there's only one untainted perspective, and that is the white heterosexual man's. It is the only sheet of paper that doesn't, so to speak, have a history of oppression.
       Given what happens to his sheets of paper, Wolff obviously has something to say about that, vividly demonstrating that even the white heterosexual man's perspective is entirely built up on the oppression and exploitation of others (specifically women here). And the final part of the novel, narrated by the last of her line fallen noble Lucrezia Latini Orsi, which goes back a few years and also covers the time when Max was working on 'The Polyglot Lovers' and gives some insight into its contents, confirms that in spades.
       Max is polyglot -- he casually mentions: "my eleven languages" -- and Lucrezia is pushed into languages as a child by her grandmother ("'It is language alone,' she said, 'that can cast us women free of our shackles and permit us to soar over continents'"), and multilingualism features throughout the novel -- down to Ruben's double-set of Houellebecq-novels, as if having two versions of what is meant to be the same texts might afford even greater insight into them. But for all the different possible ways of expression they have, the characters -- especially the truly polyglot Max and Lucrezia -- don't really understand enough, faltering in the real world: "when it comes to practical living, you are equally as incompetent as your mother and grandmother", Lucrezia is told (though she does then come up with what amounts to a practical solution for the particular dilemma she faces).
       While Lucrezia's mother does have some reality-issues, she's the one who understands that language isn't the solution:
Language is destructive, and if you learn too many you'll end up being unable to spell in your own mother tongue. You must be grounded in something, or else you become a legless bird. Someone who can soar ovr continents, but is unable to land.
       Most of these characters are indeed floundering. Even Ellinor, strong and secure in many ways, remains flighty. But, by the conclusion, perhaps there's some hope, Max not mourning his lost work but suggesting: "I think I'd be able to write a different book now".
       Wolff is sharp and sly with her flawed figures. The strongest of the characters are the estranged wives of Ruben and Max, having been able to free themselves, one way or another, of their men (Max's wife beautifully in going all-in with Nietzsche). Other women, including Ellinor and Lucrezia, are still more willing to enter into some form of co-dependency -- though Ellinor at least does make good her escape from Ruben eventually. For the men, meanwhile, it remains: cherchez la femme -- even as they realize that their behavior towards the women they get involved with isn't exactly exemplary, and is problematic for all involved.
       The Polyglot Lovers is an amusing take on modern life (literary and otherwise) and relationships between the sexes. If not a contra-Houellebecq, so at least Wolff suggests Houellebecq is the contemporary male template, with both her main male protagonists followers of the French master -- a blind alley/dead end street whose temptations are nevertheless too hard for Ruben and Max to resist. Yet Wolff's female figures also have their flaws and weaknesses, from Lucrezia harping on her physical ones to their uneasy relationships with various men in their lives.
       All in all it makes for an interesting polychromatic fiction, a surprisingly ebullient story -- carried along nicely by Wolff's entertaining and easygoing presentation -- in a cleverly structured novel, its three separate parts neatly coming together by the end. It's certainly enjoyable reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 March 2019

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The Polyglot Lovers: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Lina Wolff was born in 1973.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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